6 min

Surely it’s time to realise that the true superpower of cloud solutions is in its Lego-like capabilities to enable interoperability via integrations between various systems. These integrations facilitate the flow of information, streamline workflows, and eliminate the need for manual data transfer or duplicated efforts.

This is the opinion of Tejas Gadhia, lead evangelist for Zoho Developer Platform. Gadhia works with the firm’s core developer proposition, which is made up of a variety of tools designed to empower users of all skill levels (developers first, but with some abstracted tools ranging into usage scope for businesspeople) to build applications, integrations and analytics using what Zoho calls its ‘deep tech’ stack.

“This ability to essentially integrate in cloud enables organisations to overcome the limitations of standalone tools when they are looking to design an end-to-end digital framework,” said Gadhia. “However, designing a successful integration strategy catering to the uniqueness of an organisation requires a deep understanding of the different applications that a business has deployed, the varying functionalities of those applications, plus also the intricacies that govern their interoperability.”

Zoho’s cloud integration playbook (it’s not a real book, it’s virtual, just like cloud, right?) details five core integration techniques, practices, toolsets and wider platform-level approaches. Being able to appreciate that cloud integration is manifestly multifarious in this way and can be applied from a variety of different vector touchpoints is part of the reason complexity can spiral in this area. That said, these five core methods are worth keeping close to our chest.

Also read: Zoho releases e-learning platform TrainerCentral

Five cloud connectors

Written to a defined syntax and designed to connect applications, smaller application components, application services or larger operating systems to one another, APIs have become the stalwart of the connected cloud experience for users in enterprise and consumer environments. Many laypersons may even have a passing understanding of the fact that the little map that shows up in Uber (other rideshare services are also available) is because Google Maps has ‘exposed’ its API for usage in other applications in this way. APIs can also be used in payment gateways or logistics tracking on e-commerce websites etc.

At what might be a less accessible level of comprehension to the average user are webhooks. “Webhooks are a preferred method used to establish event-driven integrations i.e. to trigger an instant notification upon the occurrence of an action on another system. For instance, an email triggered after placing an order on an e-commerce website is usually triggered by a webhook,” explained Zoho’s Gadhia.

The Zoho team say that they also see interest in data sync tools being used for cloud integration. These are used to maintain data integrity across multiple applications or databases. This helps reduce errors and maintain consistency across different systems.

Also core is Integration Platform as a Service (iPaaS), these cloud-based platforms help organisations streamline integrations through centralisation. They offer pre-built connectors and tools that help with data mapping, transformation and orchestration, typically without extensive coding, hence why they have a lot of relevance for Zoho with its reputation for functioning low-code technologies.

Gadhia also points to the use of custom middleware technologies here. These are used when the requirements are more complex and unique and not supported by standard tools. These are preferred across compliance-heavy and traditional industries such as healthcare, banking and manufacturing.

Core integration strategies

So although many organisations may understand the basics well, it seems clear that building an integration strategy that can keep up with the modern business context is a tough task. Increasingly, the Zoho team report seeing organisations deploying successful integration strategies focusing on a number of key aspects of their strategy.

“Aspect number #1 here is the move from admin-driven to user-driven integrations,” clarified Gadhia. “Traditionally, cloud integrations are managed by an integration specialist from the IT team with inputs from business stakeholders. However, this creates bottlenecks, slows down the process and hampers context. To address this, organizations are increasingly empowering end-users to create their own integrations rooted around the principles of customisation, business context and agility. This user-centric approach not only enhances productivity but also improves IT productivity and effectiveness.”

Busting cluster muck

The second element here is a focus on contextual integrations. A transactional approach to integration kills user experience. In an ideal scenario, the Zoho engineers recommend that integrations should not make users feel like they are working on a ‘cluster of different applications’ i.e. pulling and pushing data from each other. To achieve this, organisations should focus on embedding the output of integrations within the user’s natural workflow and application interface. This not only enhances system efficiency but also minimises disruptions and enhances overall user satisfaction.

“Then we come to hyper-personalised integrations,” said clarified Gadhia. “Traditional integrations offer blanket customisations that provide everyone with the same experience. However, users are unique and prefer curated experiences while interacting with their systems. Effective organisations cater to this uniqueness by considering variables such as user profile, previous content and design interactions, usage context, feedback history etc.”

Also here we need to consider optimising API usage. This is of course because every cloud service operates with specific API usage limits. Given these constraints, it’s essential to shape strategies that maximise efficiency. This involves a dual approach. Firstly, the strategy should concentrate on reducing unnecessary API calls by streamlining data retrieval, employing smart filters and utilising caching mechanisms. Secondly, implementing proactive rate limiting and throttling tactics in applications helps control API traffic and prevents sudden spikes that might exceed rate limits.

Evaluating integration strategies

“It is important for organisations to assess if their strategy is working and if it can keep up with the modern business context. Poor integration strategies can lead to the accumulation of technical debt, causing serious damage to the end-user experience. As a rule of thumb, IT teams should look at adopting a better strategy if they find one or more of the below aspects to be true,” tabled Gadhia, before providing us with three cornerstones to consider.

Modernisation: The emergence of new technology leads to modernisation initiatives that will impact all the related applications in the ecosystem. IT teams should evaluate and update their integration strategy to ensure the long-term success of such projects.
Redundancy kills integrity: Multiple applications might need to maintain the same datasets in different contexts. This leads to an asynchronous system, with siloed versions of data being maintained by different teams, leading to data loss and corruption due to redundancy.

Security and compliance: As business processes evolve, applications in the ecosystem increase and so do the potential vulnerabilities. Any change to the integration ecosystem should be thoroughly analysed (Zoho likes to use the term ‘whetted’ as in the act of sharpening a blade) for compliance impacts and flagged for review in case of anomalies. Similarly, any change to the compliance requirements should also be followed by a review and update of the integration ecosystem.

The ‘art’ of seamless integration 

“As organisations increasingly harness the power of cloud-based solutions, the art of seamless integration becomes critical. It’s not just about connecting systems but about optimising workflows, enhancing user experiences, and adapting to dynamic business landscapes. By cracking these intricacies, organisations can truly unleash the potential of cloud integrations to build an agile, efficient, and future-ready digital ecosystem,” concluded Gadhia.

… and you know, he called it an art rather than a science, which probably speaks volumes.

The act of cloud services integration is of course a science, it’s an application of computer science directed at virtualised abstracted cloud instances, services, sliced-up separations and cemented intersections. But, even though it’s a practice founded in scientific algorithmic logic, applying it at the coalface of modern applications is probably something of an art.