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Best Approach to Data Integration in the Cloud: A Revealing Look at Two iPaaS Options

By April 30, 2012Article

Enterprises and midmarket organizations are increasingly looking to the cloud for data integration. And while vendors have offered integration in the cloud for a while now, a new term to describe the model emerged last year: Integration Platform as a Service (iPaaS). In simplest terms, iPaaS is a platform for building and deploying integrations within the cloud, and between the cloud and enterprise. With iPaaS, users can develop integration flows that connect applications residing in the cloud or on premise and then deploy them without installing or managing any hardware or middleware.

Gartner has written quite a bit about iPaaS over the past year and has outlined a number of key functions in its reference model. These functions include tools and technologies that support the execution of integration flows, the development and life cycle management of integrations, the management and monitoring of application flows, and governance, as well as essential cloud features such as multi-tenancy, elasticity and self-provisioning. Gartner also envisions iPaaS as a potential platform for the buying, selling and exchange of integration flows — both out-of-the-box and custom-built integration patterns — between users and service providers.

Despite Gartner’s best efforts, however, the definition is broad and has resulted in confusion about what constitutes an iPaaS solution. For the purpose of this article, we are describing what is viewed as the dominant variations within the iPaaS definition. We call one variation “Customer-Driven iPaaS,” whereby the user is responsible for defining and managing the integration in a hosted Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) environment. We refer to the other variation as “iPaaS Managed Services,” in which the iPaaS vendor not only hosts the integration platform but also handles the integration as a service.

In both approaches, the iPaaS vendor provides the integration platform and the integration takes place in the cloud. The only difference between these variations is who is writing and deploying the integration patterns and maintaining the integration solution: the customer or the vendor?

While both variations are valid, what’s the better approach? The answer is: “It depends.” This article compares and contrasts the two options to provide guidance on how to determine which type of cloud-based integration is best suited for your organization.

First things first: take stock of your situation

Before we dive in, let’s take a moment to answer a few questions:

  1. Are you considering moving some or all of your B2B data integration and back-office business functions to the cloud in order to reduce IT infrastructure costs, add scale, or both?
  2. Do you also want to offload the support function?
  3. Would it help if someone outside of your organization took over the data architecture and mapping functions?

If you answered “yes” to the first question and “no” to the other two, then Customer-Driven iPaaS should be sufficient. Otherwise, you should take a serious look at iPaaS Managed Services. If only it were that simple!

Diving deeper

If your organization is like a lot of others, you’re looking to the cloud to reduce IT costs. Moving data integration to the cloud makes sense for the same reasons moving any part of your IT infrastructure to the cloud makes sense: reducing infrastructure costs and obtaining readily available scalability without the capital outlays. If that’s all you want to do, then the Customer-Driven iPaaS model will be enough as long as you have the in-house staff to model the integration patterns and a team to write the maps, do the integration and provide support — and you intend to keep it that way.

Some companies, however, struggle with keeping an adequate integration team on staff. They see value in reassigning this staff to higher-value projects, or they simply don’t have the budget to grow their integration team as demand grows. If any of this hits close to home, consider engaging with an iPaaS Managed Services provider that has the expertise to understand your requirements, can architect the appropriate data integration patterns, build the models, write the maps, maintain the solution and provide support.

Consider, too, that it’s also possible to segment your integration project and move just a part of it to a managed services provider. For example, you might engage with a managed services company to handle your supplier/trading partner integration while retaining your staff integration specialists to maintain the back-end application-to-application integration in house. You can always move more of it, or all of it, to your iPaaS Managed Services provider in the future.

Three vendor evaluation tips

1. Software vs. People
When you evaluate a Customer-Driven iPaaS provider, your first concern should be to make sure its integration software’s capabilities fit your current requirements while also having the flexibility to meet probable future needs. When you look at an iPaaS Managed Services provider, the software becomes immaterial; but you have another equally important evaluation point: You have to make sure the vendor understands your integration complexity and has the expertise to manage it. They should be experts in your field and have experience in handling your types of business cases.

