How to Keep (Happy) Feet on the Ground with Cloud Integration: Four Key Considerations

April 8 2013

As businesses continue to adopt cloud and online business applications, it seems like déjà vu all over again for integration. How do I access and share online data with the rest of my business? How do I avoid going back to manual processes because I can't get my cloud applications to talk to my other business applications easily?

Most cloud vendors claim that their offerings integrate with this, that, or the other. That definition of "integrate" varies from vendor to vendor. Typically when you dig beneath marketing content, it usually means the cloud vendor offers an API and it's up to you to integrate from there. Better cloud vendors will have some level of pre-built integration with one or two popular business applications, a marketplace where third parties can offer integration solutions, and/or recommended commercial vendors with branded connectivity to their product.

Cloud integration is not much different from premise integration. There are standard protocols - web services have been around for a while and there are skilled development resources should you choose to custom code. Almost all commercial integration offerings have SOAP and REST web services support and many have specific application connectors for popular cloud applications which make it as simple as mapping fields between your cloud application and your other endpoints. As with premise applications, there are a number of viable options to approach cloud integration.

That said, there are unique considerations with cloud integration that you need to be aware of particularly in the evaluation, planning, and design of your integration. Research and planning around these considerations will avoid painful or failed cloud integration projects.

All APIs are Not Created Equal

Cloud vendors control the access to your data and what you can do with the data via API. The quality, access, and capabilities of these APIs vary widely from vendor to vendor.  Review the technical documentation and understand what your cloud vendor supports in the API and what they don't (or won't).  Get details on the how - "support" for an object or method may mean very different things to you and the vendor. 

Find out how often the vendor updates the API - do they take the API as seriously as their product and are they responsive to defects and customer requests? What is the support policy for the API? Can they articulate a roadmap or direction for the API?

The vendor's API capabilities can have severe impact on your integration strategy - don't take the vendor's word that "they have an API and you can integrate anything." If you are evaluating a new cloud vendor, make sure you include the API as part of your selection criteria.

Speed & Performance

API performance is an often overlooked metric until it's too late. It is not uncommon to see speeds of 2-3 records per second, which is mind-numbingly slow if you need to process hundreds of thousands or millions of records. If you can't find API performance metrics in the technical documentation, ask your cloud vendor. If you're using an integration solution, ask the vendor what the typical performance is for their branded connectors.

Some APIs support bulk and upsert operations to increase performance. If your vendor supports these, use them in your integration design as they are typically faster and more efficient. 

Beware of the Fine Print

Cloud vendors need to provide a certain level of uptime and performance. To do that, they often have governors on their API to avoid service slowdowns and bottlenecks. Knowing the governors and how they are a calculated is as important to your design as the objects and methods the API supports. Exceeding these thresholds can be as severe as shutting off your access to the API or as annoying as excessive usage fees on your next monthly bill.

Popular limitations are the number of API calls or "hits" in a period of time and data storage. If you are depending on your integration for a critical business processes such as sales order processing or order fulfillment, you do not want your integration to shut down arbitrarily due to API limits. Know the limitations and design your integration strategy around them.

Commercial Integration Offerings

It's very tempting to "write just a few lines of code" especially when you have talented developers who like to build instead of buy. Cloud vendors typically update their offerings multiple times per year and that includes API changes. If you decide to write custom code, be aware that you might have to validate, test, and maintain your integrations against the vendor's API at least two times per year and likely more often. That might not be the best use of your time or IT resources. Commercial integration vendors stay current with these changes - it's their business to do so.

If you select a commercial integration solution, you still need to be aware of the limitations of the cloud vendor's API and what your companies' thresholds are for API hits, storage, and other governors. Commercial integration offerings are bound by the same rules and limitations imposed by the cloud vendor's API. If you are limited to 5,000 API hits per day, your integration tool is limited to 5,000 hits per day. If the cloud vendor doesn't provide access to certain data objects or methods in their API, the integration vendor cannot surface those objects or methods in their connectors.

Cloud vendors are increasingly aware that businesses need to better integrate their offerings and in many cases, integration is becoming a competitive differentiator. Expect over time that cloud vendors will have better, more capable APIs, and customers should have the ability to negotiate and pay for different thresholds that work best for their integration needs. As cloud vendors have better and more APIs, your commercial integration options will continue to increase and improve as well.

Cloud integration certainly has its unique considerations and it's a bit more work to accommodate these additional factors in your design. Don't let that stop you - many people are integrating these applications quite successfully today despite the challenges and reaping the benefits of using cloud data in their business.

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About Betsy Bilhorn

As Vice President, Product Management Betsy Bilhorn is responsible for leading Scribe's new product initiatives.

Prior to joining Scribe, Bilhorn held several leadership positions at SaaS pioneer WebTrends, including participation in the evolution of WebTrends OnDemand. She has also held leadership positions at system integrator, Lease Dimensions, where she managed large deployments of global CRM, ERP, and financial systems, including acquisition and integration.

Betsy holds a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from Mount Holyoke College.

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