A question I found on Reddit inspired me to write this blog post, and the question was exactly about the ways to manage multiple applications.
So, I decided to elaborate on my answer to this question on Reddit and pinpoint three major options to manage multiple SaaS (but not only) applications as well as highlight their most obvious advantages and drawbacks.
For an obvious reason, I don’t include the option of in-house development – those who can and/or are willing to do this probably wouldn’t ask about the ways to manage multiple applications.
Setting the Framework or a Bit of a Foreword
First, let me be clear about what is meant by managing multiple applications here. The original question stated very clearly that it was about allowing data exchange between several software applications. So, this is what I’m going to write about. Mind you, you might also want to be able to manage multiple software vendors. However, this is out of range of this article’s topic and, therefore, will not be covered here.
Option #1: Ready-made Integration Solutions
There is quite a number of integration services providers out there. Some of them offer pre-defined, already set up integration combinations for rather simple, event-based business use cases. For example, every time a new contact is created in Salesforce, it will be automatically pushed to your mailing list in MailChimp. So, the very first way of managing multiple applications is to make use of such ready-made, do-it-yourself integration solutions. The most prominent players in this area are Zapier and IFTTT, however, make sure to also check out Cazoomi.
You don’t need any programming skills as such providers offer a very nice and intuitive dashboard and navigate you smartly through the entire process of setting up your integration;
You don’t pay much. Actually, IFTTT has been even entirely free so far;
You have hundreds, and I mean literally, hundreds of applications to choose from. Providers in this group usually choose to go down the quantity path, meaning that they provide connection points to as many applications as possible. For instance, Zapier offers connection points to over 500 apps, IFTTT to over 250;
There is little flexibility, as you cannot really customize the integration flows. Take what’s offered or leave it;
Historical data is usually not supported. This means that any data that has been already accumulated in your applications up to the moment of setting up the integration flows will not be transferred – you’ll have to do this manually;
There is no two-way synchronisation. This means that changes to some specific data in the application A will be “communicated” to the application B, but not changes of this same data in the application B will be communicated back to the application A. Tip: there might be a workaround here. See if you can set up two integration flows, one is from A to B and the other one from B to A;
For larger corporate needs, such integrations are too simplistic: e.g. in order to fully integrate a shop software with a CRM software, you’d need to create about a dozen integration flows. Besides, to my knowledge, none of the players in this area offer integrations between a CRM system and an ERP system;
Conclusion: This way of managing several applications is ideal for those who don’t code but need to quickly automate some general routine business processes. In my personal opinion and based on my observations, it suits best freelancers and small to medium-sized businesses.
Tip: To employees at larger companies I would advise to turn to their IT departments and make them aware of the need to set up own, internal integration marketplaces. This way you’ll get deep, granular integration of all applications you use (not only SaaS but on-premise or even in-house developed) which you’ll be able to do on your own while your IT will sleep well at night knowing that you don’t breach any of their security regulations.
Option #2: Specialized Integration Services
I know some might argue with me about such a classification after reading this part, but I personally prefer to view this second group of providers as a separate one. Here I include providers who have specialized in a small number of applications, like for example Pipemonk, Carry the One or OneSaaS, as they usually offer connection points to only a dozen or two of different applications.
It’s not uncommon that such providers have even chosen to focus mainly on 2-3 categories, for example, eCommerce solutions + Finance solutions, slightly extending their offerings by a handful (if at all) of most common marketing or file management applications.
These are usually very good, extensive integrations, quite often offering import of historical data and a two-way synchronisation;
The pricing is relatively low, though usually a bit higher than found among the first-group providers;
I think it would be safe to assume that such providers don’t expect you to have any special technical knowledge. At least, the ones I’ve tried out didn’t, although the setup process was not as intuitive as with e.g. IFTTT;
You can expect that you will get a higher level of customization here. This might not be true for some providers, but I’m sure that many of them will try to meet your needs best way they can.
