The Cloud may have solved some problems but it is also creating others. Lesley Meall, FSN contributing editor looks at the new challenges posed by linking financial applications in the Cloud and on premises.
If only software could be as plug and play as hardware. In a perfect world, every single piece of software would automatically talk to every other piece of software, you would never need to key in the same piece of information more than once, there would be no such thing as a transcription error, the ‘functionality’ you need would always be at your fingertips, finding the ‘data’ you are looking for would always be a breeze, and we would all understand each other a lot better, because there would only ever be a single version of the truth.
We are slowly (and it remains to be seen how surely) moving in this direction – and one day we may wake up to find the software equivalent of the Universal Serial Bus (USB) Protocol attached to every piece of application software. Even without understanding the bits and bytes of an Application Programming Interface (API), Service Oriented Architecture (SOA), the Extensible Markup Language (XML), the SPI model, Web Services, or the Web Services Description Language (WSDL), you can get a feel for their potential (integration is getting easier, isn’t it). But the Holy Grail of universal application integration still seems elusive.
Cloud based applications have taken some of the pain from the integration process, but much remains – as just one sector of the Software as a Service (SaaS) world can demonstrate. A superficial look at the possibilities offered by some online accounting systems, for example, might lead the naïve and optimistic to believe that ‘integrating’ them with other SaaS applications is child’s play (or something a Facebook-wielding teenager could manage with a look of derision whilst simultaneously texting). As with many things, however, the devil is lurking in the detail.
“There is a difference between integrating a system and an integrated system,” says Salman Malik, who has spent 15 years building internet and enterprise applications with organisations including Siebel. “Integrated almost always makes businesses lives easier, but integration is almost always a costly and complex business,” he says, “although APIs have made it easier.” Malik is currently a non-executive director with Brightpearl, an integrated on-demand system for accounting, stock control, order management and ecommerce, so he has an interesting perspective.
As you might expect, he is keen to emphasise the advantages of how ‘integrated’ Brightpearl is whilst playing down the need to integrate it with other on-demand and on-premise applications, but he is happy to talk about the challenges of APIs in the context of other online accounting systems. “If you want to integrate Xero with a CRM, for example, you will need to get a developer in,” he points out; something you also need to do if you want to integrate Brightpearl (or any other online accounting system) with many other on-demand or on-premise applications.
When FinancialForce.com recently surveyed 200 small and medium businesses in North America about the “biggest challenges with their current accounting solution”, integration between on-premise and on-demand apps was one of the main causes of concern – and of those surveyed who were using accounting from QuickBooks or Sage with the Salesforce.com CRM, 67 per cent cited lack of CRM integration as their biggest headache. If you glance at the press release on this survey, you can see that it is (quite understandably) a plug for FinancialForce.com’s recent integration with the Salesforce.com collaboration platform Chatterbox. But it also highlights the dilemma faced by the numerous organisations trying to glue together their old legacy apps and new on-demand systems.
To make life easier for businesses, some developers use their APIs as the basis of something less general purpose: the ‘connector’. Take the on-demand budgeting and reporting provider Adaptive Planning. “There are Adaptive Planning connectors for Great Plains, Lawson, MAS 90, MAS 500, Oracle Financials, QuickBooks, SAP, Solomon, and many others” says Bill Soward, president and CEO, which can all make ‘integration’ easier, but as he adds: “When clients want to integrate Adaptive Planning with a new on-premise system, they typically involve our professional services team, or someone from their IT department.”
This is one of the reasons why Salesforce.com and FinancialForce.com like to bang on about the difference between ‘integration ready’ and ‘already integrated’, and why FinancialForce.com recently partnered with SKYVVA, a German integration specialist, to develop an “out of the box” solution for delivering FinancialForce accounting data directly into SAP Financials. “Organisations that are using ERP systems such as SAP, want to quickly and easily generate financial transactions from their Salesforce.com applications and present them for posting to their on-premises ERP applications,” says Jeremy Roche, president and CEO of FinancialForce.com.
As a generic process, it’s already so commonplace that it even has a name, as FSN has explained in previous coverage on the evolution of ‘the cloud’. “This is an example of creating a hybrid solution between cloud based and on-premise applications, where the benefits of deploying in the cloud can help to quickly deliver a solution and complement existing technology infrastructures,” explains Roche, and the integration suite was built “natively” using the Platform as a Service (PaaS) that is Force.com. “This out of the box solution simplifies integration, and ensures that all business processes are completed and accounted for and that there are no lost transactions.”
Earlier in 2010, IBM also took steps to make ‘hybrids’ easier to create, when it acquired a SaaS company dedicated to doing just this. “The combination of IBM and Cast Iron Systems will make it easy for clients to integrate business applications, no matter where those applications reside,” says Craig Hayman, general manager of IBM’s WebSphere unit. “This will give clients greater agility, and as a result, better business outcomes,” he said, which for many will translate into being able to integrate their on-premise IBM legacy systems with SaaS apps, without third party integrators, or the associated cost and disruption.
Fortunately for many small and medium business (that are not IBM users), Cast Iron Systems isn’t the only SaaS provider out there developing and offering tools that can make it easier to link on demand apps with other on demand apps and/or on premise apps: there is also Boomi. Its ‘integration cloud’ AtomSphere can be used to connect any combination of cloud, SaaS, or on premise applications – wait for it – without appliances, software or coding. That means no developers. It doesn’t make application integration as plug and play as hardware – but it’s still a step up from the cost and complexity of APIs.
With AtomSphere, Boomi takes what it calls a “connect once, integrate everywhere” approach to “optimising” integration (and yes, it does use connectors). AtomSphere offers pre-built integration templates for a number of best-of-breed applications (such as Intuit QuickBooks and Salesforce.com), but it also uses wizards and a drag and drop interface to simplify web services technologies such as SOAP and WSDL, enabling ‘ordinary people’ to exploit use them without understanding them (something few of us really want to do). So, maybe we are not that far away from the Holy Grail of universal application integration after all.