Supply Chain Apps: Integration Made Sexy

Data integration: At its best, it is the silent hero that makes the modern supply chain run. At its worst, it is a long-forgotten dark closet of ad-hoc code written by former employees and consultants, strung together by CRON jobs and web servers whose purpose no one understands, but cannot be shut down because they might be running some code in an undocumented critical path. Pretty grim? Like I said, worst case. The integration hangover starts the day after the feature party ends.

Photo by Monique Carrati on Unsplash 

Photo by Monique Carrati on Unsplash 

When I try to understand why things are a certain way in the software space, I start by looking at how the software is bought. The software that publishers are creating is just a response to what buyers are prioritizing. And business units are not often buying on integration capability as a first-tier requirement. Operational leaders get googly-eyed over feature set. Let’s face it, compared to artificial intelligence, big data analytics, and blockchain, integration is a fairly boring afterthought. Dreaming about features is a lot more fun. 

As we start putting our mission critical systems into cloud, however, integration quickly rises to a first-tier requirement (or headache). There is a big difference between buying a mission critical system, such as a warehouse managment system (WMS), in the cloud and putting a documentation and collaboration system (not mission critical) in the cloud. And enterprises are starting to put mission critical systems in the cloud. This trend will not end. Gartner  hit the nail on the head when it recognized that businesses may have thought the cloud isn’t for mission critical systems in the recent past, but that is changing quickly. (Disclosure: My employer, EVS, is a customer of Gartner.)

Remember those days?  

We’ve come a long way from the big, kludgy in-house data systems of the 80s and 90s, the middleware used in the early 2000s and early days of cloud migration. What was once a complicated environment, with expensive, manual processes that required numerous programmers and coders to be the “glue” holding it all together, has dramatically changed. “Middleware” has evolved into a new category of solution to help make this all work: integration platform as a service (iPaaS). 

Embracing iPaaS & modern design ethos

The cloud is more than just a delivery platform, it comes with an ethos and a set of expectations. iPaaS solutions are expected to be easy to turn on, have utility-based pricing, and be secure and reliable. They are expected to be much easier to train and become proficient in, when compared to monolithic on-premise solutions.

The best integration platforms have a way to interconnect legacy systems (so common in the supply chain) and on-premise apps to your cloud services, allowing you to think of your business operations as 1 ecosystem, regardless of where the data is housed. They come with pre-built connectors or use existing templates that have been built by others for Salesforce, CRM technology or other cloud APIs. They also act as a central repository for process and interface knowledge.

Lowering the total cost of ownership and maintainability of integration is a huge factor in minimizing technical debt. Switching to an iPaaS means that your enterprise glue is now documented and standardized.

Our experience in moving to an iPaaS was in replacing a combination of nodeJS bots, scattered REST APIs, web servers and CRON jobs. With a platform tool, our integrations are deployed, monitored, logged, and documented in a single place. 

From a personnel standpoint, iPaaS allows us to bring in outside help more easily and hire people who already know how to use the platform. Programmers who know MuleSoft  for example, would make a seamless transition. But you don’t have to be a programmer or coder anymore. A platform takes integrations out of the sole domain of developers and into the domain of business analysts and non-developer tech staff. (Disclosure: MuleSoft is a vendor to my employer EVS.)  

From a screw driver to a power drill

In the IT world in general, the tools are getting better on every front. Much better. The end of all of this is that we are spending more of our time on the business process and less time maintaining the plumbing. iPaaS is a step forward in that direction. 

Embrace the cloud, embrace integration done the modern way. Consider iPaaS as a core part of your cloud strategy.

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