Cloud-based applications pose tough integration challenges

Even though SaaS applications are now indispensible to many enterprises, their lack of flexibility still presents a challenge around integration and management.

It's hard to find any company today that doesn't use at least some form of cloud computing -- particularly SaaS. But, as cloud technology evolves, so do the challenges IT operations teams face to effectively manage it.

Cloud technology was around long before anyone even used the term. It saw a big uptake with the emergence of free, consumer-grade email services, such as Microsoft Hotmail and Google Gmail -- and those vendors were hardly the first. These cloud-based applications prompted some concern among IT departments, who grappled with whether they should allow staff to use them, and how they would address potential issues around data leakage and security.

Today, IT teams deal with similar issues, but on a much larger scale. Almost any application you can think of, both in the consumer and enterprise markets, is available as SaaS. Often times, business units will deploy these cloud-based applications before they alert IT teams. Even with policies in place, it can be difficult to persuade staff not to do dive into these services without IT involvement. This trend, known as shadow IT, has become a common frustration for technical staff.

What's more, SaaS apps usually offer cost-savings compared to on-premises software, and provide quick, on-demand access to resources. But IT teams still have to work out issues that relate to integration with existing legacy systems -- in reality, many cloud-based applications can be less flexible than the established software we've worked with for a long time. For example, with SaaS, you don't have full access to what's under the application's hood, which limits your ability to fine-tune the settings to fit your specific needs.

Cloud, including SaaS, usually starts off as a solid answer to a particular problem, but teams don't always anticipate these challenges early on.

Hybrid model brings new ops hurdles

Cloud application management is still an entirely different beast for IT teams compared to on-premises environments.

Recently, we've seen vendors try to address the siloed nature of cloud and on-premises applications. Microsoft, for example, has made a big push around identity management with Azure Active Directory, which provides centralized user log-in for both on-premises and cloud-based apps. This helps minimize administration burdens for IT, such as password resets, and also streamlines account management and security. Microsoft has also taken steps to support a more integrated, hybrid cloud model with services such as Office 365.

But, despite these efforts, cloud application management is still an entirely different beast for IT teams compared to on-premises environments. Sure, there are some similarities, but overall, the two approaches remain vastly different. For example, IT teams need to approach Office 365 as an accessible-anywhere platform. This shift in mindset requires them to forget about firewalls and, instead, emphasize multifactor authentication and conditional access. End users will also be able to access SaaS applications from their mobile phones, which makes data leak protection another priority. It's possible to sandbox cloud apps to control what can enter and exit, but, again, these are all things that most IT teams didn't worry about for devices that remained safely inside the boundaries of a corporate LAN.

There's no simple answer

All of this comes down to a big question: How will your IT team deal with this extended application environment, while still maintaining existing on-premises systems? There's no easy answer. In the short-term, you'll have to hone in on the newer cloud technologies in an attempt to implement them right. If you don't, you'll end up with a mess to clean up, such as unconnected applications that users manage themselves without proper data governance.

Take the time to carefully test your new cloud-based applications and learn the nuances of managing them. Furthermore, see if a SaaS implementation is an opportunity to replace legacy systems that are taxing on IT. Upgrade and automate where possible, so you can spend more time learning and doing the fun work, rather than tedious and repetitive tasks.

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