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Creating Harmony When Cloud and On-Premise Worlds Collide

Integrating data across diverse SaaS applications with existing on-premise solutions has proved exceptionally challenging

In recent years, IT departments have been confronted with the convergence of several highly disruptive trends that have fundamentally altered the enterprise IT landscape, particularly when it comes to how data and applications are managed. Mobility and the rise of BYOD (bring your own device), as well as the growth of social media and the electronic information it generates, have each proved transformative. But perhaps no shift has been more seismic than the adoption of cloud and SaaS-based applications led by CIOs who see the value proposition associated with outsourcing many complex IT operations.

However, integrating data across diverse SaaS applications with existing on-premise solutions has proven exceptionally challenging. To streamline this integration without slowing adoption, IT stakeholders are turning to cloud-based integration solutions that can curtail complexity and IT oversight while enabling organizations to better leverage their information capital to drive business objectives. Indeed, according to a recent report by analyst firm MarketsandMarkets, the global Cloud Brokerage Services (CSB) market is on track to grow from $1.57 billion in 2013 to $10.5 billion by 2018, a compound annual growth rate of more than 45% over the five year period.

In this article, we will provide advice to IT leaders for creating sustainable environments using hybrid integration between SaaS technologies and existing on-premise applications. We will also explore the top considerations for building out a successful cloud integration strategy that offers the scalability and flexibility to withstand fluctuations in enterprise data management needs.

Start by Asking the Right Questions
Over the past few years, "Cloud" has transformed from the buzzword of the moment - all the rage but lacking concrete definition - to an efficient, widely recognized enabler of scalable IT operations. Despite the increasing ubiquity and viability of the cloud delivery model, it's important to remember that cloud is not "IT in a box." No one cloud service provider can meet all the complex IT needs of a single organization. By and large, enterprises evaluate and onboard an array of purpose-built solutions from diverse cloud providers. As a result, the need to successfully integrate them not only with each other, but also with traditional on-premise application-to-application (A2A) and business-to-business (B2B) systems is critical. The multitude of complex integrations - A2A, B2B, and on-premise applications to SaaS/cloud applications, and cloud-to-cloud (C2C) - requires a clear-cut integration strategy.

A critical first step in developing an integration strategy is to ask and answer a few key questions, the first of which is "what problem is the integration solving?" While achieving streamlined integration between cloud-based systems like Magento, NetSuite, SAP, Ariba, and salesforce.com is one aspect of a full-fledged strategy, it's important to remember the challenge extends beyond cloud-to-cloud integration. In reality, what many people today refer to as "cloud integration" is actually hybrid integration - integration not only between cloud systems, but between cloud and on-premise applications. Determining the specific integration goal - whether it is strictly cloud-to-cloud, or a larger hybrid model - ensures the strategy scales to both immediate and long-term integration needs.

Once you consider what problem the integration will solve, it's important to consider how integration will solve the problem. As the number of systems to be integrated grows, the number of potential interface points expands exponentially, and traditional, manually driven point-to-point integration can quickly become overwhelming. Each time an individual application is altered, or a trading partner changes its specification interface, IT must review all external connections for potential impact. An upgrade cycle for a large ERP system may spawn dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of integration projects across several departments and external trading partners.

Continuing to rely on this point-to-point integration model will become untenable as cloud adds another layer of complexity to the integration landscape. In order to avert chaos, enterprises are actively leveraging integration to create an interconnected web that holistically addresses data management and integration challenges across all of these disparate systems and applications. If an integration strategy is designed with a broader goal in mind, it is much more likely that the same strategy can be leveraged not only to solve immediate integration challenges, but future demands as well.

Identifying where integration is needed and how it can benefit an organization is an important first step. But once the decision has been made to move forward, there are a few key considerations that CIOs must take into account to successfully build out a strategy with staying power.

Reading the Signs: Spotting and Addressing Complexity
Anticipating the areas in which integration complexity is most likely to arise is crucial to the development of a flexible, cost-effective integration strategy. The following are two of the usual suspects of which CIOs should be aware:

  1. SaaS APIs: Many cloud providers promise to deliver a simple-to-use web API, but this is rarely the reality. Specifications for many SaaS APIs can run into the dozens, if not hundreds, of pages long, and can be a major headache for internal teams unfamiliar with the nuances of integration. Moreover, APIs often evolve over time as SaaS applications evolve, generating a source of ongoing complexity.
  2. Data Translation: The potential for complexity, however, does not end once the APIs are successfully integrated. Translating data between different SaaS applications, as well as between SaaS and on-premise systems, can be challenging, and this translation should be factored into the complexity calculus. Data that is not properly translated will be rendered useless, and backtracking to fix the glitch can add time and expense to business-critical projects. As a general rule, a bug that costs one dollar to fix during development will cost 10 dollars to fix during quality assurance, and 100 dollars fix once in production. This backtracking approach can prove particularly brittle when new systems are added to the ecosystem.

