No company today operates as an independent set of small workgroups, and company IT can’t operate that way either, even in the cloud. Cloud integration is the linking of information flows between cloud-hosted applications and other applications hosted in different clouds or in the data center. Without integration, cloud applications can’t share data with the rest of the company and that limits or even eliminates the utility of the cloud. Basic cloud integration tasks can be performed by IT professionals using techniques similar to those already adopted for in-house application deployment. It’s helpful—even essential—to identify cloud integration tools or platforms that will ease the process when dealing with more complicated cloud applications or when the cloud’s adoption is being driven by application users rather than IT.
An integration tool or platform will automate the integration process by linking to cloud, IT and network security applications via their application program interfaces (APIs) and sending commands. Policies or scripts define these commands and allow the cloud data flows to be connected correctly, as well as to be reconnected in the event of failure or disconnected if the service is discontinued.
The distinction between a “platform” or a “tool” for integration may be today more one of market positioning than technical features, but what most buyers would understand as a “platform” is a private cloud stack that includes functionality to integrate applications between a public and private cloud implementation of the same cloud software. These are most commonly provided by IT companies like Dell, Cisco, HP, IBM, Microsoft and Oracle. Often integration platforms have pre-configured “templates” targeted at either vertical applications (CRM, ERP) provided by the cloud software vendor or at horizontal technologies like enterprise service bus (ESB) or SOA. However, many tool vendors will also supply templates for both horizontal and vertical applications, and integration tools can be used with private cloud stacks too. Users should examine all their options and not just those that are linked with their choice of cloud software.
While cloud integration tools can cross cloud technology lines, public/private cloud integration, with or without platform/tool support, is easiest when the public and private cloud platforms are based on the same (or highly compatible) stacks. For a potential cloud user expecting to create hybrid clouds, picking a provider with both a private cloud software stack and a public cloud service based on the same stack can reduce integration complexity significantly, even to the point where the benefits overcomes a potentially higher public cloud price. That’s particularly true with complex applications that require considerable data flow connection across cloud components. Companies who run highly integrated manufacturing or retail systems, for example, may find that the platform approach saves a lot of integration labor.
More resources on cloud integration tools
With any set of tools, there are two critical decision points in functionality. The first is how easily the tools/platforms can be adapted support the APIs used to manage the flows between cloud components. Most integration packages will say they support all of the popular APIs, which may be true at a high level but often means that at least some user coding will be required. If the effort level is too high or too much specialized skill is needed, the package may create more work than it saves. The second of the critical decision points is does the vendor provide a wide variety of useful templates for integration. Not only does a template considerably reduce the effort of using an integration package by doing much of the work for you, a large template inventory is insurance that the package will continue to be useful as the cloud commitment changes or expands.
Many cloud integration tools are available in on-premises or hosted form, and it’s difficult to say which of the two is best. Buyers who have a relatively large private cloud deployment using one of the formal cloud stacks (OpenStack, CloudStack, etc.) may find that an in-house tool is more convenient to use with private-cloud-dominated projects because it’s “inside” company security firewalls. For most buyers using SaaS extensively, particularly those expecting to support the integration task without inside IT assistance, the most logical solution will likely be a hosted tool.
There is considerable work being done in the cloud software space to develop an architecture for creating applications for the cloud that carry instructions on integration and deployment in “containers” or “charms” and work with companion software to control the integration and operation of the applications. This union of development and operations is called “DevOps ,” and cloud prospects and users alike may want to monitor the progress of this activity. It promises to create the ultimate in application deployment and integration automation, and that’s a worthy goal for any cloud user.
This was first published in May 2012