- Integration platforms eliminate the need to manually copy information between cloud applications.
- These platforms are roughly divided into four classes: consumer, small business, mid-market and enterprise.
- The potential growth of integration platforms is enormous, given many are less than 10 years old.
By Sholto Macpherson
When Heather Smith FCA wanted to sell her business books Xero for Dummies and Learn MYOB in 7 Days through her accounting consultancy website, she set up a simple online form to take payments. But Smith also wanted to create invoices in Xero for each sale and match them with the payments coming through Xero’s bank feed. So she came up with a process that completed the loop.
Smith connected her online form and her Xero account to an online integration platform called Zapier. She then created a workflow that automatically pulled the details of each sale from the online form and pushed the product name, dollar value and date of sale into a new invoice in Xero.
“You can have multiple steps in these workflows and it can get really exciting,” Smith says. “You can send data from your online form to your Mailchimp newsletter list as well as Xero. Some people save themselves a huge volume of time.”
The great connectors
Integration platforms have risen to become the essential conveyors of information between myriad business software. At a basic level, they eliminate the need to manually copy information between two or more cloud applications or services.
“Integration platforms have risen to become the essential conveyors of information between myriad business software.”
More sophisticated use cases include altering information as it passes from one application to another, triggering alerts on mobile devices, or initiating automated processes in email marketing or task management applications.
Businesses or hired consultants usually set up these integrations themselves. However, some integration platforms also provide white-label services to software companies. You may select a feature in a business application, such as syncing an inventory app to your accounting software, without realising that the inventory app is using an integration platform to perform that daily sync.
Ironically, there is a very broad field of contenders fighting to be the single data platform for your business.
The integration platforms are roughly divided into four classes, with some overlap: consumer, small business, mid-market and enterprise.
IFTTT’s recipes for success
There is only one real contender in the consumer class. IFTTT is a free service whose name is shorthand for a conditional statement – “if this, then that” – which summarises the purpose of the entire category. If a predefined trigger occurs, then the integration platform will perform a predefined task.
Launched in 2011, IFTTT was the first integration platform to demonstrate the potential for these services. It remains the fastest and easiest to use, which is a significant advantage. The potential of integration services is enormous and quickly becomes very complex; simplicity here is a strength.
Most of its original automation “recipes” connected social media applications with productivity apps. You could record every Facebook post to an online spreadsheet, or if someone tagged you in a Facebook photo, IFTTT would save the image to your online photo service.
Now, it can even connect to bank accounts. In Australia, you can use an IFTTT recipe to transfer money between accounts at ING Bank when you reach certain goals such as your target number of steps on your Fitbit. You can also trigger savings when it’s forecast to rain or when you post a photo on Instagram.
In the past eight years, IFTTT has matured dramatically, creating many millions of recipes every day. In 2014, it raised US$30 million to fund a push into the Internet of Things to become a centralised control pad for devices such as the lighting or thermostat in your home.
Zapier, the king of small business
Zapier, launched in 2012, is the biggest player in integration platforms for small business, with more than 3 million customers using 1500-plus applications. Zapier’s automations or recipes are called Zaps. They operate on the same “if this, then that” principle as IFTTT and can be strung together in multiple combinations to automate repetitive tasks.
Zapier has a free account, although businesses will quickly move to the paid plans, which start at US$19.99 a month (billed annually). More expensive plans increase the number of Zaps you can operate and the frequency at which the Zap runs. For example, instead of checking an online form every 15 minutes, a Zap could check the form every five minutes or even every minute.
One of the most common uses for Zapier is to push contact information between applications for sales and marketing. Say, for example, a fictional accountant called Mary had just paid for a stylish new website. She was worried, however, that when the Contact Us form emailed her a prospect’s details, she would miss the inquiries in her overflowing inbox.
Mary could instead connect the online form, Microsoft Outlook and her task manager Asana to Zapier. Each time an inquiry came through the online form, Zapier takes the name and email address of the prospect and saves it into Microsoft Outlook with two tags, “prospect” and “website inquiry”.
