Integrations are The New Black

Just about every app you, and your business uses now has an API. An API is an Application Programming Interface which is just some fancy words for one App to tell another app how they should communicate in an automated way.

An API has a pre-defined series of functions that it will allow. Those functions can be to read data from the app or to write data to the app. Some of the words you will see when researching APIs, especially for web apps, are SOAP, REST, XML, JSON, Web Services and Mashups. For the the business person, there is not that much need to know about the differences in these terms as they are all saying similar things, but if you are talking to a developer, they will definitely need to understand the differences between SOAP and REST, and will most likely have a very strong opinion on the subject.

APIs allow us to use the apps that are the best of breed for the purpose we need. No longer do we need behemoth ERP systems or Accounting Systems that have been re-purposed to do “everything” that the business needs. APIs have allowed Web and Cloud apps to now be the first choice of apps to meet the needs of many small businesses.

You can now use an accounting app, like Xero or Saasu, a CRM app like Salesforce or Microsoft Dynamics, and an Email Marketing app like Campaign Monitor or Mailchimp. You  can choose the apps that do a single job, and a single job well, rather than trying to make something like SharePoint do the lot, or even worse, running the whole business in Excel. The APIs are then used to transfer the data between apps when needed.

An API previously has required  a good programmer to set up the integration, but now that there are so many web apps in common use, there are now web apps to talk to web apps – these are integration apps. This new breed of app allow you to move data between your business apps with a point and click interface that, for the most part, does not require a developer.

These integration apps are great for :

  • Ensuring your data is synced between two apps – eg your CRM and your email marketing.

  • Replacing manual steps you do like exporting data from one app and importing to another app.

  • Automating processes at the click of a button, such as creating and emailing an invoice.

As with all off-the-shelf products, they are great, but there are some limitations. One of the more frustrating limitations of many of the  integration apps is that they offer a  one way sync only. So, you might be able to send the email addresses to your email marketing app, but they will not be able to update the CRM system if the recipient unsubscribes. You definitely need to look into the features of each app to see the features that it provides, for the price.

So, here is a list of some of the integration apps to choose from.

Personal Integrations

  • IFTTT – great for things like twitter, facebook, dropbox, google drive etc. The app is free, so may not be suitable to move your business data around. Have a look at the lifehacker article on getting started with IFTTT.

  • Pushover – a simple app for notifications on your Android or iOS device.

  • On(x) - similar to pushover, but way more geeky – you can code the notifications in Javascript.

  • Hojoki – I would not all Hojoki a true integration app, but it is extremely helpful to get a feed of all the things that are happening in all the apps that you use.

Simple Integrations

These apps are easy to use, very reasonably priced, but may have some limitations.

  • Zapier – probably has the best range of apps to integrate. They are always adding new apps, and features to existing integrations. It is well worth looking at Zapier to start on your integration journey.  There is a free version but many of the business based apps such as Salesforce and Xero are premium integrations. Zapier also has a fantastic interface to learn which apps talk to which other apps, and to set up “zaps”. Just remember that Zapier is one way only, so it is not a true “sync”, and most “zaps” can only be triggered on creation of a new record, rather than updates.

  • itDuzzit – reasonably priced, has a number of apps that it integrates with, and has some great features to build your own integration that can be triggered by a form, email or timer. This app is well worth investigating because it does allow for triggers on update of records, rather than just create.

  • Cloudwork – many apps, like Xero, are shown but don’t have any integrations yet, so I’m not sure of its usefulness yet.

  • Pipethru – looks interesting but a rather confusing pricing model – is Salesforce a premium app? If not, it would be good to use as there is a free account for 2 integrations and 50 transactions a month.

Business Integrations

These apps have more features such as two way sync, and more able to be used for core business functions, such as financial data.

  • OneSaas – this is an Australian app, so has great support for apps that are often used by Australian businesses, and it even has MYOB and Westpac Payway support. It is very reasonably priced, and it is great to be supporting another Australian business.

  • Slyncy – another Australian app. This one is quite interesting because of its SyncDirect product that allows for syncing of apps behind the firewall, like SQL Server, MYOB and even CSV files.

  • Cazoomi – has some good features especially around the email marketing integrations, such as handling unsubscribes back to your CRM system. Works with Microsoft Dynamics, which not many of these apps do.

  • Podbox – not that many built in apps to integrate, but they do have some nice features such as two way sync and reconciliation of the data that has been moved between apps.  However, no pricing on the website is not a good sign.

  • Import2 – this one is specific for importing data into apps like Salesforce and Nimble, but it is worth mentioning because of the good features for importing data.

Enterprise Level Integrations

These ones are way more expensive, will take more effort to set up, but may be useful for large volumes of data or data that is business critical.

  • MuleSoft – this company is very very interesting – it has a few different products depending on the types of integrations required. MuleSoft’s interesting product is CloudHub – rather than a point to point integration, this app allows for point to a central cloud service, then out to multiple points from the cloud. It also allows many transformations of the data in the process. CloudHub also allows for seamless cloud to enterprise connections.

  • Informatica Cloud – they have a marketplace for companies and people to submit prebuilt  integrations.

  • Dell – who would have thought it, but Dell are moving away from selling hardware and into enterprise apps – one of them being an API app – Boomi.

So, hopefully that list will give you somewhere to start with using APIs. As with anything to do with technology, there are some caveats, and it is not all unicorns and rainbows.

  • Remember, paying a monthly fee for an integration app may not be cost effective in the long run, compared to a custom built solution. But it is definitely a way to get up and running very quickly to prove that you need the integration, and to help you define the requirements for your own development.

  • Apps behind the firewall such as Microsoft SQL Server, Microsoft CRM and SharePoint are harder to integrate – there are some that do it – Podbox, Cazoomi, Slyncy and the Enterprise apps.

  • If you have custom fields, some apps may not be able to handle them, so custom development may be required. Some of these integration apps, like itDuzzit, Slyncy and OneSaas provide custom development to get your integrations right.

  • Security is extremely important when using these apps. Most of them will connect using an API token – a long unique string – so don’t share those around. Other apps will use OAuth which allows you to authorise another app to access your app. It also allows for that authority to be revoked from within your app. Sync apps should never ask for a username and password to your app (for a start, that means you would have to update your password each time you changed it in your app – annoying).

  • Be careful with the privacy of your data also – are there any issues with using yet another cloud service to transport your data from one app to another.

  • Depending on your apps, you may not be able to do all the integrations you want with only one integration service. Eg Zapier may be great, but if you use Xero, you are limited to only a handfull of integration services, such as OneSaas and Slyncy.

  • Whilst Integrations are great, do not rely on them entirely. Always have a manual fallback position, and have a way of checking the app is working as you expect it – especially if the integration involves financial transactions.

APIs are here to stay, are big business, and should be part of your business – if not now, then very very soon.

And of course, get in touch with me if you need any help setting up any of these integrations for your business.

Comments

  1. Mandy McKay says

    A great article Jodie and one I’ll be bookmarking for future reference.