A strategic approach to cloud integration

A strategic approach to cloud integration

This vendor-written tech primer has been edited by Network World to eliminate product promotion, but readers should note it will likely favor the submitter's approach.

The ability to transfer and translate data seamlessly and quickly in real-time is crucial to business success, but integrating, transforming and managing critical business applications and data is proving to be a complex challenge for organizations across the globe. To facilitate streamlined movement of enterprise data across diverse applications, a growing number of organizations are turning to cloud-based integration. This approach reduces complexity and IT oversight, and frees up resources to focus on delivering products and solutions to customers and partners.

Although the cloud is becoming an increasingly ubiquitous delivery model for organizations of all sizes, IT leaders and other stakeholders should remember that the cloud isn't an all-in-one solution. No single cloud services provider can fulfill all of an enterprise's various requirements. In the majority of cases, businesses making the move to the cloud will require the services of an array of providers, combined with traditional on-premise application-to-application (A2A) and business-to-business (B2B) systems. As such, there is an increasing need to adopt integration strategies that support a multitude of complex integrations: A2A, B2B, on-premise enterprise applications to SaaS/cloud applications, and cloud-to-cloud (C2C).

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When it comes to cloud integration, there are two fundamental questions that should be asked. The first is, "What problem is the integration solving?" Because cloud integration refers not just to integration between different cloud-based systems, such as Magento, NetSuite and, but between cloud-based and on-premise systems, it is crucial to first determine what exactly is being integrated and for what purpose. In many cases, enterprises will need to accomplish both cloud-to-cloud and cloud-to-on-premise integration, but understanding the goal of any one integration project is a baseline requirement.

The answer to the first question begs the second question: "How can integration help solve this problem?" Until recently, most enterprises viewed integration projects in a vacuum, focusing only on a single use case, namely A2A integration, B2B e-commerce integration, or cloud integration. Today this approach is changing. Enterprises are increasingly seeking broader initiatives that will address all of the scenarios, as well as the challenge of integrating across them. Data integration is not a one-time event, and if the solution is built with this in mind, reusability can impact a company's ability to tackle future integration challenges.

Building a Successful Cloud Integration Strategy

There are a few key considerations that every CIO and stakeholder should take into account when building an integration strategy.

First and foremost, the organization must know how to spot complexity. Most SaaS providers try to make their web APIs simple, but few are actually successful. Just like many on-premise systems, the specifications for cloud APIs can be unwieldy, often hundreds of pages long, and integrating with them is no trivial matter.

The complexity extends beyond just connecting to the APIs themselves. Enterprises must also consider how data that comes from a SaaS application will be translated into an on-premise system, and factor this into the complexity calculus for the integration project. Additionally, most APIs are not stagnant, but change over time, adding yet another layer of complexity to integration.

It is also important to think beyond the first integration project. Any single cloud integration can prove daunting on its own and many enterprises fall victim to tunnel vision. Instead of adopting strategies and protocols that scale for projects down the line, they end up limiting themselves to those narrowly suited to an individual project. Many businesses make the mistake of thinking it will be easy to add one cloud service at a time and don't anticipate the inevitable complexity of integrating multiple providers over time. This narrow approach faces the same fragility and rigidity of a traditional point-to-point data integration approach, namely, the more "end points" you add, the more difficult and complex it becomes to manage and maintain.

Avoiding the pitfalls of this siloed approach to integration projects is critical, and businesses must build out an explicit integration sourcing strategy as early as possible in the cloud adoption process. The reality is that, while cloud services for both back-office systems and B2B processes can offer tremendous efficiencies, achieving these efficiencies requires a high level of coordination and integration. The more cloud providers an enterprise uses, the more complex this coordination and integration becomes. Organizations need to develop a cohesive sourcing strategy for integration, whether that means a do-it-yourself (DIY) approach using on-premise software, a DIY approach using an integration Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS), or outsourcing integration entirely to a third party integration brokerage provider.

When determining which avenue will be most efficient, consider the following:

(1) Is integration a required internal core competency? For some enterprises, having in-house integration capabilities is important for commercial or other essential business reasons. Recognizing this early and proactively building out the staff and resources needed to efficiently manage and complete integration projects is essential.

(2) Should integration be a CAPEX or OPEX expense? The increasing complexity of cloud integration projects means that building out an internal team will require a capital investment in expert personnel and software. For some organizations, this relatively fixed capital expenditure may be a better use of resources, even though it requires greater up-front investment. For others, such a capital expenditure may not be feasible or efficient. For these enterprises, outsourcing projects to an integration broker allows the function to occur as a regular operating expense, reducing or eliminating the up-front cost, and providing a more regular cost-structure.

(3) What is the deployment timeline? As cloud services become increasingly pervasive in the IT solutions market, deployment timelines are tightening as departments demand rapid access to enhanced functionality, but many organizations are only just beginning to build out core competency around integration. For those with the strictest timelines, structuring an internal integration function may not be an option.

When in-house integration is not workable due to cost, time, or other considerations such as lack of internal expertise, outsourcing the integration option can provide not only a short-term fix, but offer a long-term strategy, especially around cloud integration. Cloud Services Brokers have existing integration infrastructure that can be leveraged for rapid deployment, and can increase capacity on demand, offering scalability where it's needed most.

As the key criteria and requirements around data management continue to expand, cloud integration will play an important role. It is critical that CIOs and their organizations develop a comprehensive and proactive integration strategy that efficiently and consistently scales to the evolving hybrid integration needs of the business.

Liaison Technologies is a global provider of cloud-based integration and data management services and solutions. Fox 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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