Strategize to minimize cloud software integration headaches

Todd Morrison

Patty Hoppenstedt knows a thing or two about the challenges of cloud software integration.

Years ago, officials of the Village of Schaumburg, Ill., deployed SuccessFactors HR software to help run the Chicago suburb of roughly 75,000.

The goal was to eventually have a seamless, integrated HR and finance system in which employment data from SuccessFactors -- everything from pay grades to the number of employees -- can be fed automatically into Munis, the Village's four-year-old, cloud ERP financial system to run payroll and other tasks.

It is a pain. If you talk to our finance director, she'll say it's the best thing since sliced bread. I think it's clunky and garbage.

Patty Hoppenstedt, director of human resources for the Village of Schaumburg.

The process has been anything but easy.

"It's been a two-year adventure with Munis. It doesn't want to play with other software very well, specifically when it comes to SuccessFactors," said Hoppenstedt, the Village's director of human resources. "I'm sure there are many, many other [vendors that Munis does not integrate with.] It's been a very challenging relationship with Munis."

Until Dallas-based Tyler Technologies, which makes Munis, allows its import tool to pull in SuccessFactors data, Schaumburg employees will have to continue keying it in manually.

"It is a pain," Hoppenstedt said. "If you talk to our finance director, she'll say it's the best thing since sliced bread. I think it's clunky and garbage."

Be prepared -- and maybe you'll be surprised

The Village of Schaumburg is hardly alone in having questions over how best to integrate their software, especially as more companies look at moving more of their operations into the cloud.

"SaaS [Software as a Service] applications, or point solutions that do one thing well, they are [often] their own little silos," said Randy Heffner, an analyst with at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc. "Each one of these vendors will have their own policies and capabilities, and APIs [application programming interfaces] for getting data in and out, in whatever form."

That presents significant challenges when it comes to building a coherent business-process and IT landscape, he said.

"It's a common scenario, though not every app has these issues,” Heffner said. “You should assume that every SaaS application is going to have those issues, and be pleasantly surprised if they don't."

'A difference in hosting solutions'

For SAP customers, there are a range of integration options for tying together on-premises and cloud-based on-demand applications. Those include point-to-point integration, third-party middleware or SAP middleware options. SAP's choices include its more traditional SAP NetWeaver Process Integration (PI), an on-premises tool and the new SAP HANA Cloud Platform.

SAP HANA Cloud integration comes with an updated and improved architecture, as well as deployment options that are better tailored to cloud-to-cloud and cloud-to-on-premises integration compared to NetWeaver PI, according to SAP.

But that doesn't mean companies should drop their current middleware, according to Sven Denecken, vice president of cloud solutions at SAP.

"[A business] doesn't want to rip out a third-party integration that already works," Denecken said. "[Or] if a customer [is using SAP NetWeaver Process Integration,] he might want to leverage that one. There's not one way integration can be done."

Some decisions are less profound than people may think, according to Heffner.

"To me, I don't think of that as so much as [differences in] integration, I think of it as a difference in hosting options. But some say 'integration in the cloud' -- it's a whole new thing," Heffner said.

Cloud-based tools do offer some important new options, Heffner added.

"Del Boomi [has] an integrated multi-tenant database of people [detailing] integration specifications and mappings between applications," Heffner said. "It can give you suggested mappings based on what their other customers have done. That's one example of some interesting new functionality that may help with all these SaaS applications."

How much of the environment is already SAP?

For many companies, the choice of software integration tools may come down to the proverbial question: Is its landscape already dominated by SAP software, or is SAP just one among many vendors?

"For those that consider themselves an SAP shop, then I think there's a strong [case for using] SAP's technologies as they expand" Heffner said. "For those that are not, I might recommend looking elsewhere first, though I might include SAP on my shortlist. But there's less reason to favor SAP technologies."

Companies should also try to use as few integration technologies as possible, and establish guidelines on what technologies apply in which situations, he said.

Make sure your integration technology can respond to changes

Integration challenges are likely to become more commonplace as hybrid and cloud deployments become the norm, according to Forrester analyst Stefan Ried.

For more on SAP and the cloud

What is the SAP HANA Enterprise Cloud?

Are you overestimating the speed of cloud evolution?

Plan ahead when it comes to hybrid environments

"Data and application logic is spread across different packaged and custom-built applications on-premises, on managed infrastructures and in the public cloud. While this presents a massive integration challenge today, the situation will only get more complex as some of the following key trends evolve further," Ried writes in his recently published report, The Hybrid Integration Challenge.

To help manage those integrations, Ried suggests that businesses stay up on the roadmaps of all their software integration vendors and monitor just how agile the integration tools are over time.

"The time it takes to implement a single change, such as a changed schema for an order or customer record, across all integration tools is a crucial key performance indicator (KPI)," the report states. "If it takes months, your business agility is dead -- and the lines of business will use more point-to-point integration solutions to bypass the inertia of the corporate integration platform."

View the next item in this Essential Guide: ERP system integration poses ongoing challenges or view the full guide: ERP consolidation and integration

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