More and more companies are adopting Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) applications, fueled by a fiercely competitive business environment. However, 62 percent of IT executives report "Integration with non SaaS applications" as their number one challenge when trying to roll out these applications. This article investigates why traditional methods of integration are failing to solve the problem and highlights the new technologies that are emerging to fill in the gap.
Let's get SaaSy!
There's no denying it, SaaS applications — like salesforce.com, NetSuite, RightNow and Siebel CRM On Demand — are extremely attractive. They appeal to the IT department because they're easy to deploy and manage and they appeal to business users because they can start using the new systems quickly. And everybody likes subscription pricing because it means fewer budgetary issues get in the way of procuring these new applications. It's no surprise then that SaaS applications, also known as on-demand applications, are spreading rapidly within companies today. The Yankee Group forecasts that 50 percent of software purchased by small to midsize companies in 2008 will be delivered as an on-demand service and this market will reach $10 billion annually.
However, with the deployment of SaaS applications comes the challenge of accessing and updating business-critical information locked away in highly customized back-end systems. While many SaaS application providers have gone out of their way to provide well defined API’s that turn the issue of integration into a competitive differentiator, things get a lot more complex when trying to deeply integrate with complex on-premise systems.
How Does Integration Become a Critical Issue After the Application is Deployed?
SaaS applications usually start off at the departmental or workgroup level. For instance it might start with the sales department getting a SaaS solution to manage and monitor the progress of sales opportunities through the pipeline. Soon, other departments in the company — or salespeople in other groups or divisions — become aware of the new SaaS application and want to use it as well. With few IT resources needed for implementation, it's easy for these new groups to also start using the new system.
Vendors of SaaS applications offer attractive entry points and then develop strategies to help wider adoption across multiple departments. Many SaaS companies now have customers with subscriptions to several hundred seats of their application. As the number of users rises, the amount of data and the number of back-end systems they need access to quickly increases, making integration a critical problem to solve.
Another reason that integration rises in importance is competitive pressure. Since SaaS applications offer the same benefits to all customers, any advantages gained by deploying a SaaS application at one company are just as easily realized by its competitors. SaaS applications by themselves therefore provide little differentiation unless they are integrated with highly customized back-end applications that are core to a company's operations. Retaining differentiation and making this enormous amount of corporate data available to the SaaS systems often brings the issue of application integration to the forefront.
While companies of all sizes anticipate the easy deployment of SaaS applications, they often need to turn to specialized SaaS integration solutions to help them conquer the three main areas in which integration with existing systems is required.
Three Reasons SaaS Systems Get Integrated
There are three main reasons for integrating SaaS applications and they fall into the categories of migration, synchronization and extraction. Let's take a quick look at each of them:
- Getting information into a SaaS system. Back-end systems contain some of the most valuable corporate assets in a company as they often represent many decades of business knowledge and operational experience. For the SaaS system to be useful from the start, the information contained in back-end systems must be migrated into the new SaaS solution
- Synchronizing information between SaaS and back-end systems. Back-end systems are most likely to be the systems of record for critical corporate information about customers, products, orders, etc. SaaS solutions need to synchronize information with the systems of record so the company can have a single, accurate and real-time view of this information. While dealing with different data formats and complex workflows is challenging, these integrations also must be secure, reliable and provide complete visibility
- Extracting information from a SaaS system. Most companies generate a wide variety of operational and business intelligence (BI) reports based on data from multiple systems. While SaaS solutions offer reporting capability, this functionality is often limited. Therefore, information from the new SaaS application must be easily transferable into existing reporting and BI applications
Traditional Integration Approaches: A Poor Fit for SaaS
Traditionally, companies had just two choices for solving application integration problems — buy complex software or write custom code. The complex software approach evolved to meet the needs of large enterprises and provides complex functionality to solve BPM, BAM and EAI problems. But this rich functionality makes these software platforms very expensive to procure, install, deploy and maintain.
