Bring on new IT capabilities faster with API-centric integration

Profile picture for user matthias_steiner By Matthias Steiner March 29, 2021
Summary:
This may not be the perfect time to overhaul your ERP, but you can still modernize IT capabilities with an API-centric approach. Neptune Software's Matthias Steiner shares some real world examples.

Concept of system API centric integration of two partners © alphaspirit.it - Shutterstock
(© alphaspirit.it - Shutterstock)

The past year has shown the importance of being able to rapidly roll out new IT capabilities to help adapt to changing business conditions. Whether it's a new mobile app, a change in customer-facing functionality, or delivering more up-to-date data reporting, businesses have looked to their IT teams to move quickly, but without incurring massive costs or upheaval to ongoing operations.

Even if your core systems are long overdue for an upgrade, this is not the right moment to embark on such a project. Even if you did make a start, it would take too long anyway to deliver the results that the business needs right now. There needs to be a quicker, simpler way to modernize IT capabilities than a wholesale upgrade of the entire technology stack.  

As independent industry analyst Brian Sommer wrote on diginomica last year, large-scale re-platforming projects soak up people, time and costs that are often more usefully deployed elsewhere. He says:

The first question CIOs should be asking is: ‘Can we ring-fence the old ERP and do our transformative initiatives with new/non-ERP technology?'…

IT departments should be looking at solutions that address the white space around old-school transaction processing systems instead of automating the same transaction processing systems again."

We agree with the advantages he outlines of such solutions. These include:

  • Opportunities for all-new value creation.
  • Quick time to value - deploy in weeks not months or years.
  • Do not disrupt existing systems.
  • Often configured by non-IT personnel. 

An API-based approach to integration

Most companies today are already some way along this path. They operate a hybrid cloud architecture, adapting newer SaaS and cloud solutions while simultaneously maintaining the on-premise digital core of ERP and associated systems. But they sometimes struggle to integrate these two worlds so that data and processes connect seamlessly from one to the other.

The key to having the two operating side by side in sync is an API-based approach to integration. This makes it possible to combine these two worlds in a way that brings out the best in both, as I've explained here:

Instead of complex connectors that depend on overstretched IT specialists to build or adjust each integration, the connections are published as APIs to an intermediary layer, where they can be plugged into new digital applications on demand.

This API-based integration layer acts as a standardized 'membrane' around the back-end systems, allowing data to flow freely across systems and into modern frontend applications.

Real-world examples

For a real-world example of this principle in practice, let's take a look at Floridian cane sugar producer US Sugar. The company wanted to give maintenance workers mobile access to work orders in its core systems but wanted to avoid a costly and disruptive upgrade to an existing and highly reliable ERP system. Using an API-based integration approach, US Sugar was able to start testing a pilot app within four weeks and three weeks later deployed it to the first 50 users. The impact was significant, giving managers better insight into outstanding issues and helping them deploy resources more efficiently.  

From harvesting sugar let's move across to building trains, where a similar story of mobile access to a sturdy ERP backend system is told by Hitachi Rail in the UK. Introducing an intermediary platform paved the way to a more user-friendly, service design approach as new mobile apps were introduced. As Gareth Duke, SAP HCM Functional Specialist at the company explains:

SAP + Neptune is now seen by the system as the go-to combination for new developments. Departments are actively wanting to shelve their old Excel-based solutions and bring solutions into SAP with a mobile front-end built in Neptune. 

Another example from the Neptune Software customer base comes from US-based Eastman Chemical, where a set of mobile applications for plant maintenance hide the complexity of the back-end system and make the process of handling those ERP transactions much easier.

Rapidly add new IT capabilities

When coupled with a rapid app development platform, the API-centric approach allows ERP developers to develop new web and mobile apps from within the core system without detailed knowledge of coding norms such as Javascript, HTML5 or mobile frameworks. They can model and define the processes and business logic and expose them in a secure, reliable and automated fashion as APIs, and then rapidly create apps without needing to learn a new platform, tools or skillset. They can also work collaboratively with others across the business to support low-code creation of new apps. As I've previously described:

Used in an ‘app-factory' approach this becomes a strategic in-house custom development platform for the entire workforce, supporting the development of anything from HR employee self-service (ESS) to manufacturing, plant maintenance, warehouse management and so on.

It's also worth noting that, even when embarking on a core system upgrade, this approach buys time to deliver modernization and the quick wins business leaders demand, while continuing to make progress on the larger migration. Read our white paper for an example of how this works in the context of upgrading to SAP S/4 HANA.