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Choosing an integration solution: Using portals or adapting to others' tools vs. Integration as a Service

We’ve reached the end of our choosing an integration solution series. This time, we’re comparing two very different options: Using ITSM portals and/or adapting to other parties’ tools, and integration as a service.

See other articles in the series:

Alternatively, all of these integration methods are covered in our ultimate guide to integration as a service.

So here’s where it gets a bit hairy: using portals or adapting to other parties’ tools isn’t actually an integration solution — it's more of a means to achieve a similar outcome as integration (collaboration, and information flowing between parties).

Still, companies large and small continue to use portals or buy licenses for their partners’, customers’, or service providers' tools, for a few key reasons. We’ll get into those reasons and how we believe integration as a service can help alleviate the challenges that come with this method.

Overall, we’ll review these two methods across a few key areas:

  • Time to integration 

  • Integration approach

  • Ability to align and coordinate stakeholders 

  • Amount of resources required 

  • Scalability

  • Cost 

Table comparing software integration methods across many dimensions. This table highlights portals and integrations as a service.

What is an ITSM portal? 

End-user portals are a key component of IT Service Management (ITSM) systems, which are used by IT departments to manage and deliver IT services to end-users within an organization. End-user portals provide a single point of access for end-users to request IT services, report issues, track progress and receive updates on the status of their requests.

The main purpose of end-user portals is to improve communication and collaboration between IT departments and end-users, while also increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of IT service delivery. They provide end-users with a self-service platform, where they can request IT services and report issues, without having to go through the IT help desk.

End-user portals typically include features such as: 

  • A searchable knowledge base, which contains information about common issues and their solutions.

  • A service catalog listing the IT services that are available to end users.

  • A request tracking system, which enables end-users to track the progress of their requests.

Generally, end-user portals are a valuable tool for IT departments to improve communication and collaboration with their end-users, while also increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of IT service delivery. 

However, the challenges we’ll discuss below mostly arise when companies use portals to collaborate and communicate with external parties. 

How do companies use portals as an integration method? 

Companies must collaborate efficiently across all business areas and partners to succeed in the market. No matter how fast technology evolves, technological restrictions limit collaboration and stifle growth—especially for internationally active organizations and enterprises. 

Not only that but for the service teams that exist to enable collaboration, technological restrictions continue to hold them back. 

What does business-to-business collaboration really look like these days?

There are basically five approaches to collaboration in IT services:

  1. Other parties adapt to your tools and processes

  2. You adapt to others’ tools and processes

  3. Point-to-point integrations by native connectors or API

  4. Corporate iPaaS solutions to build integrations

  5. Outsourcing your integrations to an Integration Service Provider

The higher up on that list, the lower your majority of IT service operations actually are. Meaning that when you have others adapt to your tools and processes or you have to adapt to others' tools and processes, the way you collaborate (how you actually exchange information) is often cumbersome and manual.

Let’s take an example. 

Say you’re an IT team working with five service providers. You’re trying to do incident management after receiving a ticket that a server is down. You shouldn't have to go around and look into portals left and right to solve the issue—because it could be any of your five cloud service providers' databases or services that are down.

The point: If you do it manually, you don't have the information inside Jira—you have to go to a portal, retrieve the information, and then work the process in Jira anyway. But now, you have to use several tools.

In short, using portals or logging in to other companies’ systems is not integrating—it’s just manual work. Through integration, you automate that information retrieval process. 

So how does this method stack up against the criteria we mentioned earlier?

  • Time to integration: Slow
    As we mentioned, using portals or logging into several systems is technically not integration, and it’s significantly slower than any integration method available.

  • Integration approach: No-code
    Using portals or adapting to others’ tools doesn’t require coding—only manual work.

  • Ability to align and coordinate stakeholders: High
    Since there’s no need for deep technical know-how to use portals or other parties’ systems, business, and technical users can communicate their needs and work with this method.

  • Amount of resources required: No technical competence, but requires a lot of staff and licenses
    The good news: There’s little training or technical competence needed to use this method. However, the staff costs quickly start to add up as your business scales.

  • Scalability: Low
    The more tickets that need to be solved, and the more parties involved in the delivery of a service, the more people-power is needed to get the job done. Using portals or logging in to several systems is not scalable.

  • Cost: Low
    Compared to the up-front costs of a proper integration solution, using existing ITSM portals and buying extra licenses can be a lower cost in the short term.

So, if using portals isn’t the best solution why would a company use them instead of an integration platform or solution?

There could be several reasons why companies choose to use a portal or adapt to other parties' tools instead of using an integration platform in IT service management. Now, we have some thoughts about these points (which we’ll cover in the next section), but for the sake of fairness, let’s hear them:

  1. Cost: Traditional integration platforms or solutions can require significant upfront and ongoing development, customization, and maintenance costs. In contrast, using a portal or adapting to other parties' tools may be less expensive in the short term (and usually the short term only)

  2. Complexity: Some integration platforms can be complex to set up and manage, requiring specialized skills and expertise. Using a portal or adapting to other parties' tools may be easier to implement and maintain, especially if the IT service team is already familiar with the other parties’ systems.

  3. Compatibility: An integration platform may not be compatible with all the tools and systems used by the company or its partners. Using a portal or adapting to other parties' tools may be a more practical solution in the short term if there are compatibility issues.

  4. Security: An integration platform can introduce security risks if not properly secured and maintained. Using a portal or adapting to other parties' tools may be considered a safer option, especially if stringent security requirements exist.

