When businesses decide to go to the cloud for an enterprise application and open an account with Salesforce.com or some other SaaS (software as a service) provider, they typically don't consider how that SaaS app will integrate with their existing software.
But integration is crucial. By now, every business understands you can't have multiple applications operating on different versions of the same customer record, for example, without those versions being updated and reconciled.
Without a solid integration strategy, data quality quickly becomes a problem. You don't want a new SaaS system to be hindered by having to enter data twice -- or worse, by not having the correct data available when a core business process requires it.
So how do enterprises that adopt SaaS applications develop an effective approach to integration? As always, the process begins with business requirements. The good news is that new, innovative integration technologies offer cost efficiencies unavailable just a few years ago -- although in some cases, requirements dictate that you opt for an old-school integration solution.
With SaaS, latency will be more of an issue, and impoverished APIs may limit integration benefits. In general, integration of SaaS apps is restricted to data integration and asynchronous process integration, ruling out the closely coupled application clusters some enterprises depend on. Within these constraints, how far you decide to push integration with SaaS apps depends on your business needs.
Making SaaS play nice with data
The beauty -- and the downside -- of SaaS is that the businesspeople don't need IT to establish accounts and to get up and running. IT has less work to do in the short term. But without integration, SaaS silos spring up, resulting in duplicate data, inaccurate reports, and ultimately, damaging data discrepancies.
Integration technology allows clouds and core enterprise systems to share data while dealing with the different ways that the data is structured. This is accomplished through data mediation subsystems that manage the underlying differences in both structure and content in flight. With SaaS in particular, you need a flexible integration solution, because both the source and target system interfaces change more frequently than those presented by traditional enterprise software.
Back in the '90s, integration technology was immature and expensive. These days, you can find lightweight open source integration solutions, such as that provided by Jitterbit, or cloud-delivered integration offered by the likes of Boomi (now a part of Dell) or Pervasive Software. Even integration appliances have emerged, such as that offered by Cast Iron Systems (now a part of IBM).
This is on top of the fifth- or sixth-generation, enterprise-class integration solutions sold by IBM, Informatica Oracle, Software AG, and other established players that have been around for years.
So how do you choose the right solution from the dozens available? It helps to start by understanding typical integration patterns and the features they demand.
The fundamentals of integration
There are several ways to move data from one system to another, some more sophisticated than others. For example, many enterprises still rely on the primitive FTP method to transfer data -- even when integrating newfangled SaaS with local applications.