As a consequence, most companies opted to develop custom code for integration, which has become the most widely used integration solution. While custom code provides an immediate fix at a seemingly lower cost, companies quickly realize that maintaining custom code is a labor intensive and time-consuming effort and that the "hidden costs" go well beyond the initial coding. Custom code also requires specialized skills that most IT organizations lack or are already using on other important projects. Finally, custom code requires upfront investments in time and resources that delay the benefits of using a SaaS application.
Solving integration problems with either of these software-based approaches produces results that contradict the benefits expected by companies when they chose a SaaS solution. These integration solutions substantially undermine the value of a SaaS solution, and frustrate users who expect quick results. The poor fit between traditional integration approaches and the requirements of a SaaS environment have created the need for a new breed of integration solution.
Integration Appliances: Designed for Rapid SaaS Integration
Integration appliances are plug-and-play devices designed to remove the complexity and overhead associated with traditional integration solutions. These appliances are gaining in popularity because they result in faster SaaS deployments at lower costs. Fundamentally they achieve this by reducing the complexity of integration by doing only what's needed — connectivity, transformation, workflow and management — to rapidly integrate two or more applications. By distilling application integration problems into these four steps, the need to write any code to implement integration projects is eliminated.
These appliances are also self-contained and come with everything needed to complete integrations in one place. They make no distinction between local and remote applications because they establish connectivity to the end points via native application protocols. The advantage of this approach is that no adapters are required so there is nothing to install or change at the end points. This is significant for integrating with SaaS applications because these applications exist in remote locations where the installation of adaptors is not possible.
These appliances are also flexible, scalable and reusable. Specifically, they can be used for multiple integration projects and for solving problems between any combination of SaaS and on-premise applications. Orchestrations and transformations created for one project can be reused for another project. Integration appliances maintain the benefits of SaaS applications while providing the robust integrations needed by organizations.
Integration Appliances Offer the Same Benefits as SaaS
The ease of using an integration appliance matches the simplicity delivered by a SaaS application. The benefits of integration appliances therefore line up well with a company's expectations of a SaaS environment:
- Integration in days. Integration appliances are plug-and-play devices so they enable companies to integrate in days, instead of weeks or months. This aligns with the rapid provisioning benefit of a SaaS application, as users can access critical business information quickly.
- Ease-of-use through configuration, not coding. Integration appliances are designed to complete integrations without the need to write any code. Simply plug in the appliance and configure the integrations. This mirrors the configuration experience of a SaaS solution.
- Low IT impact. An Integration Appliance does not require complex coordination or specialized IT skills to deploy. Ongoing management and maintenance of an appliance imposes minimal demands on IT due to their "lights-out management."
- Subscription pricing. They are offered with monthly subscription pricing plans. By eliminating upfront costs, integration appliances deliver the same type of economic benefits that led companies to choose SaaS solutions in the first place.
- Easy to change. An integration appliance allows IT to change connectivity endpoints, revise transformations and modify workflows using a point-and-click approach in a visual user interface. Easy changes mean integrations can be quickly updated to better serve the constantly evolving needs of the business.
Since integration appliances connect equally well to local and remote applications, the physical hardware can we hosted anywhere. With the remote management capability of integration appliances, customers can monitor, maintain and upgrade appliances in distributed geographic locations.
SaaS applications offer tremendous benefits including rapid implementations, ease-of-use, low IT requirements, subscription pricing and ease of maintenance. As SaaS adoption increases, the integration of SaaS and back-end applications is critical.
It's clear that IT environments will include a mix of SaaS and on-premise applications for a long time to come and that companies will select various combinations of these systems to maintain true differentiation and be responsive to the needs of the business.
To realize the full benefit of SaaS applications, integration must be dramatically simplified. Companies need a solution that can run anywhere, connect applications anywhere, be managed from anywhere and require no specialist integration skills or IT infrastructure. These solutions must be easily configurable, flexible and scalable — which means no coding. And, the integration solution must implement projects within days, not weeks or months.
Fortunately, integration appliances provide these benefits today. By taking advantage of the simplicity of these appliances, companies can obtain the full benefits of their SaaS applications faster than ever before.
About the Author: Simon Peel is senior vice president of Marketing and Strategy at Cast Iron Systems. He has more than 20 years experience in strategy, product management and marketing of enterprise-level solutions. www.castiron.com.