Integration in today's world: a practice no longer restricted to integration specialists

Introduction

There was a time when integrating two typical applications required experienced integration specialists. Applications were often very dissimilar and hard to access and the tools used to create integration solutions were equally complex and only really usable by highly skilled and experienced specialists.

Although these cases very much still exist today, we can now also see cases in which people with a lot less technical expertise also integrate applications. This is possible because the applications they integrate are different from the ones we described before, and because the tools which are available to them are also very different from the ones traditionally used by integration specialists.

In this blog post, we’ll describe those differences and how that evolution came to be. We’ll also try to get a glimpse into the future and take a closer look into how we see integration evolve in the coming years.

The past

Many companies have a very varied IT landscape: there are legacy applications running on mainframe systems, purchased applications from an assortment of vendors, custom-built applications written in a variety of programming languages and various database systems, all running on different platforms. A lot of companies also have added cloud applications included in their portfolio, or have migrated on-premise applications to the cloud.

Integrating between these applications was rarely an easy task: each application had its own way of communicating with other applications. Some read CSV files from disk, others accept only XML requests via an HTTP listener, or post responses to an IBM MQ queue. Integration tasks thus typically included transforming messages from one format to another, converting communication protocols and filtering/routing messages to other applications.

These tasks are highly technical in nature and require skills typically only possessed by integration specialists. They also require the use of complex tools such as message brokers and ESB’s, which in turn also belong exclusively to the terrain of integration specialists.

The Present

Today we see that many applications are a lot easier to access because of two reasons: they run in the cloud and/or have a public API. Cloud applications, by definition, need an easy way to be accessed, usually through a web front-end or by invoking their web API’s. In both cases, users are able to access the application from anywhere, which means that they can also be integrated with applications running elsewhere. This is possible because these applications now have a standardized interface.

Because of this evolution, low code/no-code tools such as App Connect, part of the iPaaS solution of IBM together with IBM Integration Bus on Cloud have seen the light. These tools interpret these interfaces and visualize them for non-technical users that have very little knowledge about SOAP, JSON or XML. These tools allow users to select applications, invoke their functionality and do something with the result (like invoking another application). Fields from results can easily be visually mapped to requests without the need for complex transformations or conversions. The integrator doesn’t need to have elaborate knowledge on the underlying technology or infrastructure of the applications he’s integrating. There’s no need for any code to be written to implement these integration solutions, thereby opening up this capability to a whole new range of (non-technical) users.

Here’s what Bram, one of our colleagues with limited integration skills, had to say about his experience with IBM App Connect:

Hi, my name is Bram Deschagt, System Engineer/Infrastructure Architect at LoQutus.

I have no background in computer programming, but that did not stop me in making integrations between applications, both cloud and on-premise. Thanks to a tool like IBM App Connect I can use a no-code approach to configure simple integrations. Using a graphical editor I can draw the dataflows I want, without having to code any logic. IBM App Connect provides a set of adapters for some common cloud applications or you can use a HTTP connector to call a custom-made web service (using HTTP & JSON). The available data objects that you can then use are visualized for you, so you can see what information you want to use and what logic you want to apply. Given this no-code approach, you can integrate applications much faster and with less effort. Also, since IBM App Connect is running on IBM BlueMix, an IBM cloud platform, you do not have to install any servers to get started.

(Just subscribe and try it yourself. Need any help ... feel free to contact us)

The future

Low-code and no-code integration tools will become more important in the future. New applications, especially cloud applications, will expose their APIs with standard technology like REST, OpenAPI or SOAP. As the market share of these cloud applications grows, low-code and no-code integration tools will also grow and become prominent tools in any integration toolbox. These tools will make it possible for less technical people to create simple integrations and even expose APIs. This way organisations will be able to act quickly upon market opportunities. New APIs can be created and exposed in an efficient yet controlled way, and -in combination with an API management tool such as IBM API Connect - even be monetized.

Wim Moons & Niek Jacobsen