Throughout technology’s short history, one of the biggest obstacles to sharing information was the high level of integration needed to exchange data between disparate systems. Software vendors specializing in middleware sprung up to aid integration between minicomputers and mainframes, between PCs and Macs, between PCs and mainframes.
But with the onset of the cloud, technology has gotten smarter. One of the advantages of today’s cloud architectures are application programming interfaces (APIs). These loosely coupled connections, openly available, are taking the place of tightly coupled integration to make it easier for companies to upload information to the cloud and download it back again. APIs make information exchange much more efficient.
Consider how APIs make information flow more smoothly within a simple supply chain scenario linking suppliers, wholesalers, and retailers. Retailers can upload sales, and the information can flow through the supply chain, notifying others that those items now need to be replenished, either through existing supplies or by triggering the manufacture of new supplies.
Or consider the complicated scenario of predictive maintenance. When a part fails unexpectedly, that event could trigger multiple communications relating to specific metadata: the part name, its item number, and its expected mean time between failures. The failure could trigger communications up to a cloud-based system and then redirected to the product team (in case it needs to be redesigned), to the support team (so they can be aware of subsequent calls), and to customers (so they can be proactively alerted to the problem).
But it’s hard to set up those communications channels if systems have to be tightly integrated. Only through loosely coupled APIs can that kind of information be quickly shared and propagated. The advantages are numerous. Faster communication means faster updates, which translates to more-accurate information. Companies get higher levels of flexibility and greater agility. They save considerable amounts of money through reduced integration costs.
We are well on our way to this world of APIs that can leapfrog network integration, but some obstacles remain. In reality, of course, not all communication can be completely automated. All systems need some level of human oversight to ensure that such communications work properly. Vendors also need to take a more proactive approach to their APIs. They have to publish them, manage them, and make them accessible.
But the ultimate benefits of these potentially complex information flows are significant. By eliminating the challenge of integration, platform vendors could aid the industry by building stable cores and offering APIs for connectivity. Customers’ systems can act like satellites, accessing the core system through a layer of commoditized business processes. Everything learned about making information flow simpler can be propagated throughout the system, so that all participants – vendors, suppliers, customers – get smarter about how they can exchange information. It’s a giant step forward in agility, aided by the simple virtue of cloud APIs.
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