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The cloud market is on the rise, with organizations drawn to the promise of increased agility, reduced costs and improved operational efficiency. According to Gartner, the worldwide public cloud services market is projected to grow 21.4 percent, from $153.5 billion in 2017 to $186.4 billion in 2018. Yet, while most organizations are using multiple clouds or deploying hybrid cloud environments, it is rarely part of a thought-out strategy. More often than not, various parts of the business adopt different cloud solutions ad hoc, leaving IT to deal with the messy aftermath.

Creating a successful cloud strategy relies heavily on integration. For example, in order to effectively migrate an application to the cloud, organizations must also migrate and preserve the functionality of each integration connecting that application. Similarly, moving data to the cloud requires that the integrations are preserved between the data source and downstream applications. With a strong integration strategy in place, organizations can assemble best-of-breed cloud solutions rather than locking into one vendor or facing compliance issues as a result of regional regulations like GDPR and PSD2. However, it’s often easier said than done.

Cloud integration challenges

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Yesterday’s organizations were very monolithic with a small handful of on-premises legacy systems. In this world, point-to-point integrations were viable given there weren’t many systems to connect and interfaces didn’t have to be adapted as often.

Then, the world changed as it always does. The Fourth Industrial Revolution rolled in with new platforms and technologies cropping up, including mobile, IoT and SaaS. And in this new business landscape, IT teams continued to turn to the old, familiar way of solving their problems: point-to-point integration.

This old way of doing things is getting businesses into hot water quickly. Legacy systems now have to co-exist with a plethora of applications, data, devices scattered across on-premises and cloud environments. However, specific types of point-to-point integrations cannot be migrated from an on-premises to cloud environment without needing to be rewritten. For example, when database links are moved to the cloud, the host names and certificates need to be changed and the server tunnels need to be rebuilt. As a result, it’s unsurprising to learn that 52 percent of IT leaders blame “difficulties in deploying applications across cloud and on-premises” on point-to-point integration.

The gist is: If you try to solve modern digital transformation requirements with a non-modern approach to connecting applications, data and devices, you end up with a tightly coupled and fragile architecture that makes it even harder to innovate over time. Whether enabling cloud applications and infrastructure to co-exist with on-premises systems, migrating heavyweight web services to the cloud, or enabling applications to be deployed and managed across multiple cloud environments, organizations need to first modernize their on-premises applications, data repositories and services in a way that allows them to co-exist with cloud infrastructure and applications.

The role of APIs

The magic of APIs, or application programming interfaces, is they are language agnostic and can decouple on-premises system data from system-specific complexity. As a result, APIs can serve as intermediates between on-premises applications, cloud infrastructure services and SaaS applications. This API-led approach enables applications moving to the cloud to maintain uninterrupted access to the same data and services that exist on-premises.

Additionally, modern APIs are more than code. They are reusable products that live beyond any one project. It allows API building blocks to be plugged in and out as market conditions or business requirements change—including the need to switch between on-premises and cloud environments. APIs also have a strong discipline for security and governance, enabling organizations to create standardized, accessible and well-defined entry points that are easy to visualize and therefore secure. By standardizing access to IT assets through APIs, organizations can adhere to security requirements when assets are moved out of physical data centers and into the cloud as well as migrating across clouds.

With API-led connectivity, rather than connecting everything point-to-point, key assets become managed APIs that can be discovered by developers in an environment still tightly secured by central IT. The approach also provides organizations with a decoupled architecture that allows for streamlined migration of any application or integration to any environment in a way that minimizes disruption to end-use applications. It also provides IT with an architecture of reusable building blocks that can be used to rapidly connect new cloud-native applications in support of new business requirements.

One of the world’s largest banks, for example, implemented an API strategy and built a multi-cloud application network to ease regulatory pressures and meet growing customer demands for digital services. Turning to the cloud to accelerate IT delivery, HSBC built thousands of APIs published in its API repository that were deployed across multiple environments to unlock legacy systems and power cloud-native application development. As a result, HSBC was able to offer customers more personalized journeys that reached beyond basic finance and insurance needs and helped customers realize their dreams of buying a home, a new car or sending their children to college.

In a business landscape crowded with agile, cloud-native upstarts that change consumer expectations daily, more traditional organizations need to build for change. Organizations can achieve this by unbundling with APIs into scalable building blocks that can be plugged in and out as market conditions shift. (Disclosure: HSBC is a customer of my employer, MuleSoft.)

Whether receiving a top-down mandate or tip from a peer to use cloud or go cloud-first, it’s important to understand what the business reasons and requirements are. For example, why should you use hybrid cloud or multi cloud? Where is it appropriate? Before diving into the cloud realm, start by getting curious and asking questions. The right answers will follow.

This article first appeared on CIO.