Using Integration Appliances to Maximize SaaS Value
If you need to integrate legacy systems with SaaS applications, your smartest approach may be to use an appliance.
by Chandar Pattabhiram
It’s no wonder IT has found software as a service (SaaS) attractive: it simplifies application implementation and maintenance and minimizes costs and staff time for both IT and business users. SaaS enables rapid deployment of enterprise applications such as customer relationship management (CRM) using fewer IT resources while providing comprehensive functionality using an intuitive Web-based interface.
In addition, the SaaS subscription price model eliminates many budgetary obstacles. For these reasons, it is easy to believe The Yankee Group’s forecast that 50 percent of software purchased by small to midsized companies in 2008 will be delivered in the form of on-demand services.
Even so, there are challenges with integrating applications and data. Though easy to implement, a SaaS application deployment typically begins in a single group (such as Sales) and expands to other groups as awareness of the value of the solution grows. As more users work with SaaS applications, connecting to existing applications and customized back-end systems to access and update an expanding amount of vital business information becomes increasingly critical.
Two corporate assets -- business knowledge and operational experience -- are typically found in back-end systems of record. To realize the most value from a SaaS implementation, a company must migrate this mission-critical business information -- regarding customers, vendors, products, and orders, for example -- from existing systems and into the new SaaS application. Conversely, SaaS solutions must share new or updated information with these back-end systems of record for a company to have a single, accurate, and real-time view -- complete visibility -- into its business.
Dealing with the different types of data is challenging, but companies must ensure that the synchronization of SaaS applications with back-end systems is secure and reliable. Finally, the majority of companies issue reports from a variety of customized systems and must be able to transfer information from a new SaaS application into existing reporting applications.
SaaS applications make this integration easier than ever with well-defined, multi-tenant APIs and real-time performance tuning of integration traffic. For example, Web-based services make integration a competitive differentiator as they combine usability with proven Web-based APIs.
Three Integration Approaches
Historically, solutions for meeting the challenge of application integration were somewhat limited. Companies could purchase complex software platforms or write custom code. Today, there is a third choice for integrating existing systems with SaaS applications: integration appliances.
Software integration platforms, which include hardware, operating systems, integration software, endpoint adapters, and monitoring software, provide complex functionality to solve business activity monitoring, business process management, and enterprise application integration challenges within very large organizations. The flip side of this complexity is that these software platforms are expensive and time-consuming to procure, implement, deploy, and maintain.
Understandably then, the development of custom code has become the most widely used integration solution. For projects such as simple point-to-point integrations with little or no business rules, custom code has made sense. It is a quick solution that is cost-effective up front but can be resource-intensive over time, as it requires specialized skills for both initial development and on-going maintenance. It is also often difficult to leverage code written for one project to another.
As a company grows and the number and complexity of SaaS integration projects increase, self-contained integration appliances with predefined connectivity can complement custom code development by meeting the most common integration challenges. Integration appliances deliver higher efficiency at lower cost through ease of use, rapid implementation, and scalability.
Maximizing SaaS Value Using Integration Appliances
Integration appliances can efficiently integrate any combination of two or more SaaS applications and back-end business information systems in multiple projects. SaaS users can now access all the data directly in their own application without needing to access multiple applications. For example, sales executives can have instant visibility into the status of all products, orders and invoices -- processed and managed in back office applications -- directly in their sales force automation system. Having this information at their fingertips helps SaaS users maximize their productivity and increases adoption and stickiness of the SaaS application itself.
Integration appliances offer a “no coding” approach to SaaS integration. They eliminate the need to write code by reducing application integration to four steps: connectivity, transformation, workflow, and management. Connections and transformations created for one project can be reused in other projects. Integration appliances establish connectivity to the end points of both local business systems and remote SaaS solutions with equal ease through native application protocols, which require no adapters and nothing installed or changed at the end points. Therefore, the actual hardware device can be located anywhere.
While appliances are a great fit for SaaS integration, they may not be ideal for all types of integration projects. For example, appliances are not built for solving complex business processes involving human workflow and business activity monitoring. They are not designed to be integration backbones in large companies housing a variety of mainframe and legacy applications. EAI platforms may be a better fit for such integration needs..
In addition, if a company is trying to extract, cleanse, and bulk-load hundreds of millions of records from enterprise systems into a data warehouse on a batch basis, then a traditional ETL solution would be a better fit.. However, in the context of SaaS integration, appliances are the most effective and efficient solution.
Implementation issues are minimal when using an integration appliance, but they do occasionally arise. IT may encounter the same types of challenges working in an integration appliance domain as it would experience working in any application environment. For this reason, it is important to work with an experienced integration appliance vendor that offers superior technical assistance and customer support. The most common implementation issue arises in preparing applications for integration through data schema changes and related data cleanup. With an enterprise-level appliance, users can work in a developer environment (a so-called sandbox) and deploy after testing for seamless workflow.
These considerations notwithstanding, integration appliances provide many of the same advantages as SaaS applications. Their ‘configuration not coding’ approach reduces the resource burden on IT, enabling those professionals to focus on strategic business projects that require their advanced skills. The point-and-click graphical user interface enables rapid implementation and modification, giving users access to critical business information when they need it. With remote management, appliances can be monitored, maintained, and upgraded in distributed geographic locations. Integration appliance vendors also offer subscription pricing, eliminating high investment costs and accelerating return on investment.
To realize the full value of a SaaS solution, companies must find an efficient way to accelerate the integration of SaaS applications with back-end systems for complete visibility into the enterprise. More and more often, the IT environment includes a mix of local business information systems and remote on-demand applications. A strategic and successful company uses combinations of these solutions to differentiate its position in the market and to respond to market dynamics based on vital business information.
Integration appliances, which can complement custom code-based integration efforts, present an affordable and effective approach to SaaS and back-end application integration. These ‘plug-and-play’ devices enable the rapid integration of any combination of local and remote applications through configuration rather than coding. IT talent is freed to focus on projects of high strategic value. Business users have the real-time, reliable information they need when they need it.
- - -
Chandar Pattabhiram is the vice president of product marketing at Cast Iron Systems, a of integration appliance provider, where he is responsible for strategy and messaging. Chandar served as manager of the electronics and high tech group at Andersen Consulting (Accenture). He holds a master’s in business management from the University of Texas and a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering from PSG College of Technology. You can reach the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.