The next consideration is how you’re doing integration now. How organized is your process? Have you documented your business cases? For example, do you have trading partner specifications, sample data, UML diagrams, etc.? Or, are you building ad-hoc integration patterns from scratch? Providing this information to the managed services vendor in a structured way will help reduce the cost of the iPaaS Managed Services implementation.

Conversely, if you’ve been doing ad hoc integration — mapping as you go — and you don’t know the answer to these questions, going with a Customer-Driven iPaaS provider and continuing to do the integration in house may be the better approach. That being said, if you are doing integration ad hoc, you’re not alone. Plenty of businesses operate this way, but it’s not sustainable.

If you want to add scale and grow the business, consider abandoning ad hoc integration and evolving to a structured approach. The good news is that an iPaaS Managed Services provider can help you make this transition by performing an analysis of your current implementation and architecture and providing guidance.

Hiring an iPaaS Managed Services provider to do an assessment of your integration project can serve two purposes. First, the assessment will improve your integration practices if you intend to keep doing it in house. Second, if you are considering turning the integration function over to this iPaaS Managed Services vendor, this assessment will tell you if the vendor understands your business and can handle your organization’s complexity. Either reason justifies paying for an assessment.

2. The need for speed
Another issue in deciding which type of iPaaS provider to use is how quickly you routinely need new data integration patterns created or modifications made to existing integration flows — things like adding new trading partners, bringing on new back-end systems, or responding to trading partner requirement changes. If you choose to take care of this in-house, you control it and set the timeframe, provided you have the resources.

If you decide to use an iPaaS Managed Service, how quickly new patterns are created or changes are made depends on how fast the managed services provider can act on your request. If speed is a significant factor in your decision-making process, then make sure the iPaaS Managed Services provider can meet your expectations. Be explicit about your requirements and write them into the service level agreement.

3. The question of support
Once an integration solution is deployed and running in the cloud, then what? How are failures handled and by whom? If you select a Customer-Driven iPaaS vendor, you will, of course, continue to take care of integration support issues in house. However, there are support concerns to work out with the provider in advance. For example, how flexible and granular is the vendor’s error reporting and alerting, and how will you know when there’s an issue? The answers to these questions factor into the selection of a Customer-Driven iPaaS provider.

In a managed scenario, the iPaaS Managed Services provider is the technical expert and also should be proficient enough in your business to handle most integration issues. iPaaS Managed Services providers typically provide integration support by exception. The more proficient they are in your business, the more likely they are to have the expertise to handle most, if not all, support issues. Only in rare instances would they would contact you for guidance.

Future considerations

Even if you initially choose the Customer-Driven iPaaS approach, over time, you may want to outsource the entire integration process. If you think this could happen, consider choosing an iPaaS vendor that gives you that flexibility, or be prepared to switch vendors. Either way, migrating integration patterns can be costly. You can lower these costs significantly by selecting a provider that has the technology to reduce the time and cost of migrating integration patterns between sources, whether on-premise to cloud, or cloud to cloud.

iPaaS is still new and it’s rapidly evolving. If moving some or all of your integration to the cloud is part of your plan, consider which approach is most likely to serve your organization now and in the foreseeable future. Customer-Driven iPaaS provides the benefits of a hosted software solution, while allowing you to continue to control and manage your integration projects. iPaaS Managed Services provide both the hosted platform and the professional expertise to take care of the daily integration functions, freeing you to reassign your staff to higher-level business projects. If you’re concerned about losing control over integration, consider choosing an iPaaS Managed Services vendor that provides project visibility through a browser-based management tool.

Both approaches to cloud-based integration have their merits. Your decision ultimately depends on your organization’s unique situation.

Robert Fox is the Senior Director of Software Development at Liaison Technologies, a global provider of secure cloud-based integration and data management services and solutions based in Atlanta. An original contributor to the ebXML 1.0 specification, the former Chair of Marketing and Business Development for ASC ANSI X12, and a co-founder and co-chair of the Connectivity Caucus, he can be reached at