For decades, the worlds of enterprise IT and manufacturing IT have remained largely disconnected. Earlier this month, however, four major vendors announced an alliance that could bridge that age-old gap.Outsourcing vendor Accenture said March 3 that it will be part of an alliance with Microsoft, Intel and plant automation vendor ABB to create "shop floor to top floor" connectivity technology that will make it easier to integrate enterprise IT systems with their manufacturing system counterparts. This integration could help corporations make business decisions and act on them in real time, the alliance members said.In a nutshell, the four vendors will each provide components that enable enterprises to interconnect their manufacturing systems with their back-office business systems in real time. The interconnection, which will be based on Intel processors running Microsoft .Net technology, will make it possible for business applications to interact with manufacturing applications, eliminating "translation delays" between the two environments.\u00a0The alliance is based upon ABB's Industrial IT, a comprehensive, standards-based architecture that helps integrate manufacturing components. Under ABB's architecture, each element within the plant - including equipment, raw material and finished goods - is represented by a dynamic software shell called an "Aspect Object" which speeds navigation across disparate IT systems. By right-clicking on the Aspect Object for any component, users can directly access documentation, configuration and connectivity tools to speed up installation, control, or troubleshooting of manufacturing systems.Under the alliance, Accenture has designed and built an integration layer that uses Industrial IT and Microsoft's BizTalk Server to help enable the real-time exchange of data between enterprise systems and plant floor systems. Essentially, Accenture is marrying Industrial IT, which links disparate manufacturing systems, with BizTalk Server, which links disparate business systems. This integration means that systems that use those two technologies will now be able to interact in real time.Within the alliance, Accenture also will provide program management support to help manufacturing companies with diagnostics, solution delivery, hosting and large-scale systems integration.Whether the "shop floor to top floor" alliance will succeed is an open question. Over the years, there have been many failed efforts to unite manufacturing and business computing systems, dating back to the Manufacturing Automation Protocol\/Technical Office Protocol (MAP\/TOP) efforts of the 1980s. The fact is that business systems and manufacturing systems - like the organizations that operate them - behave very differently, and a smooth interconnection is not always possible.However, the alliance does provide an excellent example of how an outsourcing vendor such as Accenture can help bridge the gap between very disparate computing environments. On its own, ABB would never have had the market or the resources required to link its manufacturing architecture to the back office business environment. Microsoft's BizTalk provides some potential for real-time integration of business applications, but Microsoft does not have the expertise or resources to push BizTalk into the manufacturing environment in the near future.Accenture, on the other hand, has enough expertise in both manufacturing and business technology to provide the "glue" that could make the foreign environments work together. By developing an integration layer independently, Accenture may help to jump-start a link between manufacturing and business systems that couldn't be achieved through industry standards groups.Systems integrators - indeed, outsourcing service providers of all types - should be quicker to seek out the sorts of alliances that Accenture helped to form this month. Often, they are the only real bridge between industries, computing environments, or functional user groups that otherwise might not speak to each other, much less integrate their systems. As companies that have experience on both sides, outsourcing vendors often can be the catalyst to bring these disparate computing environments together.