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The road to SaaS and on-premises integration is treacherous—take a map

Getting fundamentally different applications to play nice is not simple, but with careful planning and a good understanding of your requirements, rewards are well within reach.

Integrating Software as a Service with an on-premises database to keep up with the growing needs of the business may seem easy, but don’t be fooled.

The fact is such an integration can be a headache for an organization that doesn’t take the right approach to ensure that its users always have access to the most accurate, complete and up-to-date data wherever and whenever they want it.

There are two major challenges to integrating cloud apps with on-premises systems, said Matt Haller, principal at Baker Tilly Virchow Krause LLP, an accounting and advisory firm.

“One is to be aware of any limitations or metering the SaaS vendor may do on the volume of data that can be pushed into it in batches,” Haller said. SaaS vendors serve multiple customers and their tenants, he said, and if one of them stuffs the system full of data all at once, that could cause performance issues. “So, what SaaS vendors do is they say you can only upload a certain number of records at a time so they can deliver their performance to their customers,” he said.

That means when companies design their interfaces, they have to be aware of metering or limitations, or they can run into trouble, Haller explained.

“We had a situation where we had a certain limitation but we didn’t know what the limitation was, and we were trying to load a bunch of data into the batch as opposed to streaming it periodically, [which was a problem],” he said. “So the lesson is to know the metering parameters and incorporate them into your design.”

Second, it’s often simpler and cheaper to use cloud integration tools to create the integration interface rather than write a native interface, Haller said.

“They offer great capability at a low cost, and [they] dramatically simplify creating the interface and managing the integration.”

Haller added that a company should select its vendor based on the level of experience it has had with the company’s particular application.

Companies also need to understand what they expect the integration to do for the business, according to Rebecca Wettemann, vice president of research at Nucleus Research in Boston.

“If they’re looking at the different platforms or offerings that are out there, they have to understand how they are treated, and in fact how they can support those sorts of things,” Wettemann said.

It’s also important to recognize that integration providers have “vendor-specific” strengths, she said. “For example, Scribe is very strong with Microsoft products. So if 90% of your work is Microsoft, Scribe is likely to be the vendor you want to work with. But you want to look at what references and capabilities the vendors have for the specific points and applications you are linking to.”

It used to be that SaaS and on-premises systems were difficult to integrate, according to Frank Scavo, president of Strativa Inc., an IT management consultancy in Irvine, Calif.

“Passing information back and forth used to be an obstacle itself,” he said. “But today that’s much less true because systems like, Workday, NetSuite, Taleo all have good functionality in terms of importing and exporting files and exposing their systems to Web services that allow them to integrate very well with third-party systems either in the cloud or on-premises.”

Most organizations have to take a hybrid cloud approach to integrating SaaS with on-premises applications, Scavo said.

“Few organizations these days go 100% SaaS or even 100% on-premises,” he said. “The good news is that many of today’s SaaS applications have a very good ability to import and export data. They also provide Web services that allow them to easily integrate with other applications, whether other cloud applications or on-premises applications.”

Another big obstacle is identity management, Scavo said.

“If an employee terminates, you not only need to disable the employee’s access to your on-premises systems, but you must also remember to terminate his access to online applications,” he said.

Similarly, access rights need to be synchronized between on-premises and online systems, he said. “So if an employee has access only to information related to his or her work group, those access rights have to be managed for both on-premises applications as well as cloud applications.”

Fortunately for businesses, many system vendors are addressing these needs, Scavo added.

“With Microsoft’s Azure cloud, you can implement federated identity management,” he said. “So your Active Directory can manage both cloud access and on-premises system access. Oracle is taking a similar approach with its cloud services.”

About the author:
Linda Rosencrance has written about technology for more than 10 years and has been a reporter for more than 20. A former Computerworld reporter, she is a freelance writer in Massachusetts and also an author of several true crime books.

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