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What's your cloud integration strategy? If you're like most IBM i shops, much of your data interchange is handled via good old EDI or flat file transfers. But the rapid spread of cloud services is hastening the move to more sophisticated forms of data and application integration and interchange. According to EXTOL which develops integration broker software for IBM i and other platforms, the day is fast approaching when companies will need new techniques for integrating cloud services into their business processes.

EXTOL vice president of product management Jim O'Leary attended the Gartner conference in Las Vegas confessed to keeping his "tech filter" on all the time.

"I know how these things work, and what makes sense and what doesn't," he says. "I will predict the hype around cloud apps and cloud-based integration is going to get much greater next year. Unfortunately, I think that's going to lead some people to believe, it's inexpensive, it's 10 times easier and 10 times better, and it's only when they get into the implementation that they realize what they have to deal with."

Cloud app vendors sell us on a vision of business flexibility and adaptability and "always-on" readiness, and there certainly is some truth to those claims. The capability to rapidly prototype and start working with a new application, for example, brings real business benefits. Targeted business applications with sophisticated iPad interfaces and built-in analytics are becoming the norm, and people will use them. Similarly, industry-specific data feeds from the cloud are becoming more prevalent, advanced, and necessary for day-to-day operations.

However, the twin bugaboos of integration and security are likely to dog the cloud in the near term. The reality is that achieving cloud nirvana--defined as a harmonious co-existence of on-premise and cloud-based apps, with all the boring IT, security, and compliance stuff that entails--will take time and money and sweat and maybe even a few tears before something repeatable and securable and fully integrate-able is worked out.

"The hype will certainly go up, and I think we'll see a lot more people at least dip their toe in the water," O'Leary continues. "I don't see a lot of people who have jumped in wholesale to cloud-based integration. I think that's a few years off. There are many cases where companies are doing very well with EDI and flat files and haven't encountered a big enough requirement to go behind that. But sooner or later, just about everyone is going to be faced with.

EXTOL is preparing for this future with its Java-based integration broker, called EXTOL Business Integrator (EBI). Introduced in the early 2000s, EBI offers all of the EDI transformation capabilities of its legacy EXTOL EDI Integrator for i product, and adds a number of more advanced features, including a process automation manager, transformation manager, application- and database-specific connectors, and a graphical business process flow modeler. The software packages all of these components into a single product, eliminating the need for mid-market customers to cobble together their own enterprise service bus (ESB) solution.

EBI can tackle a range of business transformation tasks that the EDI product can't, including business process integration using XML and SOAP- and REST-based Web services, and database and cloud integration. The software includes managed file transfer (MFT) product features, like support for FTPS and the capability to automatically kick off processes upon discovery of new files, such as transforming the data and reloading it in a different system.

O'Leary admits it can be tough to categorize EBI. "EBI is an extremely flexible product in that respect, and for that reason it's hard to pinpoint how customers might use it," he says. "We get reactions of shock when people see what they can do with a tool like ours. They say, 'Gee, I didn't know I could do that kind of stuff.'"

The last major release of EBI introduced a Smart Mapping feature that helps people connect source and target systems and choose the correct transformation to process. EXTOL estimates it can eliminate 20 to 90 percent of the time needed to create a new map.

The next release of EBI, due out in early 2012, will introduce a new sharable transformation library that EXTOL expects will take integration up another notch. Version 2.6 will feature a cloud-based mechanism for sharing mapping patterns and best practices between EXTOL customers. If a customer has defined and created a map that translates between, say, an EDIFACT file and a SAPiDOC file, that map can be shared with other EXTOL customers Subsequently, that can accelerate the map's roll-out to a greater degree than Smart Mapping could yield.

There will be a learning curve to the new world of cloud integrations, but with the work EXTOL is doing with simplifying transformations, the company is helping to flatten it a bit and masking some of the technological complexity for customers.

Any edge that EXTOL can provide will be welcome as they embark in the new cloud world, O'Leary says. "Customers are going to have to integrate with cloud-based applications and services," he says. "And when they do that, they're going to have to do data integration to back-end databases so they can keep synched up--they're going to have to connect internal apps with external apps. I think that transition is something that just about every company of a certain size is going to face at some point."

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Tags: Big Data, Cloud, Gartner

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