What is Data Integration? An Introduction to Data Integration and Automation Series: Part 1 of 5

Let’s get right into it! Before starting with VL OMNI and really digging into what data integration is, I thought of data integration as a one-size-fits-all solution. But, wow — I definitely underestimated its complexities! So I went back to the beginning to reform my foundation of what data integration is, and thought sharing my journey of discovery with others who might be just starting their exploration into the wide world of data integration and automation approaches

Let’s start with a solid base of what is data integration: Data integration connects disparate applications together, allowing for consistent automated movement and delivery of data to create business processes across a wide range of applications. Data integration plays an important role in the world of ecommerce because it provides users with real-time outlook of business performance and transforms data into valuable, usable information by combining it from different sources. 

Overall, data integration benefits your business, but it isn’t the only ingredient for success. It’s also important to adopt a strategy and approach. Before I explain why, let’s discuss the 5 approaches of data integration, as well as the ins and outs of each approach. 




Approaches to Data Integration 

Contrary to my initial beliefs, there’s not just one approach to data integration (or automated movement of data between applications); are, in fact, several approaches to data integration. Each one is unique and meets different businesses needs. During my self-education on data integration, I discovered that there are 5 broad approaches to data integration: manual data entry, plug-and-play, do-it-yourself (DIY), manual file download and upload, and data integration as a service (iPaaS). I break each down below in a handy table, also including pros and cons for each as it helped me truly understand how each approach is useful in its own way. 

1. Manual Data Entry :

Manual Data Entry: 

Plain and simple, the process involves a person sitting at a keyboard and manually transcribing information based on the information on a  form. 

Pros Cons
Provides a strong focus on your business’ core competencies. Manual data entry has a higher margin of human error. For example, typos like misspelled names, wrong order information, etc. are common.
Depending on the service, it can decrease expenditures.  Manual integration is slow, inefficient, and expensive both in people power and chargebacks for data errors.

2. Plug and Play Data Integration Approach:


Plug and Play Data Integration Approach: Pros Cons
This solution is like an app: either a stand-alone download that you manually configure, or an extension of an application you already use into other common applications. You cannot change parameters or mold it to fit your exact needs, it is not flexible, and in general, these solutions are one-size-fits-all and are low end in their functionality.   It is the best-tailored solution if you have a small to medium size business that has few complexities in their sales and/or supply chain, and low sales volume in general. Plug-and-play integrations are like being stuck in a small box because their functionality is limited and can be a constraint on your business’ growth. 
The use of the plug-and-play approach may be free or cheap.  These integrations typically only manage common workflows at a very basic level; businesses may find that they require more than what’s available.
It doesn’t have long term effectiveness because it doesn’t facilitate scalability or agility for your business. 

3. Do It Yourself Approach/Hardcoded Integrations (DIY) 

Do-It-Yourself Approach: 

This solution involves hardcoded integrations: every change or new integration would have to be manually hardcoded for each project every time. Making this solution structurally rigid. 

Pros Cons
It can decrease expenditures, as it might be cheaper to seek and hire a developer.  This approach is not always effective because the information is being built in a static point of time and in a programming language that is does and cannot evolve with the market without manual intervention. 
This solution is ideal for larger enterprise-level businesses who can hire and maintain a multi-person IT team, as hardcoded integrations require maintenance and extensive documentation. The code is not always documented, and if the integrations are being managed by a single person, these integrations may fail should that person leave.

4. Manual File Download and Upload Approach:


Manual File Download and Upload Approach: 

Similar to the idea of Dropbox, this is almost like a digital version of manual data entry: an individual is responsible for the manual downloading and uploading of files between applications to feign an automatic transfer of data.


Pros Cons
This approach can be cost effective, but in the long haul it can be slow, costly, and constraining.  This approach is limiting for those businesses whose goal is to scale while staying agile to the market as it changes. Once you reach a growth inflection point in your business, you will need to upgrade your data integration solutions to an agile and scalable iPaaS platform like VL OMNI.
It is effective for small businesses with low sales and transaction volumes. Manual file download and upload inhibits businesses from scaling effectively as business rules cannot be applied directly to the data as it moves; manual tasks like field matching or data clean-up post-upload are usually required.


5. Data Integration as a Service (iPaaS) Approach:

Like VL OMNI’s platform, iPaaS solutions have the unique ability to modify and clone integrations in real time as business evolves without having to hit ‘pause’ on normal operations; changes can be made effectively in the background. If a new channel, trading partner, or application is added to the integration system, these integrations can also be duplicated from existing workflows, meaning less time and money to get new connections up and running.