Zapier also creates a task in Asana named “Call prospect”, labels it as urgent, and gives it a due date for the same day. Now when Mary arrives at work each day, her first activity is to look at her to-do list in Asana and call each website inquiry.
Zapier has attempted to make these integrations as simple as possible so that business owners can set up workflows by themselves. However, data is not always in the correct format.
“Say a landing page collects a full name, but the practice management system requires a first name and a last name, you’re going to find it very difficult to match the fields,” explains Tania Allen from Vision Alliance, a consultancy that creates automations in email marketing programs and integration platforms.
While Zapier includes tools for basic data manipulation, you need some experience to understand how to use them. An integration expert may be a better choice for setting up more reliable workflows.
Zapier and similar platforms, such as Automate.io and the recently released Microsoft Power Automate (formerly called Flow), were built to solve 80% of the problems for 80% of businesses. They typically have limitations that restrict their usage to small business. That one-minute refresh cycle is too slow for applications that require instant updates, such as sending the GPS coordinates of a vehicle on a map.
And Zapier isn’t designed to handle extremely high volumes of data, performing very complex calculations on incoming data, or integrating deeply into specific applications.
When you need high volume, fast
There are a bunch of mid-market and enterprise integration platforms vying for the role of connecting mission-critical systems. Platforms such as MuleSoft, DellBoomi and Jitterbit start at US$15,000 and typically charge hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to customers.
Beneath that crowd are a collection of mid-market systems that are highly robust, have powerful features, and support complex workflows. These include Tray.io,
Integromat, Quick Base and Workato, and a business would expect to spend US$10,000 plus a year to use them.
Workato stands out for its work with business chat applications, Slack and Microsoft Teams. Workato creates a formidable mix of recipes or workflows and runs them within the chat interface – effectively turning the chat application into the operations centre for the business.
Workato’s Workbot can show data from marketing, sales, engineering, support and finance apps within chat. A manager can receive and approve expense reports and time-off requests or provision equipment within the chat window, rather than hopping between four or five applications.
The boom is only beginning
All these integration platforms are less than 10 years old. Many businesses are still copying data manually between systems and are unaware that this can be automated with sophisticated rules. The potential growth of this category is enormous, and some accounting firms are helping clients set up these automated workflows to improve the quality of data flowing to accounting programs and operational applications.
The uptake of integration platforms is likely to skyrocket with the entrance of Microsoft. First launched in 2016 as Microsoft Flow, Microsoft Power Automate (rebranded in November) has only 275 connected apps compared with Zapier’s 1500-plus, yet it is clearly going to be a major force in this category.
The addition of “Power” to the title indicates that its workflow recipes will work with Microsoft’s data suite, which includes business intelligence platform Power BI. Microsoft signalled the direction of Power Automate with the beta release of robotic process automation (RPA), which records the tasks of a human moving between applications and manipulating data, then plays it back on demand. RPA covers the gap for all tasks that can’t be automated through software-to-software integrations.
Banks, insurers and many enterprise companies have used RPA to automate thousands of jobs but the technology has been too expensive and difficult to set up for smaller businesses.
By including software integration and RPA in the one platform, Microsoft says Power Automate is “capable of reinventing business processes” for a range of workloads. For accountants struggling with app overload, integration platforms can make life a lot simpler and help you finally eliminate data entry.
OneSaas, the local alternative
Australia’s own integration platform, OneSaas, started at the same time as IFTTT. Built by Corneliu Tusnea, a Romanian programmer with a background in building high-speed stock exchanges, OneSaas has found a profitable niche sending information from e-commerce applications to accounting programs.
E-commerce transactions contain more variables than item description and amount. OneSaas codes payment data to specific account codes in the chart of accounts and “classes” in QuickBooks and Xero for more detailed reporting. An e-commerce business can use classes to categorise sales into men’s wear, women’s wear, shoes, electrical, and furniture and report these in the P&L.
“We even do settlements, payouts and fees to make sure it’s reconcilable against any payment and fee. You can reconcile it so that you have a complete data set,” says Jeff Perlman, OneSaas CEO.
