Bridging the Cloud and Legacy Environments
By Tony Kontzer
When it comes to integrating the legacy and cloud environments he oversees, Larry Bonfante, CIO of the U.S. Tennis Association, has a simple solution: He doesn't.
Bonfante, whose primary focus is on supporting the annual U.S. Open Grand Slam tennis tournament, has neatly divided the USTA technology environment into three independent buckets: back-office applications, all running on Amazon's cloud infrastructure and supported by his IT team; several hosted consumer-facing applications that run in private data center facilities managed by the likes of Ticketmaster and Active.com; and a handful of standalone apps, such as departmental tools and file/print services, that run in the association's small internal data center.
There are no direct integrations between the USTA's partner systems and its Amazon cloud environment. Bonfante's team receives transaction and reporting data subsets from Ticketmaster and Active, the latter of which hosts USTA's proprietary TennisLink player-registration and event-management app. That data arrives as SQL databases, which are then fed into USTA's Infor Lawson financial app, but Bonfante characterizes it as a simple automated data feed, not a systems integration. In fact, no customer data is actually moved. It's all anonymized before being fed.
"There's not a need for integration with those systems," says Bonfante. "The staff-facing stuff is in the cloud, and the consumer-facing stuff is in our data center. There's no reason to mix apples and oranges."
As organizations have increasingly added software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications and other public cloud resources to their technological bag of tricks, figuring out how to bridge the old and new has become a growing area of focus. And while the USTA has been able to keep things tidily separated, not every company has that luxury.
"A big affect of cloud on the application and data landscape in an enterprise is that cloud tends to be peppered with one-point solutions that do one thing well," says Randy Heffner, an analyst with Forrester Research. "Some people will say that's the strength of cloud. Yes, there are benefits there, but they're not unmitigated benefits. You get into a very heavy fracturing of your enterprise across all of these application silos."
Addressing Integration Issues
Yuvi Kochar knows of what Heffner speaks. Kochar is CTO and vice president of technology at Graham Holdings, a diversified company with businesses in education (Kaplan), online media (Slate), cable and Internet (CableOne), and broadcasting (Post-Newsweek Stations, owner of six local television stations).
Known as The Washington Post Co. prior to Jeff Bezos' acquisition of the Post last summer, Graham finds itself adding more and more SaaS applications in order to meet its varied and specialized needs, and each of those applications needs to interact with virtualized instances of Oracle financials, PeopleSoft HR and Microsoft Exchange running in a private, hosted data center, Kochar reports. There are also on-premise and cloud-based shared services for things such as recruitment automation, learning and performance management, and financial reporting.
The PeopleSoft environment alone has 60 integrations, with pension and benefits providers, a variety of SaaS apps, and several of those shared services. All of the integrations are hard-wired, some with Web services integration tools, and others using FTP servers or data-direct connections. It's the tip of an iceberg Kochar hopes to address in the coming years.
"We're very poorly resourced in terms of integration, but I do want to start migrating away from that," says Kochar. "I don't like this spaghetti of an integration architecture. It works well, but it's a maintenance nightmare and requires a lot of care and feeding."
For instance, a change to any single integration requires at least four weeks to complete because of the sheer number of moving parts that have to be coordinated. That kind of lengthy process is cutting into Graham's agility and slowing its time to market, Kochar says, and that's a big reason he's planning to replace his current integration architecture sometime in 2015.
Because of the growing role SaaS apps are playing at Graham, Kochar says he and his team have been investigating cloud-based integration tools such as SnapLogic and IBM's CastIron as possible solutions. He likes that such services promise to take matters out of his hands by managing any changes to the adapters used for cloud integrations—all while ensuring that applications are monitored for performance and quality.
"If there are changes, they change the adapter, and you can be protected," says Kochar. "Connecting up a new vendor becomes just a configuration. It all sounds good … but we'll see."
Keeping It Simple
Charles Zieres, vice president of IT at the Preferred Hotel Group, has taken an approach similar to that of the USTA's Bonfante: He's opted for keeping integration simple by limiting it to data feeds.
Zieres has an advantage in that he only is running one application that he considers legacy, and it's a Microsoft Access database of details on the hundreds of hotels the company supports. It includes details such as the names of general managers, types of rooms, and where letters and emails should go. That data is fed nightly into Preferred's Citrix desktop virtualization engine, along with data from the company's Microsoft CRM environment and other apps, all of which are running in Terremark's multitenant Infinicenter infrastructure-as-a-service cloud.
Citrix is used to put all that data in the hands of Preferred's 100 mobile salespeople, who can run Citrix on their laptops rather than running multiple clients locally.
Zieres says handling legacy-cloud integration in this way via an outsourced infrastructure is ideal for a company structured like Preferred, whose brands included Preferred, Summit and Sterling.
"It works really well because Preferred Hotel Group is a mile wide but an inch deep," he says. "We have 250 employees spread over 50 offices worldwide. The more global I can have my infrastructure, the better."
That doesn't mean he isn't seeking improvement, however. Because the Access app remains a pain point for his team, Zieres says he's planning to retire it this year. At that time, the Access app will be removed from the Citrix list, and his team will begin feeding the data into the Microsoft CRM.
The other area closest to a legacy-cloud integration Zieres contends with involves the nightly data files Preferred receives from distributors like Travelocity and Orbitz. That data, which must be fed into the company's SynXis SaaS booking engine, comes in two ways: More sensitive data such as credit card numbers and other personal customer data come in as encrypted SFTP files, while non-sensitive data is packaged in unencrypted FTP files.
While the USTA, Graham Holdings and Preferred Holdings have all fashioned rudimentary integration workarounds between their shrinking legacy footprints and growing public cloud environments, Forrester's Heffner dreams of a time when enterprises can rise above the integration fray. He says that if all the siloed applications enterprises rely on today were running on-premise, a service-oriented architecture (SOA) would be the simplest solution to the integration quagmire.
Heffner believes that companies should apply that SOA mindset by designing custom role-based interfaces that move data from multiple applications through a single business service, combining all of a user's applications into a single-sign-on work environment.
"What if I looked at it as a business coherence problem and not a data integration problem?" Heffner asked. "That offers potentially higher business-value integration."