A Long-Term Vision: Thinking Beyond the First Integration Project
Integration with cloud is often a daunting prospect, particularly for businesses just beginning to onboard cloud applications as part of their IT strategy. The immensity of a single cloud integration can produce tunnel vision for IT teams, who get so bogged down in an initial project that they fail to consider the long-term implications of the integration and how it will ultimately fit into the overarching IT architecture - a problem already amply demonstrated with the pitfalls of the point-to-point approach. However, the inevitable complexity of integrating multiple applications over time should be sufficient incentive to give any CIO pause before creating a strategy tailor-made for a single integration project.

Even though it will likely require greater upfront investment and effort, organizations must settle on a cohesive sourcing strategy for integration that meets their individual needs. There are three fundamental options for this strategy: a do-it-yourself (DIY) approach based solely on existing knowledge of on-premise software; a DIY approach using a customer-driven integration Platform-as-as-Service (iPaaS); or outsourcing integration entirely to a third-party integration brokerage provider. When determining which of these strategies to adopt, it is important to consider the following:

  1. First, consider the deployment timeline. As departments across the enterprise demand rapid access to new and greater functionality offered by diversifying SaaS applications, IT departments are under mounting pressure to test, procure and deploy these solutions. This is where a CSB can help speed things up based on their experience working with various customers, implementation scenarios and technologies. Even as deployment windows tighten, however, many businesses are only just beginning to build out core competency around integration. For those with the strictest timelines, the option to build out an internal integration function may have already passed, and it may become necessary to bring in a third-party integration provider. While some may initially view these external integration providers as a Band-Aid solution, working with a specialized integration broker can often be the best long-term solution, especially when it comes to cloud integration where existing IT teams may have less familiarity.
  2. Second, consider the cost for integration in the long term. As the complexity of cloud integration projects continues to increase, building out an internal team will require a capital investment in expert personnel and software. Although it requires greater initial investment, this relatively fixed capital expenditure may be a better use of resources for some organizations. For others, such a large capital expenditure may not be feasible or efficient. Outsourcing projects to an integration broker shifts the cost of integration as an operating expense, reducing or eliminating the up-front cost, and providing a more scalable, recurring cost-structure.
  3. Once these factors have been weighed, the next decision is: in-house or external? Although SaaS applications for both back-office systems and B2B processes can offer tremendous efficiencies, the coordination and integration required on the back end is no simple matter. While building out in-house integration capabilities is important for some organizations due to commercial or other business considerations, companies that choose this route must recognize it early and take a proactive approach to cultivating the expert staff and resources that will be required to effectively manage and complete integration projects. For those businesses that don't have compelling reasons to keep the integration function in-house, outsourcing may prove more efficient. Cloud Services Brokers (CSBs) have existing integration infrastructure that can be leveraged for rapid deployment, and can increase capacity on demand, offering scalability when and where it's needed most. CSBs also deliver experience and collective intelligence around integration that can offer efficiencies beyond what can be accomplished with internal resources alone.

The key criteria and requirements around data management continue to expand, and cloud integration is at the nexus of this expansion. By planning and executing a comprehensive integration strategy that can efficiently and consistently scale to the evolving integration requirements of the business - including traditional on-premise, back-office systems and cloud-based applications - IT can help ensure the long-term scalability and business success. Whether the decision is to bring integration capabilities in-house, outsource integration needs, or use some combination of both, the time to start developing a plan is now.

More Stories By Rob Fox

Rob Fox is Vice President of Application Development for Liaison Technologies, and the architect for several of Liaison’s data integration solutions. Liaison Technologies is a global provider of cloud-based integration and data management services and solutions. He was an original contributor to the ebXML 1.0 specification, is the former chair of marketing and business development for ASC ANSI X12, and a co-founder and co-chair of the Connectivity Caucus. Connect with Rob on Twitter: @robert_fox1

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