Not only that, but some iPaaS solutions like VL OMNI are able to apply business rules directly to the workflow — or, in other words, your business’ unique treatment of your data between applications can be included in the integration itself. This means no more manual configuration post-automated data movement.

iPaaS solutions like VL OMNI tend to serve businesses with complexity and a growing or high level of transactions and/or sales volumes. iPaaS solutions are how some of the biggest names in ecommerce and multichannel commerce are able to keep up with their own growth while meeting complex objectives like creating a great customer experience from start to finish.


Data Integration as a Service (iPaaS) Approach: 

In contrast to the DIY approach, this solution promotes agility, flexibility, and efficiency and is well-suited for businesses who are growing but do not have their own internal IT team to maintain hardcoded integrations. This solution is the cream of the crop for growing SMB to enterprise-level businesses with some complexity in their channel mix, applications, trading partners, and/or sales/transaction volumes. 

Pros Cons
iPaaS provides businesses with connected networks, supporting processes and a cloud-based system which protects against the loss of valuable data.  Since iPaaS is hosted in the cloud, you need an internet connection for this approach. Although that might seem like a shortcoming, cloud computing does eliminate dependence on a hard drive and locally-stored data.
It promotes efficiency as well as prevents delays in work.  Not all iPaaS solutions are secure. Check for EU-GDPR compliance (this goes for any of your technology partners); VL OMNI is been fully EU-GDPR compliant to further ensure your critical data is air-tight and protected. 
It promotes accessibility since businesses can check on their operations from anywhere around the globe with VL OMNI and some other iPaaS providers.
With iPaaS, speed is never a problem because all of your integrations between your applications can be 100% in real-time (application-dependant).


Integration Strategies:

Just like everything else in the modern world of commerce, integration strategies are changing tremendously! Traditionally, integration strategies have been a technical function from point A to point B, sort of like an extension cord. Now, people are starting to see the value of the use of data holistically within their organization. Data integration has become more strategic as more companies are moving data through a variety of applications and putting it to various targeted uses to achieve goals. A strategy and approach needs to be put in place when considering your data integration approach: just like before you start your car, you need to know your route and your ultimate destination.What are the challenges? Data integration is complex and technical. No matter your expertise level, there are common challenges involved in arranging a strategic data integration strategy that can be mitigated well in advance. Even when companies know that data integration is the missing puzzle piece of their business, they can often be hindered by several challenges:

  • Blurry path: Not knowing where to start in terms of what data should and can be automated can be a puzzle, which is why it is important to have a strategy. At VL OMNI, we understand how confusing data integration at the iPaaS level (and in general!) can be, which is why we work with your to optimize your strategies and workflows via our 25+ years of data movement expertise. 
  • New business demands: Depending on the approach you select, it can be difficult to sustain your current data integration method when there are changes and pivots on business demands. VL OMNI knows this all too well, but our platform is capable of moving data seamlessly through its infrastructure no matter the volume or velocity of data transactions. The velocity and intersection between data generation and data movement is where our strategic planning and consultative element shines. Your data can be moved through the VL OMNI platform as the business grows, accelerates and expands.
  • Integration is done, but the race is not over: Once the integration is implemented, don’t get too comfortable —the race is not over yet! With VL OMNI, our team stays on top of managing your Connectors. In the long run, the VL OMNI approach — iPaaS with our white-glove management of the solution — benefits your business as you will never fall behind industry standards. And we take our own advice, staying on the cutting edge of all things commerce to predict what our customers will need next. VL OMNI is ahead of the curve as commerce is constantly changing. 

What are the benefits? Although strategic data integration can be a complex and overwhelming project, the benefits still outweigh the few bumps in the road (that, as we discussed above, can be managed with a bit of foresight). With the help of VL OMNI, we can make it simple to manage multiple trading partners, marketplaces, and applications without either your team or ours breaking a sweat. Most importantly, you can enjoy your business’ growth without worrying about accessibility or loss of critical information along with other benefits like;

  • Improved business performance by eliminating the need for manual data entry and making sure data is where it needs to be with speed and agility.
  • Reduces data errors and limit the potential of duplicating information. 
  • Increasing the value of data as the information can not only be accessed easily but also understood more coherently. 


In Summary

After much research and clearing up my formerly simple understanding of what data integration is, I have learned that data integration connects different applications together into a unified view, and your approach to automating your data movement is a strategic initiative that can either foster growth or constrain your business over time. This blog discussed the five approaches and each of their most distinctive features. Overall, an iPaaS approach like VL OMNI is the best solution for growing businesses looking for flexibility, agility, scalability, and profit growth. But if there’s anything you should take away from this article, it’s that the key ingredient of data integration is having a clear strategy in place matched to the right approach for your goals prior to implementing any data integration solution. Feel free to save this blog for quick access on looking at each data integration approach! 


Keep a look-out for the next 4 blogs in this series as I continue to learn more about data integration, it’s importance, and common questions that surround it. 


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