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Proliferation of ERP integrations best tackled by data consolidation

Two users explain why cloud integration platforms proved to be the best way to link ERP systems and other critical applications among business partners and customers.

A few years ago, Redwood Logistics reached a crossroads. The Chicago-based company, which was founded in 2001 as Transportation Solutions Group and has recast itself several times as it has evolved into a diversified logistics provider, had outgrown its home-grown, on-premises business-to-business environment. But it wasn't for the usual reasons.

The company wasn't desperate for a single version of the truth, or for anytime, anywhere visibility into critical business data, nor was it drowning in a sea of ad hoc spreadsheets. Rather, Redwood couldn't keep up with the increasing sophistication of its customer ERP integrations.

In addition, Redwood's business had become so dependent on predicting and proactively meeting the logistics needs of customers -- its proprietary system did everything from processing orders and generating detailed reports to matching clients with carriers -- those ERP integrations represented the meat and potatoes of the business.

It was this growing demand for real-time ERP integrations that caused Redwood to have what CIO Eric Rempel called the company's "moment of understanding," and to turn to cloud integration tools for the first time.

Specifically, the company chose MuleSoft's CloudHub integration platform as a service (iPaaS) offering, which essentially acted as an integration gateway for connecting data and applications. And, as Rempel said, it wasn't about innovating, or even keeping up with the needs of the growing enterprise; it was about making sure the company could weather the storm of customer demand it had created.

"It was more of a necessity than being out in front of the game," he said. "The increase in volume and data processing needs grows much more quickly on the customer side. A single new customer can send as much data as our entire enterprise."

Adding to the need for help with ERP integrations was the fact that every customer had its own particular ERP system and its own approach to data, making the development of customer-facing applications a daunting task. MuleSoft unified all of that data, as opposed to coupling the actual applications, thus opening opportunities to innovate.

"It is a data-first world, and having a solid data pipeline strategy enables us to bring applications to the market much more quickly," Rempel said. "New apps become harder to create when data is in so many flavors. It's better to focus on data first and apps second."

ERP integrations, API hub link consultancy, content providers

School consultancy Education Elements had a similar data challenge. The six-year-old company, based in San Carlos, Calif., works with schools to develop personalized learning strategies and to provide students with a single sign-on content gateway to support that. Doing so requires Education Elements to communicate with content providers' systems, which it does by exposing APIs that allow it to consume that content from dozens of providers and integrate it all in its Highlight platform.

The company relies on Informatica's iPaaS offering to not only act as a sort of API hub where content is collected and integrated, but also to talk with content providers' systems to make sure it's making the right content available to each student.

"It's basically all about data transformations," said Arthur Svider, CTO and vice president of engineering at Education Elements. "Each system has its own way of defining data. We basically have to figure out a way to connect those two different parts of the universe together."

Ronen Schwartz, Informatica's senior vice president and general manager of data and cloud integration, said it's critical that, as companies identify the need for cloud integration help, they understand that the data is their key asset, not the apps.

"Applications have no existence without data," Schwartz said. "If you're not starting to develop your data strategy, you are potentially digging a big hole that will be hard to recover from."

Redwood Logistics not only understood that data was the center of its integration issues, it also was clear enough about the business' needs to identify client-side B2B integration as its focus. But having clear objectives didn't mean Redwood could jump right into a deployment.

Rather, the company started off with MuleSoft in a sandbox, where it familiarized itself with what it could do with CloudHub and explored how to add data from a constantly growing array of content providers before moving on to a proof-of-concept pilot.

Rempel said the company learned some valuable lessons in the process. To start with, he recommended thinking about and designing a cloud integration solution that looks past a company's current challenges. To do that, he said, companies should create use cases based on the potential impact of future growth and unforeseen challenges.

"You're moving to what is a limitless computing, storage and operational platform, so use that to your advantage," Rempel said. "Ask yourself if your design solution can satisfy the worst- and best-case scenarios. If you feel good about the answer, it's a good sign that you're on the right path."

Being fully prepared before embarking on a cloud integration project will only make the whole process more enjoyable, Rempel said. Done right, the process should absolutely be an upbeat exercise.

"If you know what you want to accomplish and you have a real problem to solve, have fun," he said. "You have a whole pallet of options to choose from."

Next Steps

Read more on cloud integration tools

Understand cloud ERP trends in manufacturing

Select an ERP integration partner

This was last published in September 2016

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