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Our back office and cloud apps are not aligned. Middleware hasn't solved this problem - but an API architecture can

Matthias Steiner Profile picture for user matthias_steiner August 13, 2020
Aligning back office IT with cloud apps calls for a new, API-driven approach. Neptune Software's Matthias Steiner shares lessons from projects that broke out out of their ERP application silos.

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Many organizations have not one but two IT departments - one runs core back-office systems such as SAP and Oracle, while the other runs cloud-based productivity and customer-facing apps such as Office365, Salesforce and so on.

Too often, the lack of alignment and friction between these two IT departments forms a major obstacle when it comes to overarching transformation and harmonization of application landscapes.

The back-office IT (also called the SAP practice) function is often perceived as merely "keeping the lights on," while their colleagues who look after topics such as big data, IoT and machine learning are seen as nurturing "the innovative cloud stuff." How can these two camps come closer together and agree on a common denominator of digital products to drive a successful digitalization strategy for the company?

There are many reasons for the existence of heterogenous IT landscapes. Business imperatives often dictated that projects move forward without waiting to achieve enterprise-wide alignment. Acquisitions and local initiatives by the various LOBs (line of business) brought in new platforms that gradually extended their reach into other parts of the organization.

How can APIs bring the front and back office together?

Most companies today are operating a hybrid cloud architecture, which recognizes the need to adopt SaaS solutions while simultaneously maintaining their on-premise digital core of central Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) and Transport Management (TM) solutions etc.

Fortunately, it is possible to combine these two worlds in a way that brings out the best in both. We, at Neptune Software, have seen cross-functional teams and a modern approach to technology integration resulting in successful digitalization campaigns among a number of our clients. The technology foundation of these success stories is an API-based approach to integration. API-based integration differs from classic middleware-based integration technologies such as Enterprise Service Bus (ESB) solutions such as SAP NetWeaver Process Orchestration. 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 such as Progressive Web Apps (PWAs), hybrid mobile apps, native mobile apps, or websites. These front-end applications are able to consume and merge data as well as workflows from multiple back-end systems.

Security and user access controls are managed by connecting into LDAP-based single sign-on (SSO) systems such as Microsoft Azure Active Directory. This provides authentication through the familiar user experience that is typically already in place for Office 365 and other applications.

These three elements are the key to successfully providing integration across SaaS, cloud and back-end systems and securely unlocking all of the data and capabilities of your existing IT systems to new digital and mobile applications:

  • A strict API-first architecture
  • Out-of-the-box integration capabilities into back-end architectures, such as SAP S/4 HANA or the SAP Business Suite
  • Ready-to-go SSO setups for LDAP-based market leaders, such as Azure Active Directory to logon via Office 365

APIs as a business asset - field examples

Here are some examples drawn from the Neptune customer base that show the benefits of introducing this API-based integration to combine the power of back-end systems with today's cloud-based development platforms and SaaS applications:

Tobacco industry - self-service access to ERP. A major player in the tobacco industry in the UK has been working with numerous system integrators to provide employees with native applications and PWAs to provide self-service access to ERP resources across the company. The goal is to provide modern, consumer-style apps that allow staff to self-serve HR-related employee functions and other functional processes across the ERP landscape, regardless of background or training.

Connection to the ERP back-ends was implemented through the oData protocol, but the company's IT architects had struggled to harmonize the logon functionality to provide a cohesive SSO experience to all user groups. Integrating Azure Active Directory with Neptune Software's DX Platform provided an authentication layer that supports both offline and server-side authentication to log on to multiple SAP back-ends with the matching SAP end-user. Users can now authenticate using their Office 365 logon to access the existing native apps, while the same capability will enable future digital products to access any desired back-end system within the constantly evolving IT landscape.

Automotive industry - integrating SCM silos. A global player within the automotive industry in the Nordics was challenged by integrating their global SCM architecture to gain central control and insights into isolated silos along the company's world-spanning supply chain. Managing and supporting more than 6,000 suppliers including a reverse supply chain for packaging materials, this monster of a process had been based on a scattered IT landscape, with over 50 major back-ends and thousands of proprietary and often bi-directional interfaces.

It took years for a team of enterprise IT architects to create a technology-driven strategy that finally broke up the technology silos and cracked open organizational silos that were stalling performance improvements along the supply chain. Starting to free up major systems by providing integrated applications and dashboards on top of Oracle's Transport Management solution, Microsoft Azure Data Lake Analytics, as well as multiple SAP S/4HANA back-ends, the team began to use the Neptune DX Platform to replace proprietary interfaces and gateways with a common REST-standard and created a central control system, adding application by application with a common UX design and an Active Directory based single-sign-on.

Finally, we ourselves at Neptune Software have successfully implemented SAP S4/HANA solution in combination with our own platform to integrate Microsoft Azure AD as our identity provider via Office365, and connect multiple third-party services ranging from Salesforce CRM to banking APIs. We have experienced the ability to rapidly adopt to changing business needs and services at scale, as well as our staff's noticeably heightened enthusiasm about the digital tools they are using day in and day out.

Read more about our approach to SAP integration in our white paper.

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