How Workato combines headless workflow with serverless integration

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright September 4, 2018
Workflow automation vendor Workato harnesses conversational computing to provide headless workflow and intelligently connects APIs in serverless integration

Gears © Les Cunliffe -
(© Les Cunliffe - Adobe Stock)
I've been paying a lot of attention recently to two closely linked emerging trends in the evolution of computing. One is the emergence of conversational computing and the resulting trend towards headless applications. The other is the rise of serverless computing alongside an API-centric approach to integration. It struck me after a recent conversation with workflow automation vendor Workato that it is riding both of these trends, and thus provides some insight into where this is all leading.

It turns out that Workato's founders anticipated both developments. "We bet big on conversational interactions," says co-Founder and VP of products Gautham Viswanathan, with the happy result that Workato has been able to ride the rocketship of Slack adoption, posting 5x growth over the past year in the number of paid users accessing their workflow automation via Slack. The Workato platform now contains 380,000 Slack recipes for integrations and automations. Microsoft Teams is also on the rise as a conversational interface to Workato, posting a 3x rise in the number of companies on the platform over the past year and reaching over 14,000 recipes.

This ability to deliver its capabilities headlessly through third-party messaging applications — even over email in some cases — is a crucial departure from previous workflow tools, which have always aimed to own both the worklow and the user interface, says Viswanathan:

You always needed this one central application where all the work and integration happened. This time around we felt that the likes of Slack was going to be the vehicle that more people interact with.

At the same time, Workato built a very modern serverless infrastructure. "We bet very big on containers via Kubernetes," says Viswanathan. "It scales elastically, and makes the infrastructure invisible to our customers."

Intelligent workflow, serverless integration

The traditional way of thinking about Workato is as a SaaS application, and it's true that it's packaged up as a more complete solution than the API gateways and serverless functions associated with AWS Lambda or Google Cloud Functions. But the way that it handles the underlying container-based infrastructure is essentially no different — to the extent that Workato may well end up following Google Cloud Platform's lead in adopting Istio as its service management layer.

Where Workato adds further value is in providing intelligent connections into existing resources — thus making integration serverless. The impetus for founding Workato was the proliferation of cloud applications, says Viswanathan: "Cloud applications were getting adopted in a massive way, providing lots of useful API endpoints." At the same time, API gateways do a good job of exposing legacy platforms and services.

Workato aims to solve the problem of how to easily harness these emerging resources to build intelligent automation. It adds AI smarts and a user-friendly interface to simplify the process of building and monitoring everything from ETL and MDM to RPA and automated workflow.

All this has allowed Workato to build a 3,500-strong customer base in midmarket and enterprise. A common pattern is "pretty viral uptake" within a company, says Bhaskar Roy, VP of Growth. Workato will land in an IT department or a business function, and then adoption starts to flourish within three months or so. By six months, it's typical to see over a hundred integrations in place and 30-40 workflows.

My take

Workato sits on top of the middle tier of a three-layer architecture that I've described as engagement, functions and resources. Conversational applications provide the engagement layer and Workato interacts with these to access the underlying functions and resources in a serverless, API-centric model.

In taking integration and turning it into a readily harnessed, serverless function that can be addressed conversationally, Workato sits on the cusp of two powerful emerging trends. There are other more homegrown ways of achieving this outcome, but Workato has packaged it very effectively.

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