As your business scales, you’re going to encounter new challenges that you might not have expected starting out. One of these is how you manage your internal apps and company-wide data.
On average, companies use around 88 different applications to run, which prompts the questions: Will every employee be able to get the data they need in the apps they use? Can you keep this data accurate and up-to-date at all times? Is there a way to sync up all your applications, even if they don’t integrate out-of-the-box?
The answers to these questions are yes, yes, and yes — if you pursue enterprise application integration.
Enterprise application integration connects the many different internal applications a business uses to function in an efficient, flexible architecture. It ensures employees can leverage data as easily as possible and prevents data from being closed off to only one department.
And that’s just one benefit of several. In this guide, we’ll introduce you to the concept of enterprise application integration, including its advantages and different types, so you can let your data move uninhibited, improve transparency, and ultimately increase your bottom line.
What is enterprise application integration (EAI)?
Enterprise application integration (EAI) is the process of configuring separate internal business applications and software systems to function together, enabling them to automatically and seamlessly share data and commands. A business’s EAI may involve cloud software, in-house software, or a combination of these.
To better understand what EAI is and why it’s important, imagine a new business. In the early stages, this small business may only need a few internal software tools — say, an accounting program, a CRM, and an email automation tool.
Each of these tools comes from a different vendor and they don’t all integrate with each other. No worries though, since it’s not too much work for the team to move data between these apps manually. Perhaps the CRM and email automation software do integrate after all, making things a little easier.
As this business scales, it will have to take on more software to run smoothly, such as HR software, a content management system, billing and payment processing systems, marketing automation software, data analytics tools, supply and inventory management software, and internal messaging software.
At this point, manually sharing data across all of these is impractical, if not impossible. Also, what if the business wants to replace one tool with another? Sounds like even more work for employees. Eventually, this business will end up with data silos, clusters of data only accessible to one part of the company. More data silos mean less transparency, less collaboration, and slower growth.
Any business that experiences significant scaling needs a way to connect and rearrange applications with minimal human effort. This is where enterprise application integration comes into play. EAI helps businesses by enabling easy data transfers between disparate pieces of software. EAI breaks up data silos, saves employees time and effort, and can lead to better business decisions by providing employees with easier access to more data.
How does an enterprise application integration work?
In the earlier days of enterprise application integration, developers would create in-house integrations between applications. These integrations required a lot of manual effort to set up and maintain.
Luckily, times have changed. Today, most businesses with an EAI enlist one or more system integrator applications to integrate their tools. You might think that solving application compatibility issues with another application is counterproductive — indeed, it can be if done poorly. If done right, however, EAI software makes the process far more achievable, maintainable, and scalable.
Depending on the number and types of applications a business wants to integrate, an EAI may be straightforward, or it may be complex and require several technologies to achieve. EAI systems may also be hosted on remote servers, on-site servers, or cloud servers.
However EAI is achieved, the goal is the same: to join multiple incompatible systems into one central, integrated system.
It’s also important to note that EAI is not a one-and-done process. As your organization scales, you’ll be adding, removing, and regularly swapping out applications based on your company’s current needs. Therefore, your EAI will need to be updated routinely.
Benefits of Enterprise Application Integration
We’ve learned that EAI makes businesses more efficient — let’s now discuss exactly how in more detail.
Less Busy Work
While setting up an EAI infrastructure initially requires time and effort, it’s more than made up for by the amount of work saved across the business. EAI systems automate data transfers, meaning no more copy-pasting between applications and a lot less mind-numbing data entry. EAI lets employees focus their time and energy on more valuable, impactful work.
Additionally, automated data entry reduces the chances of human error that results in inaccurate data, which leads us to the next benefit.
Better Data Integrity
EAI ensures that data is accurate and up-to-date across all relevant applications throughout the company. EAI systems synchronize data in the background, so you can be confident that any changes you make to data in one application will be reflected in other apps.
With more accurate and reliable data, companies can make more informed decisions concerning any aspect of the business, from marketing strategies to sales plays to customer support.
Easier Access to Data
Not only is data better maintained in an EAI system — it’s also easier to locate and leverage by employees. EAI works to eliminate data silos, opening up data across departments and increasing transparency. Instead of bouncing between apps in search of a data point, employees can stay in their usual apps or view reports from a centralized dashboard.
Again, this saves time that can be spent doing more valuable work, and also means employees don’t need to get access to and learn how to use dozens of different applications just to locate the data they need. With easily available data, you can spend your energy on finding insights instead of finding the data itself.