If you don’t see the applications you use, the provider is actually of no help to you;
Most providers in this group serve exclusively SaaS applications and I haven’t seen any connection points to databases so far either
Conclusion: The second way to manage multiple applications is, therefore, perfectly suitable for those who look for a deeper interconnection of their business-critical applications like ERP or Finance. If this is about you, then your next step would be to find a provider from this group that covers exactly the applications you use.
I personally see this group of providers ideally serving mid-sized businesses, maybe even some larger companies, and maybe some small businesses (depending on how you define “small”). Definitely not freelancers. The reason I see it this way is because such providers usually serve quite mature business-critical applications. Chances are that as a freelancer or a very small business you will probably not use Xero for your accounting purposes or Oracle CRM for managing customers, as the pricing of such applications would be probably much higher than the level to which you’d exploit them.
Option #3: Broad-spectrum Integration Platforms and Tools
This group of providers is a special one as it provides real integration platforms that go together with connection points to many applications (the number of them varies depending on a provider). To the representatives of this group count Snaplogic, Informatica, we in the flesh (i.e. elastic .io) and a couple of other players.
You do need to have a good technical knowledge or, at least, hire IT guys who will set up the integrations for you or even build the integration points to your applications on such a platform
Integration platforms allow very deep, extensive integrations in a consistent environment and with a very high level of security. Besides, it would be safe to say that all of them support many different types of data;
You can build a connection point to any application on top of such an integration platform (or ask a provider to do this for you) and it will seamlessly integrate with any other application on it. This means that it doesn’t matter if your application is already served by a provider or not, or if you need to connect a SaaS application to another SaaS or an on-premise one;
With integration platforms, you have full flexibility of how deep the integration should go, what objects within applications should be connected with each other, how often the data should be synced and so on – hence, you get a very high level of customization.
Conclusion: While integration platforms can cover all integration needs of an any-sized company, it is a better fit for medium-sized and enterprise businesses. The most obvious reason is that larger companies usually have more specific integration needs (like databases or on-premise/in-house developed applications) that are best met by integration platforms. I’d also argue that large corporations place more importance on the security question, and again, integration platforms provide better ways to encrypt data and secure data exchange. So, if you work for a large company, or even better, if you are from IT department at a large company, I would certainly recommend you go down this way to manage multiple applications.
Tip: Depending on your needs, you might want to explore various integration platforms as well as have a look at EAI (Enterprise Application Integration) tools. While all of them do roughly the same, one platform can perform in one particular area better than the other. Enterprise companies have very versatile data management needs where data integration is only a small part of them. Unfortunately, the current state of things is that there is no single integration platform on the market that would meet all enterprise data management needs – an observation made also recently by Gartner. Therefore, while it certainly doesn’t mean that you shall go for a dozen providers at the same time, you might consider teaming up with two-three providers that complement each other ideally.
Managing the Performance of Integrations
Last but not least, speaking of managing the performance of integrations: in all three cases you’ll have dashboards that help you monitor how the exchange of information between your applications is going. Depending on a service provider, some dashboards will provide you with extensive information, some with less so, but the point is – all of them will.
Now a Bit of an Afterword
In the end, it all boils down to the applications you use, your business needs (i.e. how deep, granular and versatile the integration should be), and… your position. I’ll explain: While having written my conclusions from the viewpoint of businesses, I also want to point out that if you are a so-called line-of-business employee (i.e. someone who doesn’t belong to IT to put it very simply), you can turn to any of the three ways of managing your applications regardless of the size of the company you work in. Just bear in mind the requirements (can you code or not?), the pros and the cons, and, of course, the pricing (as a line-of-business employee you would probably not go for the third option).
However, if you are a line-of-business employee, take responsibility for your actions. Better ask your IT to help you become a true citizen integrator rather than support the spread of shadow IT in your company.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author only. While being employed at elastic.io, the author tried to stay unbiased and objective to the utmost extent.