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January 14, 2013

Cloud Integration: Clearing the Confusion

Posted by Lindy Antonelli

Cloud Integration: Clearing the Confusion As our 2012 CAI Benchmark Surveyshowed, the ability to integrate cloud applications with each other or with on-premise applications was one of the leading concerns that finance professionals had about moving to the cloud.

Also on the subject of integration, an earlier Cloud Accounting Institute (CAI) blog contained a video clip from a Techweek 2012 seminar, Transforming Finance in the Cloud. For this event, a panel of cloud accounting software users described a variety of integration issues using Intacct cloud-based accounting software. You can view the video here.

Let’s take a look at cloud integration from a slightly higher level so you have tools to evaluate your integration challenges and potential solutions. As a basis, I will borrow definitions from Hollis Tibbetts, a renowned integration expert.  In “Understanding Cloud Integration” he distinguishes between application integration and data integration.

First, he says, “Fundamentally, Application Integration links multiple applications together at the functional level. It deals with things at the transactional or service-call level. It is ‘aware’ of how different pieces of information (such as the creation of a new customer) come together to create one atomic unit that cannot be subdivided without introducing data inconsistencies (i.e. ‘corruption’) into the system.” When you integrate two systems, a transaction travels intact from the source to the destination application, ideally in real time, so that the integrated systems are always synchronized.

By contrast, Data Integration doesn’t know about transactions. Instead, it “deals with the synchronization, standardization, transformation, mapping, quality and transport of data – potentially large amounts of it – between different systems,” in Tibbetts’ words. Integration can be one-way from a source system to a destination system, or the integration between the two databases can be 2-way, or bisynchronous, where both systems house the same data.  Lastly, integration can occur in a nightly routine, for instance, or can occur as frequently as near real-time.

If your business needs call for Application Integration, your questions to the cloud vendors on your short list should focus on the openness and richness of the vendor’s API set.  If you are trying to integrate a cloud-based solution with an on-premise system, ask your existing enterprise vendor about their APIs as well. API stands for Application Programming Interface, and APIs are what enable you to connect systems at the transactional or service-call level to perform specific functions.

Traditionally such interfaces were proprietary, but that is changing. SaaS vendors typically write interfaces in standards-based, open source code and expose the API to customers and business partners. The richness of a vendor’s API set can often be determined by the number of development partners it has. (For example, see the Intacct Marketplace listings.)  Open source APIs have played a major part in the explosion of SaaS applications, new cloud-based functionality, and ecosystems of pre-integrated applications.

Here’s how it works. The cloud vendor develops and continually upgrades a single code base for all customers, exposing the APIs for others to use. In mature SaaS offerings, business users and development partners may add features and create custom configurations without coding by selecting among available cloud-based options. Their add-ons are called at run-time and use the same APIs the vendor did to build the product.  As a consequence, vendor upgrades do not break custom configurations.

Frequently a SaaS vendor offers pre-built integration between its own and complementary products (e.g., Intacct and Salesforce). Sometimes its development partners provide integration solutions reflecting the needs of their own specific customer base. To continue our example, Intacct partner LBMC Technologies offers IntegratorPlus, which integrates two applications: Intacct and Microsoft Dynamics CRM. Another Intacct partner, Brittenford Systems, developed PositivePay to provide data integration between the Intacct check register and the bank’s (any bank’s) positive pay system.  There are also third-party, point-and click API management products available for connecting SaaS and enterprise applications (for example, Boomi for Intacct and whatever).

Cloud-based data integration technology is very mature, robust, and widely available. How available? Take for example, Salesforce.com, the poster child for SaaS applications. The Jitterbit Data Loader, available free on Salesforce’s AppExchange, is the most popular download from the whole exchange.  It’s easy. Still, data integration between source and destination systems is not without challenges. Many business users do not want to do it themselves. It can be easily outsourced to your VAR or systems integrator.

Cloud Integration No Longer An Issue

While the early days of cloud technology and likewise cloud accounting software may have posed integration problems, with the maturity of cloud comes a vast array of solutions.  Some integration challenges are easily solved, others are very complex. Therefore it is not possible to generalize on costs, other than to say that application and data integration solutions are available at both low and high price points, in both do-it-yourself and outsourced formats, for host-based licensing or cloud-based delivery.  So don’t let perceived challenges stop you from moving to the cloud.

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