A More Flexible Infrastructure
Scaling organizations don’t usually keep the same set of internal apps for very long. As business needs change, so will the systems which support them. For this reason, it’s crucial that applications can be replaced in a modular fashion, without much impact on internal functions.
EAI systems allow for exactly this — as long as the core EAI software works, companies can swap out applications without risking data loss. There will be some minimal configuration required to ensure the new application works, but it’s much less resource-intensive than moving your data into the new application manually.
Ultimately, EAI provides businesses the flexibility to use the tools they want and facilitates upgrades when the time is right to switch them.
Enterprise Application Integration Models
EAI is more of a concept than a specific model — in fact, there are several ways to achieve EAI for your organization. In this section, we’ll cover four approaches to EAI and which ones you should consider (or avoid).
The first attempts at EAI used a point-to-point model. In this model, developers create unique connector programs for each app-to-app integration. Each connection requires its own separate script to take the data, translate it, then send it to the receiving app.
The point-to-point approach can work as a quick solution for small businesses utilizing only a few applications. However, as the business adopts more tools, this model quickly becomes ineffective. While a system of three apps requires just three connections max, a system of six apps needs 15 separate connections. That’s already a difficult number of connections to write and maintain — imagine an app count double or triple that size.
The next evolution of EAI came in the form of a hub-and-spoke model. This model consists of a central software hub and applications that connect to it like spokes on a wheel. The hub is responsible for receiving data from connected applications, reformatting the data, and sending it to the specified destinations.
While the hub-and-spoke model solves the scalability problems of the point-to-point model, it’s not without its own faults. First, the model still requires developer intervention to send data where it needs to go from the hub, so it's not a hands-off solution.
Also, running all communications through one hub places a heavy load on this component, slowing performance and potentially breaking the hub. And, if the hub fails, the entire network fails. As a result, this model is seldom used today.
Enterprise Service Bus Model
The Enterprise Service Bus (ESB) model improves upon the hub-and-spoke model by combining a centralized data processing component with other distributed means of data transfer. Data transfers are controlled by business rules set by developers, and these rules may be configured to handle a huge range of app integrations. Additionally, the ESB model doesn’t need constant attendance by developers to run.
Of all models we’ve discussed, ESB is the most lightweight to implement for large, complex systems, avoiding the bottleneck issues of a single hub. It's also the most scalable, allowing new apps (or “services”) to be added and removed with minimal changes made to the EAI software.
Middleware broadly refers to any software that works in between an application interface and a computer’s operating system. In the case of EAI, middleware enables data transfer and translation across applications. A company may pick middleware to move data between databases, application servers, or other systems based on need. An example is low-code iPaaS software, which works well for SMBs — see our full iPaaS guide to learn more.
EAI vs. SOA vs. ESB
In your research, you may have come across other concepts related to EAI, namely service-oriented architecture (SOA) and the Enterprise Service Bus (ESB) model. In this section, we’ll briefly clarify the difference between these three similar concepts.
EAI is a process of integrating software applications and software systems across enterprises, making for better data synchronization and easier access to data. EAI handles how data is shared between apps, including how the system formats the data and where the data goes between the sending app and the receiving app. EAI is often accomplished with a set of specialized software integration tools.
SOA is an approach to building software that involves incorporating functions (called “services”) from other pieces of software, which limits a developer's need to build these software components from scratch. For example, if a developer wants to put an interactive map in their app, they could use Google’s Map service instead of creating a map service themselves inside their app.
SOA is also a means to achieve EAI. Unlike the EAI methods we’ve discussed, SOA does not involve a third-party integration solution. Instead, applications expose their services, which are directly accessed by other applications. This creates a web of loosely coupled apps sharing data.
Finally, as we talked about above, ESB is a model of EAI. ESB is oriented toward more complex integrations, and SOA typically makes use of an ESB to make enterprise-wide application integrations possible. Without ESB, a company trying to implement an SOA-based EAI would just have a pool of services with no easy way to link them.
Better Data, Better Decisions
It’s easy to get bogged down in the technical nature of EAI and related technologies if you're new to the space. However, it’s helpful to remember that, at the end of the day, the goal of EAI is to help you and your company make better decisions with higher-quality data.
The more people who can access data in their favorite apps, the more efficient your company will be, saving you time and letting you focus more on the questions that really matter for your scaling business.
Originally published Aug 31, 2021 7:00:00 AM, updated August 31 2021