For years, Software as a Service (SaaS) applications were the domain of the business user. Freed from the constraints of IT, a vice president of sales could subscribe to Salesforce.com, or an HR director could sign up for Workday.
And as isolated, niche applications, SaaS tools served their purpose -- they were up quickly, they were easy to use and there was no huge up-front capital investment.
Then the bill came due.
Once the SaaS applications were in place, users came to like them and to want more from them. They wanted access to more data from other systems. That meant IT suddenly needed to find a way to integrate SaaS applications with one another and with legacy, in-house systems.
Business users key to SaaS integration success
While SaaS-based vendors have bolstered their APIs and connectors to large, legacy systems like SAP, and while a new breed of SaaS integration vendors has emerged to fill in the holes, integrating SaaS data remains a difficult endeavor. And, according to experts, it is not something business can now simply hand off to IT. It needs to remain involved.
"Typically the situation is, people buy SaaS the way they bought best-of-breed applications," said Ray Wang, partner at San Mateo, Calif.-based Altimeter Group. "They have a specific problem and want [SaaS applications] integrated into whatever their back-end system is. As you add a bunch of SaaS applications, the question is, 'How does this fit together with my business processes?'"
Ideally, according to Jeff Kaplan, managing director of Wellesley, Mass.-based THINKstrategies, SaaS application buyers would consider integration before they make a purchase.
"Up until now, the primary concerns were the security and reliability of SaaS," Kaplan said. "More and more, people are recognizing those hurdles are far easier to overcome than integration questions, which have more unique ramifications within each organization. Before people adopt a specific SaaS solution, based on say a 30-day trial, what they have to consider is how that application is going to be integrated into specific workflow and legacy applications and the data source environment."
A familiar problem
Of course, technology rollouts very seldom go ideally. Most organizations have neither the time nor the resources to make long-term strategic decisions about integration when they launch SaaS applications. Despite the advances in application implementation, organizations still need to bring together IT, business and any systems integrators they may use.
"The more things change, the more they stay the same," Kaplan said. "The same three parties need to be working together just like in the old days."
As with on-premise applications, it is incumbent on the business side to ensure that the customer record is the same across all applications, according to Wang.
"The standard data integration problems come up again," he said. "You still need really good business architects that can identify the issues up front. This is why the business side needs to get involved. You still need an architect and need to map out what are the important data values and analytics you're trying to measure."
Along with some of the familiar integration concerns that come with SaaS, companies also need to worry about data quality, Kaplan warned. SaaS integration tends to uncover the dirty data in an organization and compounds integration issues because SaaS integration requires data migration as well.
And while businesses can look to the past and their experience with on-premise application integration for guidance, the good news is that SaaS integration is easier.
"The good news is -- the way I like to describe it -- there's a shorter distance between the dots," Kaplan said. "Even though there are new data sources and applications that need to be integrated because of APIs, Web services and other de facto standards or best practices, it is possible to get the job done more quickly and cheaply than in the past."
The SaaS integration vendors have done a good job of making it easy to tie into back-end financial systems, but SaaS-to-SaaS integrations with different data or process models present a challenge, according to Wang.
In addition to advances by SaaS vendors, a new set of integrators and consultants have emerged around SaaS integration. Organizations need not turn solely to the old systems integrators.
"There is certainly a growing segment in the market who recognize these newer players are more in tune [with the] challenges of integration but also the expectations of the business side," Kaplan said. "They're going to get the job done as quickly and cost effectively as possible, as opposed to the old guard, who would send an army in and camp out as long as possible."