OneSaas will also allocate taxes for businesses selling goods in countries with complex tax codes. OneSaas’s biggest customer base is in the US, which operates with 51 state tax codes, city taxes and federal taxes.
What you need to know about 12 of the most popular cloud integrators
The table below outlines some of the key facts users need to know about 12 of the most popular cloud integrators. The options listed here are by no means exhaustive. A product's inclusion should not be regarded as an endorsement by Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand. Information included in this guide has come from the relevant vendors or associated websites. Prices may be subject to change.
|Product||Upfront and continuing costs||Available training||Support||Number of integrated apps||Max. number of operations||Data transfer limit|
|Integromat||Offers a free subscription plan. More comprehensive plans start from US$9 a month.||Documentations and tutorials (both written and video). An lntegromat Academy is being launched in the coming months.||Online support. Priority support is given to those on paid subscriptions.||350+
||1000 (for a free plan)||100 MB (for a free plan)|
|OneSaas||Plans start at A$29 a month when paid annually.||Available workflows to configure will pop up when you connect your apps. The support team can help via chat or email.||Live chat in app and on website 24/5. Email support.||30+||No limit.||No limit.|
|Automate.io||There is a free plan available. Paid plans start from US$19 a month (Startup, paid annually) and US$39 a month (Growth, paid annually) or US$49 paid monthly.||Automation coach, onboarding calls, help docs.||Live chat, email and phone support.||100+||100,000||File uploads not supported, but otherwise no limit.|
|Tray.io||Pricing begins at US$595 a month but custom pricing is offered for enterprise customers. The upfront cost is typically for the initial contract duration billed at the monthly rate.||Training options depend on product tier. All packages include full access to guides and documentation portal.
on product tier: on line help desk, in-app chat + screenshare support, phone
support, dedicated Slack support channel, dedicated customer manager.
||300+||No clearly documented limit.||No
clearly documented limit.
|LeadsBridge||Seven-day free trial. US$39 a month (billed monthly) or US$29 a month (billed annually).||Options depend on plan: documentation, step-by-step tutorials, smart on boarding with an expert.||Depending on plan: in-app ticket system, email support, scheduled calls.||370||Not applicable. Leads Bridge syncs advertising platforms with over 370 tools, and the volume of leads it syncs depends on the product.||25 Gbps|
|Zapier||There is a 14-day free trial for all premium plans. A free plan is available. Starter plans start from US$19.99 per month, billed annually.
||Zapier learning centre educational resources and guides.
||Help centre articles on website. Live chat and email support. Zapier experts for hire.
||200 every 10 minutes on a free plan.||2,000,000 tasks per month on a premium company plan.|
|IFTTT||Free to use.||Automation recommendations for new users. No specific training modules available.||Help centre on website, troubleshooting guides.||300+||50||(Not supplied)|
|Appy Pie||Plans start from A$36 per app, per month.||Online video tutorials.||Help centre on website, live chat, FAQs, on line community forum, ticket submission.||100+||No limit.||No limit.|
|Cloudpipes||There is a limited free plan. Premium plans start from US$195 a month.||Documentation guides and in-person training available.||Depends on plan: online forum, live chat, service desk, email and phone support.||150+||(Not supplied)||(Not supplied)|
|Workato||Free trials are available. Pricing is based on the size of the business and the volume of recipes required. Recipes cost US$1000 per active recipe per year.||Online tutorials and webinars.||Solution articles and community forum online. Live chat and phone support. Submit support tickets via website.||300+||100 per month on a basic plan.||(Not supplied)|
|Dell Boomi||Pricing plans are made on a quote basis. (Plans may start from US$549 a month.)||On-demand, self-guided free training courses.||Support monitoring, email and 24/7 toll-free phone support. Live chat on more premium plans.||200+||5 requests per second.||No limit.|
|Mulesoft||Free trials are available for some plans. Pricing plans are made on a quote basis.||Courses provided, both face-toface and online.||Support portal available 24/7. Level of support and response time depends on the plan.||(Not supplied)||5 requests every 9 seconds.||No limit.|
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