Geraldine Cruz, Senior Director, Product Marketing
Moving business applications to the cloud can save you significant time and expenses related to installing, maintaining, and upgrading software. But if you need to keep their data upgraded with other applications you use without data re-entry, you’ll need a solution that integrates them.
Life would be simpler if business applications integrated the way Apple devices sync music and videos with Apple iCloud. And the good news is … with cloud applications, you may be able to get close. The integration may not be a one-click-sync, but you can find an integration that fits your workflow and isn’t daunting.
But deciphering the technical jargon and determining what makes sense for your business can be a hurdle. This blog post is targeted at beginners who want to know the fundamentals about integrations. The discussions are organized around common questions asked about integrations, syncs, and import/export:
- What does it really mean when an application “integrates” with other applications?
- What’s the difference between import/export and sync?
- What are the top things I should be aware of as I evaluate integration options?
- How difficult is it to use import/export?
- Is sync plug-and-play?
1. What does it mean when an application “integrates” with other applications?
When an application is said to “integrate” with other applications, that means that data may be updated across them. As a result, users get to use and work with a consistent set of data across the applications.
The integration may be accomplished in a number of different ways, which can impact the work that the user must do to keep the data consistent. Two common methods used by cloud-based applications are import/export and sync. These two methods can also integrate cloud-based applications with non-cloud applications. Details of the methods are discussed in more detail below.
The integration may be built as a feature of the application, such as:
- Ability to create or import comma-separated values (.csv) files
- Syncs that Bill.com has for QuickBooks® Online, QuickBooks® Windows, Xero®, NetSuite®, and Intacct®
Alternatively, the integration may be a solution available outside of the apps, such as application connectors from third-party integrators like itDuzzit.
2. What’s the difference between sync and import/export?
Import/export is the transfer of data between applications that is accomplished by:
- Creating a file (such as a .csv file) with the first application
- Exporting the file from the first application
- Importing or uploading the file into the second application
For this to work, the first application must be able to create and format a file that the second application can recognize and use.
The term “sync” can have a number of different definitions. At a very broad level, this term is the shortened form of “data synchronization” and refers to the process of keeping data across two or more applications consistent.
In the context of cloud-based applications (and this blog post), syncs are pre-built features that keep data updated simply and easily — usually with the click of one or a few buttons, like the Apple iCloud sync, or using a time-based system that updates data in specific intervals automatically. A sync requires no file creation, manipulation, and upload by the user. The sync feature may be available in the app, or through web-based connectors available from a third party.
3. What are the top things I should be aware of?
Keep in mind a few things as you assess integration solutions:
- Don’t assume that when you add, delete, or change the data with one application that the updates will be made available to the other applications automatically. Instead, when and how the updates are triggered will depend on how the integrations were built and/or configured.
- Data updates may only flow “one-way” — meaning, from one specific application to the other, but not in the reverse direction. Alternatively, the data updates may be “two-way” — meaning that data from one application will flow to the other, and vice versa. Make sure you know the direction of the data flow, and validate that it aligns with your workflow. For example, if you typically work in one application and want the data to be updated to a second application, but the integration is one-way in the opposite direction, then the solution won’t work for you. You’ll need to change your workflow or find another solution.
- The integration may be built to share some — but not all — data fields used by the applications. Before you implement an integration solution, confirm that the data you need to update across applications is, indeed, passed back-and-forth across them.
- Integration does not imply a one-click sync in the style of the Apple iCloud sync. Unless you’re told that an integration happens via sync, you should assume that it happens via import/export.
- Import/export will require a few more steps than a sync would, though the application developer may have created standard process steps to make it easier for you to do. For some systems, such as Sage® Software, Microsoft Dynamics® and other non-cloud applications, import/export is the standard way to integrate data with them; so their processes have been documented in detail. You may have the option to purchase a connector from a third-party integrator that streamlines the process even further. And if you really need an automated import/export process and there are no available connectors, you can get a developer to write an integration script for you. However, when an update for any of your applications is released, you will need to evaluate whether the script still works.
- Integrations may result in unexpected behavior, such as:
- The process stops abruptly when an application does not recognize an unusual character (such as “!” or “?”)
- The application may not eliminate duplicates (ie, “de-dupe” records) that were synced, though the vendor claims it does
- When the integration results in unexpected behavior, you’ve encountered an “edge case,” a situation that the application was not designed to address. The best syncs provide robust error-handling capabilities that can help you address those edge cases in a straight-forward, systematic manner. Ask your vendors what the edge cases are, and how the integration will behave in those cases. Try out the solution on a subset of your data (or a sandbox that does not interfere with your actual data) so you can witness the behavior yourself before you implement.
4. How difficult is it to use import/export?
Don’t sweat if your only option for integrating two applications is import/export. It may take a few extra steps than sync a would. But if an application can create the file type whose format conforms with the requirements of the second application, then your integration will work.
The first time you do an import/export, you may spend time working out kinks and resolving edge cases. But once you complete the first one, future import/exports should run more smoothly. In fact, some import/export systems, such as the one available in Bill.com, allows you to save a template for your imports, making subsequent imports much easier and quicker.
5. Is sync plug-and-play?
Never assume any integration — including any sync — is plug-and-play. Even Apple devices must be configured or “prepared” for the very first sync. Likewise, in order to sync cloud-based applications, you will typically need to configure your applications to perform the first sync. It may not be difficult, and many companies, such as Bill.com, offer documentation and customer support services to walk you through the sync. After that first sync, all future syncs are usually quick and simple.
Using cloud applications does not eliminate the need to integrate applications. The good news is that integrations in the cloud may be simple and relatively pain-free. Arm yourself with as much information about integrations as you evaluate potential solutions. Table 1 highlights the key takeaways from the discussion above.
Table 1. Key Takeaways