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It's often easier said than done to integrate one software component with another, especially within the scope of large, transformational projects. While all IT projects should take into account enterprise application integration concerns, the concept is steeped in ambiguity.
App integration's role in a digital transformation project
John Matouk & Company Inc. -- more commonly known as Matouk -- is a 90-year-old manufacturer of luxury home linens based in Fall River, Mass. that encountered app integration challenges in the midst of a digital transformation project that moved the company's IT infrastructure to the cloud in January 2017. While Matouk's infrastructure overhaul resulted in their then record-best fiscal month just two months after launch, the project overcame uniquely difficult integration challenges along the way.
Matouk's main goal was to eliminate the organization's data silos -- primarily in their MRP, ERP and CRM systems -- and form a central view and access point for their data through its existing Salesforce-based CRM system. With many moving parts and legacy systems at play, Matouk's vice president of digital strategy Stuart Kiely knew that app integration -- or getting all of these disparate entities to talk to one another -- would be a significant challenge. And a small business manufacturing company like Matouk needed help on the integration front.
"Prior to this transformation, we used Salesforce as a CRM," Kiely said. "We did some basic, one-directional thinking between our on-premises systems up to Salesforce, and we used the free version of Jitterbit's Cloud Data Loader."
That early familiarity with Jitterbit placed it on Matouk's shortlist of priority integration tools, and it was ultimately chosen. But it wasn't the only option.
When you want to make two things that don't normally communicate, do just that, it means you need some kind of third-party middleware to sit between the two environments. And that third party may be somebody like a Mulesoft, or it may also be something created by your IT team, said Blair Hanley Frank, principal analyst with ISG, a global technology research and advisory firm.
An in-house, custom integration might seem like the best option, but Frank said that route has its own hazards. If you require a bespoke integration to connect technology, then you depend upon that integration to stay functional, which means a dependence on APIs on either end of that integration.
"That's a huge risk, because you've essentially created an ongoing operations load for your IT team," he said.
Scope out the market for integration platforms and tools
While Matouk used Jitterbit to tackle its integration challenges, plenty of alternative options exist in the integration tool and platform space, like MuleSoft, Informatica, Tibco Software, Dell Boomi, SnapLogic and IBM.
"In many ways, it's become the domain of the existing enterprise tech giants. After a flowering of many different startup offerings, [the market] now has sort of condensed back into the usual suspects," Frank said.
Because this market has seen a lot of buyouts and consolidation, seasoned IT journalist Steve Bigelow issued a word of caution when it comes to choosing an integration platform for your organization's project. Although it can be nearly impossible to prevent, Bigelow suggested to be on the lookout for vendor acquisitions because once a vendor goes out of business or even just lessens its features, it can be highly difficult to move from one integration setup to another.
App integration projects have no blueprint
When an organization initiates a project that involves app integration, there's no blueprint to follow because every organization is somewhat unique.
"The reason why it gets high-minded and philosophical very quickly is that there's really no one-size-fits-all app integration project," Frank said.
At some point, IT teams must dive into their systems' nitty-gritty technical details to figure out how to integrate. Matouk enlisted the help of Mountain Point, a consulting firm in Charlotte, NC that specializes in Salesforce implementations specifically for manufacturers. Because of the unique combination of systems that Matouk had at play, Mountain Point and Matouk ventured into some uncharted territory to identify certain integration paths.
"The challenge in itself was that we really didn't have much of a roadmap -- as far as a proof of concept -- of how this integration has functioned in the past. No one else has done it," said Tony Vagnerini, principal consultant at Mountain Point.
The nuts and bolts of an app integration challenge
Of course, legacy systems often add complexity to application integration problems, even when using an integration tool.
"When you're dealing with legacy systems that are altered by enterprises to suit their particular business, it means that you're having one bespoke system talk to another bespoke system," ISG's Frank said.
And the integration layer in these types of scenarios also has to be tailor-made to that entirely specific environment, Frank said.
Matouk's legacy financial system brought forth significant integration challenges during the ERP implementation with Mountain Point. While Matouk could have switched to a Salesforce-based option to ease integration efforts, it elected not to do so. Therefore, the arduous task of integrating the financial system into the ERP implementation was up to Mountain Point.
"We had to identify a solution to their legacy financial package and allow that to speak seamlessly to the ERP and back to the financial package, as well," Vagnerini said. "The discovery of that architecture was something that we had to formalize. With the pliability on the Salesforce platform and the pliability and intuition of Jitterbit, we were able to get to a solution that obviously evolved with due time, especially leading up to a go-live. But it was successful."
Another thorny application integration problem for Matouk and Mountain Point involved integrating with Magento Community Edition, an eCommerce platform used by Matouk.
Only very limited data came out of Magento, and Matouk was unable to access the data it needed by way of the API, Kiely said.
As an example, Matouk had to figure out how to take a SKU from Magento and transform it into a piece of data that could be written into Salesforce. Kiely and Vagnerini both attested that it took a lot of time and effort to identify a way to bridge this integration gap.
"Instances like that, where the APIs just didn't expose the data that we needed, were areas where we needed to figure out the right workaround and the transformation. And that's all happening in Jitterbit through dynamic lookups between the endpoints," Kiely said.
The key to Matouk solving both of these tricky integration challenges was to determine the system of record and distinguish what components on each side of the fence needed to be tailored to the other, Vagnerini added.
Giving app integration a clearer definition
Ultimately, Matouk's project was successful. Coming out on the other side of this process, Kiely said there are two ways that he interprets app integration. The first way is to see it simply as integrating existing in-house systems and getting data where it needs to be, quickly and effortlessly.
Another, perhaps more forward-looking, way to view this integration effort revolves around intentionally exposing data to all interested parties.
"I always kind of jokingly say that our tech stack actually exposes APIs for a company," Kiely said. "We're not a technology company. Obviously, we're manufacturing company -- one of the oldest industries in the country. But for us to compete effectively and to trade efficiently with all of our big customers -- who require data in certain formats and certain places on certain time intervals -- we need to have a really good integration story to get data out and into our internal stack."