Overall, while integration platforms or solutions provide numerous benefits for IT service management, there may be reasons why a company may choose to use a portal or adapt to other parties' tools instead. 

Ultimately, the decision will depend on a company's specific needs, resources, and priorities in the short and long term. Luckily, there are several integration options available, depending on these needs—we’ll list a couple below.

Point-to-point integrations 

Now, if you build a point-to-point integration, that could work well. You can read our run-down of point-to-point integration from this series here. In essence, building point-to-point integrations with several service providers and their cloud services is quite the hassle, and in some cases, virtually impossible.

iPaaS 

We’ve also covered iPaaS in this series—it’s a good solution for internal integration needs and small to medium businesses with limited integration use cases. However, using an iPaaS to connect to external service providers or customers becomes a challenge as the number of integrations grows.

But in our experience, the areas in which these traditional integration solutions don’t stack up is where integration as a service comes into play – so let’s talk a little more about that. 

What is integration as a service?

The average enterprise uses hundreds of SaaS products and cloud services every day, and as that number continues to grow, so does the need to ensure effective information flow and communication between them. It’s where the initial need for integration came from, and it’s only becoming more complex as businesses and markets mature. 

Enter: Integration as a service

Integration as a service is a service delivery model where customers—typically large enterprises or IT services companies—outsource some or all of their integration needs to a service provider (an Integration Service Provider). Integration Service Providers generally offer detailed integration design and implementation services that link application functionality and/or data with each other and incorporate this into the company’s existing IT ecosystem.

The integration as a service model allows businesses to outsource their entire integration operation, from planning to delivery to maintenance, as well as many of the associated risks. This means businesses no longer need to develop and maintain their own integrations and can focus on their core business.

Why choose integration as a service? 

The integration as a service model serves both enterprises with a sufficient need to integrate multiple services and IT service providers who recognize the difficulty in rolling out and scaling integration solutions to their client's systems.

Enterprises that benefit from this model tend to be more mature businesses with many moving parts, multiple operating locations, and deeply-rooted legacy systems. Also, IT service providers with sophisticated ITSM practices often require a systematic method of delivering integrations to their clients. This use case in particular fits the integration as a service model.

What’s important to keep in mind is that there are several types of integration service providers, and it’s important to choose the one that’s best suited to your industry or integration needs. For example, some integration service providers specialize in EDI, others in healthcare, financial services, or IT. 

Benefits and limitations of integration as a service

Time to integration: Fast

Integration service providers often promise fast time to integration, and for good reason – it’s one of the core outcomes of the service they’re providing. That being said, if your integration needs are in the realm of single tool integration/automation, it may be just as fast (or faster) to get started with an iPaaS tool or a simple point-to-point integration.

For integration service providers, the time to integration depends on a few factors: 

  • The technology the provider uses to deliver the service (their own proprietary technology, an iPaaS platform, or something else) 

  • The provider’s approach to their own service delivery (how quickly they are able to begin, deliver and repeat new customer projects) 

Integration approach: No need to code

Because all of the technical aspects of integration are handled by the integration service provider, there’s no need to have technical integration expertise in-house. 

Provided that the use cases and information needed to flow between systems are clearly defined, the customer generally doesn’t need to interact with the technical side of the integrations. 

Ability to align and coordinate stakeholders: High

Part of the service delivered by integration service providers is learning about the needs of different stakeholders and departments within the business and also understanding the nature of the ecosystem of vendors, suppliers, and contractors that need to be factored into an organization’s integration setup. 

Integration service providers are experts, ready to tackle even the most complex integration use cases, and well-equipped to align and coordinate stakeholders.

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Amount of resources required: Very few internal resources, no technical competence needed

Outsourcing is synonymous with IT service management—whether it be an enterprise outsourcing some or all of its IT function, or a service provider outsourcing the noncore elements of their service to a specialized provider. 

When working with an integration service provider, businesses only need one continuous point of contact to manage the collaboration. 

Scalability: Full scalability

Because integration service providers’ core business is to provide future-proof, high-quality integrations for their customers, it’s in their best interest to make sure their service is able to grow and scale with their customers.

Integrations provided by integration service providers are often inherently scalable, repeatable, and easily customizable based on the customers’ needs. 

Cost: Medium

Now, while we’ve classed this one as Medium, many Integration-as-a-Service customers will realize the return on investment much faster than using an alternative integration method. 

Currently, integration solutions typically come in packaged deals where pricing is generally influenced by:

  • time to implementation

  • staffing considerations

  • the scope of the integration functionality

  • tool and platform choice

  • maintenance costs

The integration as a service model aims to bring a solution to market for a subscription fee, rather than a one-off cost. In practice, you’re purchasing the outcome, not the technology. 

Granted, some integration service providers utilize their own (or others') technology to reach those outcomes, but that technology is used as part of their service, rather than a product that they sell forwards.

The verdict: Continue to adapt to others’ ways of working, or take the plunge into integration as a service?

From our perspective, the verdict is clear: if you want to scale your business, make vendor management smoother, and solve IT issues faster—the solution is to move away from using portals or adapting your ways of working to suit other parties. 

After all, you’ve built your ways of working to suit your business and its growth—so why limit yourself to the tools and systems of others? 

Further reading: The Ultimate Guide to Integration as a Service

For an in-depth look into integration as a service, check out our latest guide: The ultimate guide to integration as a service. Learn about the most significant challenges faced when integrating services, current integration solutions, and the integration as a service model as a new way forward. 

Download it here.