Organizations add value and agility when they combine the features and functions of various data, applications and devices throughout their enterprises. The key to a successful integration lies in how IT teams establish and manage those connections. Application programming interfaces (APIs) have become the standard for application integration, but APIs have their limits. For example, some APIs may be rate-limited (calls per second), and not all software uses the same APIs so different applications often require translators or connectors.
Enterprises need deeper data integration, which has led to the emergence of integration platform as a service (iPaaS) technology. Rather than forge such connections in house, a business can use a growing assortment of third-party platforms to create and deploy application integrations within the enterprise, within the cloud and between both locations. Since the resulting integrations are handled as a service, the business can deploy and manage those integrations with no additional hardware or middleware. In truth, most enterprises should explore both iPaaS and API management.
A full-featured iPaaS platform provides a number of important features, including the following:
- scalable and flexible integrations;
- integration development and creation;
- integration deployment;
- integration lifecycle management;
- integration flows and performance monitoring;
- application relationship/dependency monitoring and management; and
- business governance, compliance and security support.
What are the benefits of iPaaS?
What does an integration platform actually bring to the business? Ideally, iPaaS provides a platform for a business to integrate applications and data regardless of whether those assets run locally or in the cloud. It's an ambitious goal, but organizations could realize a variety of potential benefits.
1. Speed and simplicity. APIs greatly enhance the speed and scope of software integration across a modern enterprise, but they must be compatible and share a common structure and syntax. If not, businesses require a custom connector to facilitate communication between applications. This custom integration is a costly and time-consuming software development project that is virtually impossible for the business to monetize as a commercial product or service.
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IPaaS provides ready-made elements to construct and install custom integrations regardless of whether those applications run in house or in the cloud. Business users need only invoke the available iPaaS components and services into suitable workflows to handle the integration. An iPaaS platform generates an integration, such as a custom API, in a matter of minutes, compared with the weeks it may take to create in-house integrations.
2. Scope and flexibility. Modern enterprise IT environments are already complicated, and the creation and maintenance of custom integrations on top of that pose a serious challenge. Consider just one example -- tying a local MySQL database with disparate HR and finance workloads in the cloud, and monitoring that interface to ensure that the integration and data/workflow run properly.
The promise of iPaaS is that it is flexible enough to integrate almost any cloud and local application and synchronize data between those applications. IPaaS platforms typically offer dozens of prebuilt integrations for major applications and services: AWS S3 storage, Microsoft SQL Server, MongoDB, Salesforce, SOAP to REST translations, Twitter and many others. If a prebuilt integration isn't readily available, an iPaaS platform typically provides a script or visual code editor so users can build or modify new integrations or add features such as role-based access control (RBAC) for security or API limits (throttling) for performance control.
3. Scalability Integrations often hinder scalability, even when those integrations are in house. APIs handle a finite number of requests and support limited data traffic, usually related to server and network limitations within the infrastructure. Scalability problems pose particular challenges when the integration must handle high data volumes, such as IoT deployments.
IPaaS services supported by third-party infrastructure scale to handle high volumes of requests and data traffic for demanding workloads. For example, an iPaaS suited to IoT might include a prebuilt message queuing telemetry transport integration and support for large numbers of IoT devices.
4. Cost management. Software development is already expensive and time-consuming. Consider how quickly costs will add up if you add custom integration work to the plates of your busy development teams or your external contract developers. In addition, custom integrations must be deployed to in-house IT infrastructure (servers and storage) which requires additional resources and maintenance.
IPaaS platforms promise to alleviate all of these issues by creating integrations in minutes that deploy to the provider's infrastructure. Pricing can range from less than $1,000 per month to many thousands of dollars per month, depending on the provider and the level of features and services. IPaaS providers include Dell Boomi, Informatica, Oracle, SAP, TIBCO, Jitterbit, Mulesoft and well over a dozen other current vendors. Ultimately, cost considerations are an important factor in iPaaS selection, but they become more predictable and manageable than in-house development.
5. Enhanced security. Most enterprises deal with data sets of proprietary, sensitive or personally identifiable data controlled by a single application. However, increasingly that data is accessed, shared and modified by multiple applications both locally and in the cloud. Diverse and disparate integrations must be designed and monitored to prevent serious security risks.
IPaaS platforms can add uniform security features, such as RBAC, support enterprise authentication technology, such as OpenID Connect, Active Directory and OAuth, and track and log integration access and usage. They also can help to meet regulatory compliance standards such as GDPR, HIPAA, CCPA, and Service Organization Control 2.
6. Centralized management. It's tricky for busy organizations and IT staff to design, build, implement and maintain disparate integrations. It's also rare to find common tools, standards and management practices in organizations with multiple and diverse integrations. IPaaS can provide a single common platform for integration creation, deployment and monitoring. The common platform can impose standards and practices, and offer a single monitoring and reporting system to alert businesses to workload utilization and performance problems.
7. Simplified programming. A business needs programming talent and tools to build and implement a custom integration. IPaaS platforms can vastly simplify development requirements and speed up project development. IPaaS platforms typically include a wealth of common integrations right out of the box, such as Salesforce, SQL, Twitter and dozens more. Services such as monitoring or security features can be added with low-code or no-code tool sets. Some code editors employ visual or flow-based components that ease much of the detailed programming burden involved in application integrations.
What are the challenges of iPaaS?
An iPaaS platform can help ease complex integration challenges and contain and redistribute costs to develop, deploy and scale integration as custom in-house software projects. Still, an iPaaS can also pose problems such as the following:
1. Differing and inconsistent features. Loosely defined, iPaaS connects and manages the integration of local and cloud-based applications, data flows, services and processes across single or even multiple businesses. But the market is still immature and products are dissimilar. Research and evaluate the features, functions and capabilities before you select an iPaaS. It can make the difference between integration project success or failure.
2. Security can be a weakness. The iPaaS goal of quick and easy integrations belies the importance of proper configuration and security implementations. IPaaS is secure only when professionals understand and use appropriate security features, such as RBAC, OAuth and API logging. Delegation of development tasks, including integration to non-specialists, dramatically escalates the risks of security and compliance vulnerabilities and consequences.
The rule is simple: Anyone can use iPaaS, but that doesn't mean anyone should. A knowledgeable integration professional still must oversee the platform and the integrations to ensure everything adheres to the business's security and compliance policies.
3. IPaaS platform limitations. Like any cloud-based service, a third-party iPaaS platform places the demands of performance and scalability on the provider rather than the user. IPaaS is generally perceived as a highly scalable platform that handles enormous volumes of API calls and data movement on demand. In reality, an iPaaS platform may impose detailed limits on the actual performance and scalability of a user's account -- iPaaS infrastructure is finite, and the provider may impose rate limits to ensure it can deliver adequate infrastructure capacity to every iPaaS customer.
Evaluate the scalability of any iPaaS platform against current and future business needs, and consider the cost implications of scalability. Consider other limitations such as platform downtime and availability defined in the provider's SLA -- if there's an interruption with a cloud provider's platform or specific services upon which iPaaS depends, your integrations go down as well.
IPaaS is a relatively new technology that has found traction in an array of integration uses: cloud applications, application data, machine learning analytics, IoT networks, microservices and automated API generation. However, a successful iPaaS implementation can be challenging. Focus on a plan and proof-of-principle testing -- try a variety of iPaaS products, evaluate the product features and functions, weigh the costs, discuss any prevailing iPaaS SLAs and test potential platforms in limited production use. Armed with that knowledge, you'll be ready to move forward with a final iPaaS vendor.