SaaS vendor evals make, break cloud app integration projects

Jeff Kaplan, consultant at THINKstrategies, offers advice on how to master cloud app integration challenges.

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What problems arise if a business chooses a Software as a Service (SaaS) app without evaluating how it will integrate with existing software? Lost data and process breakdowns are just a few problems born of poor evaluations of cloud providers’ integration tools and services, according to Jeff Kaplan, managing director of consulting firm THINKstrategies. In this podcast, the cloud expert lays out the most important criteria for choosing SaaS applications that will integrate well with legacy enterprise applications. He also advises on building repeatable evaluation strategies and tells CIOs and enterprise architects what application integration assistance SaaS vendors typically provide.

Editor's note: Following is a transcript of a podcast on cloud app integration by Kaplan. This transcript has been edited for clarity and editorial style.

Jan Stafford: Welcome to Application Integration in the Cloud, a podcast of SearchCloudApplications.com, a TechTarget site. Our speaker is THINKstrategies founder and managing director, Jeff Kaplan. Founded in 2001, THINKstrategies is an independent strategic consulting firm focused on software as a service or SaaS, cloud computing, managed services and other innovative technology service solutions. I am your moderator, Jan Stafford, executive editor of SearchCloudApplications. Welcome to our podcast studio, Jeff.

Jeff Kaplan: Thanks, Jan, for having me.

Stafford: Well, let's talk some about building clouds for local app integration strategies. First off, Jeff, interoperability has long been a problem of the software industry. Has that carried over to cloud app?

Kaplan: Yes, it has, but the good news is not nearly as bad as in the past. So what we've seen in these SaaS and cloud environments is a fundamental recognition that the industry is more likely to succeed if it builds in more interoperability into … designs and services and software solutions. And the primary mechanism that's being used to facilitate that process is application program interfacing, APIs.

Now APIs in the software as a service and cloud environments are becoming increasingly robust. Although not perfect they are, in fact, enabling a growing array and a wider assortment of SaaS and cloud services to interoperate. There are still integration issues, data integration issues, that is, on top of those APIs, but to answer your question, the problem may still exist overall but the industry is more inclined to try to address it than ever before.

Stafford: So what problems arise if a business chooses a SaaS app without evaluating how it will integrate with the existing software?

Kaplan: Let me give you a little anecdote. I was at an industry event not too long ago about this very topic of integration and sitting at a table with a couple of older individuals who I introduced myself to, and I asked them what brought them to this event. And the two of them smiled and they said to me, "They've come back."

I said, "What do you mean they've come back?" And they said, "Well, we're part of the IT organization of a major insurance company, and the business units have come back because they now need our help integrating all those SaaS apps they unilaterally acquired on their own without thinking ahead about how they were going to get them to work together."

So this is a pervasive issue, this shadow IT phenomenon, the consumerization of IT. It's been going on for a while now, where strategic business units and corporate divisions have gone out on their own to buy standalone or what they thought might be standalone best-of-breed applications. And they're now coming back to IT and saying, "How do we get these things to work with each other?" And it's not that they can't work with each other, but they didn't take that into consideration when they first went out and found what they thought was the best application to meet their needs.

Stafford: I've heard similar stories. So what steps should enterprises that adopt SaaS applications take to, first of all, avoid that problem we're talking about and, secondly, develop an effective approach to integration?

Kaplan: That's a great question. The simple answer is that IT needs to do a better job in educating its business units that they shouldn't try to circumvent IT and IT's expertise altogether in that acquisition and procurement process but instead consult with IT around the important issues of integration and security and the other concerns that often will come up whenever you're acquiring software functionality, even if it is as a service.

So putting the right kinds of policies and procedures in place which don't discourage the strategic business units from finding apps they think will meet their needs but make them aware that the criteria that they use to select those apps have to go beyond the functionality of the software itself to include the ability of that software to be integrated into the ongoing operations of the enterprise.

Stafford: And what criteria can help CIOs and enterprise architects that a SaaS app will integrate well with their existing app?

Kaplan: Well, obviously the first criteria should be to check the history of success of that application to see how well it has, in fact, been able to develop, first of all, APIs to the key secondary applications and maybe primary data sources that the application is going to be used in conjunction with. Finding out how well it's going to be integrated into other similar kinds of enterprise environments and business processes. That track record of success will be the number one criteria for selection and ought to be the key criteria that business and IT decision makers should use to select those applications.

Secondly, of course, seeing what the vendor is doing to not only strengthen its APIs and expand the array of APIs it has to offer but to work with third-party application providers and other service providers to ensure that there are a variety of other connectors at the disposal of the customer to help them with the integration to third-party applications, data sources and other cloud and on-premises solutions.

And then finally, making sure that there is education available and training available not only to educate the in-house staff on how to properly integrate those applications, but also to build a community of third-party professional services and system integration firms that can help in that process as well.

Stafford: So the vendor partnerships obviously with other cloud app providers is a very important criteria, wouldn't you say?

Kaplan: Absolutely, checking their partner ecosystem, getting a sense as to how real those partnerships are. We don't want just partnerships that are on paper alone but actively engaged partnerships that are ensuring that their applications can interoperate and integrate easily with one another. Seeing how that ecosystem is evolving and growing and expanding to not only incorporate third party service providers and application vendors but also, as I said, professional service companies who can add value to that application over time.

So these are not new criteria. These are the kinds of things that many folks used in the past when evaluating software vendors for on-premises applications, but the same thing does hold true here in cloud is even more important because of the higher dependency that we have on those service providers to deliver the functionality that we're looking for.

Stafford: In service agreements, what should application integration services be offering and what should the users demand?

Kaplan: Well, that's a great question. Unfortunately, the service level agreements I've seen don't promise much in the way of integration unless it's stipulated in the [inaudible 00:09:49] of work on in the contract in some other form. The kinds of SLAs that are generally available in the cloud and SaaS environments have more to do with availability than they do about integration into third-party services.

And, therefore, again it is the responsibility of the decision maker, whether it's the business or IT side to ask a lot of questions about the interoperability of that service and the integration tools that are at their disposal and to seek out as much information and references to be sure that those integration promises are true in the real-world environment by looking at how they've been deployed in peer-type organizations.

Stafford: Thanks, Jeff. This really provides a lot of insight into some pretty complex decisions that businesses have to make and really seems like a business has to hone its evaluation process a lot to make the right kind of decisions about app integration.

Kaplan: That's absolutely true and the bottom line is that the folks in the cloud and SaaS community recognize this. They're doing all that they can to address it, but it's an issue that will never go away entirely, especially as we integrate these new services on top of the old on-premises and legacy system software of the past.

Stafford: Well, thanks again, Jeff, and this concludes our podcast on Application Integration in the Cloud. Our speaker was THINKstrategies founder and managing director, Jeff Kaplan. I'm Jan Stafford, executive editor of SearchCloudApplications, signing off. Thank you for joining us today.

This was first published in May 2014

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