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The only constant in integrating SaaS platforms is change

As businesses shut down legacy, on-premises systems in favor of easily implemented cloud-based alternatives, SaaS integration continues to grow in importance.

Living in a world of multiple SaaS platforms exposes developers to multiple challenges.

As the number of software as a service (SaaS) providers used by enterprises continues to rise, it is a business' IT developers who must build conduits to connect the pieces and create applications to blend each provider's specialty into a comprehensive, user-friendly system.

Instant sign-up by line-of business departments without IT's knowledge may lead to hasty choices that are a poor fit. Multiple instances of the same SaaS and fragmentation of the industry into hundreds of niche specialty providers may complicate SaaS integration and testing.

Multi-SaaS is easy, maybe too easy

A key challenge in integrating SaaS platforms is getting an accurate count of just how many instances exist within a corporation -- even when it is the same product, according to Liz Herbert, a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research.

"It's not always a matter of integrating different SaaS platforms, but also of integration within the very same one," she said. "In a large enterprise, it is not uncommon to have 12 instances of Salesforce that are unaware of each other, usually because each one was brought in separately under the radar." It is yet another aspect of the phenomenon that has come to be known as shadow IT, or citizen IT.

It happens frequently, according to Herbert, as different corporate departments move on their own to circumvent a recalcitrant IT department perceived as too slow or uninterested. Signing up with a SaaS provider takes just minutes and access is instant, allowing departmental managers to move ahead on their own, without any corporatewide guidance. Herbert said enterprises on an acquisition binge are also likely to find themselves in a similar situation, noting that while each might use the same payroll-processing SaaS, no two implementations are likely to be identical.

Different offerings from the same provider may also present challenges when it comes to SaaS integration and testing, Herbert said. Concur, a SaaS product that specializes in travel and expense management, was acquired by SAP in 2014, yet even today, the two platforms are not fully integrated, Herbert said. "Concur doesn't hook into the rest of SAP, but it is obviously on SAP's roadmap to improve its own integrations."

A matter of movement

Leaving legacy, on-premises applications behind and moving to cloud-based alternatives is a key trend facing developers and testers, according to Ronen Schwartz, senior vice president and general manager of Informatica Cloud, based in Redwood City, Calif. It's also about moving from one cloud-based SaaS provider to another. "With containerization, it's not difficult to change from one cloud to another," he said. "Hybrid architecture is on premises and among multiple clouds, and tests need to be designed for the scenario of picking up from one cloud and moving to another. It's new, fundamental understanding that wasn't there until recently."

Schwartz said two factors are behind the push toward SaaS: an overall lower total cost of ownership, and the ability of SaaS providers to update and innovate faster than typical on-premises IT departments. "You want agility and the best feature set. That's why CIOs are choosing SaaS over legacy applications." As SaaS providers battle each other in terms of pricing and features, switching providers is likely to increase, eased by containerization, he said.

Even if it is possible to inventory every SaaS in use by a company today, a month from now, it's going to be different.
Judith Hurwitzcloud consultant at Hurwitz & Associates

The choices are plentiful. Though Salesforce comes to mind as a leader in SaaS-based CRM, it is far from alone. Although big names Oracle, Microsoft, SAP and IBM all offer SaaS-based CRM products, so do lesser-known companies, including AppShore, Infusionsoft, Marketo, NetSuite, Sage CRM, SugarCRM and others.

Ken Yagen, vice president of products at MuleSoft, a San Francisco-based provider of platform integration and connectivity products, agreed that cloud-to-cloud portability is gaining in visibility. "New technologies, like containers and microservices, allow you to decouple external dependencies," he said. The key to implementing that strategy lies in leveraging APIs. "We recommend taking an API-led approach to connectivity, where you build purposeful APIs that represent various systems, processes and experiences, so that the componentized APIs are reusable and can be modified quickly, without disrupting business processes."

For better or worse, multi-SaaS integration is similar to Forrest Gump's box of chocolates -- CIOs never know what they're going to get. Judith Hurwitz, a cloud consultant at Hurwitz & Associates LLC, based in Needham, Mass., offered what may be the most realistic perspective on integrating multiple SaaS platforms. "Even if it is possible to inventory every SaaS in use by a company today, a month from now, it's going to be different."

Next Steps

Do your developers have the right skills for multi-SaaS integration?

Make sure app integration isn't an obstacle in SaaS adoption

Choosing the wrong SaaS provider can hinder app integration

Dig Deeper on SaaS support and licensing