Cloud integration tools can be universal solution to old IT problem

Experts and vendors say iPaaS is emerging as a preferred means in cloud integration strategies that also have to get on-premises apps to talk among themselves.

Before the rise of cloud computing, enterprise applications were typically integrated on a point-to-point basis. The more applications a company relied upon, the more complex the integration task became, and there were no cloud integration tools to help.

But in today's cloud-dependent environment, what was once the mere prospect of complexity has instead become a given, and cloud integration tools have become a necessity. Every enterprise relies on numerous applications, many of which likely reside in the cloud, though the "where" isn't as critical as the "what." Today's applications are in near-constant communication with each other, as businesses increasingly rely on the ability to marshal every morsel of data at their disposal in an effort to make better -- and quicker -- decisions.

Along the way to that accelerated business reality, a funny thing happened to integration. It became less about the applications and more about the data stored in those applications, as well as the services that consume it. And with that transition, application integration has evolved, too, and cloud integration tools have come to the forefront.

"Companies want agility, and they want innovation, and they want the same things from their integration," said Juan Carlos Soto, vice president of cloud integration and API economy at IBM.

The plodding integration engines of yesteryear are giving way to more nimble, cloud-based integration approaches -- such as the fast-growing integration platform-as-a-service (iPaaS) category -- that modern enterprises have little choice but to adopt.

"Companies that are unwilling to do it -- and I run into them all the time -- are going to derail," said David Linthicum, senior vice president of cloud-adoption consultancy Cloud Technology Partners.

Linthicum believes integration strategy is a sub-component of cloud strategy and, thus, it's critical to the success of a company's overall cloud effort. For that reason, he suggests that companies try to address their overall integration needs for the next 20 years rather than constantly reacting and revisiting the issue over and over. And that, he adds, is proving to be more palatable to cutting-edge, forward-thinking companies than to those sticking to established success formulas.

"Companies that have plenty of money tend to kick the can further down the road and focus on the success of the next quarter, rather than the long-term view," Linthicum said. "Lots of companies just iterate and are very reactive. I don't think that has a future. Those kinds of processes are going to run into walls."

Why iPaaS leads cloud integration tools delivered as services

Growing numbers of organizations are expected to find that iPaaS, which delivers integration as a cloud-based service, is the answer. Gartner predicts that the iPaaS market could more than double from $414 million in 2015 to as much as $1 billion by 2020.

But that still represents a drop in the huge integration bucket. Randy Heffner, an analyst with Forrester Research, estimates that fewer than 10% of enterprises have a mature cloud-integration strategy. Five years from now, he expects that number to still be no more than 25%, which translates to a significant competitive advantage for companies with a sound strategy. "Those organizations will have notably different results in how quickly they can respond to market disruptions and business opportunities," Heffner said.

The sky's the limit. [Cloud integration is] creating new and interesting opportunities for our customers by exposing services securely to the broader ecosystem.
Juan Carlos Sotovice president of cloud integration and API economy, IBM

Enterprises have to start somewhere, and typically they're drawn to cloud-based integration because they're trying to migrate data from on-premises systems into cloud applications like Salesforce, according to IBM's Soto.

From there, the goals of cloud integration quickly grow more ambitious as companies look to get the most of new cloud apps by embedding them in their IT systems and processes. So, if a company identifies a sales opportunity, it wants to automatically trigger inventory movement or manufacturing to ensure that the product in question is available.

"Cloud integration helps to make this happen in a seamless manner," Soto said.

Not just for integrating on-premises systems to the cloud

One of the most common misconceptions about cloud integration tools and technologies is that they're specifically designed to link cloud-based systems to on-premises systems, when, in fact, they can link on-premises applications to each other, or do the same for cloud-based apps. What really distinguishes cloud integration tools, according to Soto, is the ability to consume integration as a service.

In fact, that very characteristic is enabling cloud integration technology to address a number of today's emerging enterprise needs.

"There are all kinds of reasons" companies are turning to enterprise integration, said Chris McNabb, general manager of Dell Boomi, an iPaaS provider. "I need to be sped up. I need to be cheaper. I need to be simpler. I need to reduce the number of servers I've got. I don't want a data center anymore."

McNabb said that as companies make the progression from simple migrations involving on-premises and cloud data to more complex efforts involving mission-critical systems, the need for cloud integration grows. And unlike the past, when complex integrations required maintenance-intensive, point-to-point connectors that were then subject to version upgrades, regression testing and the like, cloud integration makes an organization more nimble, not less.

"It immediately gives them a modern approach to their integration strategy," he said.

For example, one of the emerging categories in cloud integration tools is API-based integration -- hence the "API economy" part of Soto's title at IBM. The idea is to make it easy for companies to let partners consume their services, or for their developers to build new services. In this way, Soto said, cloud integration is actually fostering innovation and supporting new business models.

"The sky's the limit," he said. "It's creating new and interesting opportunities for our customers by exposing services securely to the broader ecosystem."

That said, a lot of companies struggle to get cloud integration right. Cloud Technology Partners' Linthicum said too many companies try to improvise their own cloud integration solutions, such as patching together FTP, FedEx and USB drives into a quick fix.

"You're going to get data-synchronization and data-quality issues pretty quickly," he said.

Other companies miss the point of cloud integration and instead do point-to-point, data-level synchronization integrations, depriving themselves of the big-picture benefits cloud integration tools provide, said Forrester's Heffner.

The key, he said, is for companies to avoid limiting themselves to these "state of the practice" approaches and instead shoot for state of the art. And he and Linthicum share similar visions of what that means: It starts with understanding an organization's data needs and process flows, and letting those define the integration approach.

In other words, we're talking about a fundamental shift in philosophy.

Heffner said, "People have thought about application integration strategy in silos, versus asking the question, 'How can these things work together to optimize business?'"

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