Application integration, or enterprise application integration (EAI), is the process of connecting independently designed software applications so they work together. Businesses rely on application integration to increase efficiencies, automate workflows, and enhance interoperability between different departments and teams.

The key to realizing these benefits is real-time, bidirectional communication and operational data flows between independent applications – be that on premise or, increasingly, across cloud applications as well. With interconnected processes and data exchanges, businesses can orchestrate a variety of functions across all infrastructures and applications, often within a single user interface or service.

Application integration plays a fundamental role in business transformation

Application integration is key to addressing business challenges and driving change in your organization. It can help to:

Top 5 benefits of application integration

Application integration provides important benefits to businesses, including:

  1. Information sharing: Create a single point of access across individual systems to save time searching for information. Users from different departments access updated data, helping to improve collaboration between individuals from multiple departments. 
  2. Agility and efficiency: Business processes are streamlined, increasing overall efficiency. Communication is easier, and work takes less time and effort with better functionality and control. Companies can respond quickly to changes in the market, minimizing impact to the business from unexpected disruptions.
  3. Ease of use: Enterprise application integration provides a single, consistent access interface to multiple applications, eliminating the need for users to learn different software applications. 
  4. Reduced IT investment and costs: By connecting processes across all channels and applications, new and old software systems are easily integrated, reducing initial and ongoing software investments. 
  5. Business process optimization: With access to near-real-time data from applications available via a single click, organizations can more easily leverage robotic process automation and other process optimization technology to facilitate automated workflows.

The evolution of application integration

The need to integrate different applications first came to bear in the 1980s after companies began using technology to connect on-premise business applications. For example, early enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems were commonly integrated with accounting, human resources, distribution, and manufacturing systems, as well as other back-end systems. Integration between these applications took place at the data level (between databases), performed largely by data integration tools and technologies, versus at the application level. 

In the 1990s, cloud-based software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications arrived and it became increasingly clear that a different method of integration was needed to optimize communication between these newer cloud applications and existing on-premises applications. Application integration technologies quickly evolved to handle the communication and harmonization in this new hybrid landscape.

By the turn of the century, application programming interfaces (APIs) arrived – and provided businesses with the ability to easily syndicate data over the Internet, extending beyond organizational silos, and use data from even more sources for deeper, richer insights.

Today, companies of all sizes and industries use application integration to connect processes and data exchanges as well as to drive efficiencies for the business: 

How does application integration work?

Application integration maintains synchronization between applications when an event or data changes. It is different from data integration in that it shares data versus storing it. Instead, application integration directly links multiple applications at the functional level, supporting the creation of dynamic and highly adaptable applications and services. 

The amount of data and time required is modest, as application integration deals primarily with the connection of applications at the workflow level.

Application integration can be cloud-based such as an SaaS CRM application, reside on-premise behind a firewall such as a traditional ERP system, or it can be deployed in a hybrid environment, where cloud applications are hosted on private servers. 

The following components help link applications harmoniously:

  1. Application programming interfaces (APIs): APIs are procedures and rules that define how different pieces of software interact, allowing applications to communicate with each other. APIs tap into the specified data structure to help developers quickly access the functionality of other applications. 
  2. Event-driven actions: An event-driven action occurs when a trigger – an event – kicks off a procedure or set of actions. The following are examples of event-driven actions: the invoicing and billing of a customer after an order is submitted, or managing an opportunity-to-order workflow from an ERP system to a CRM system. 
  3. Data mapping: The mapping of data in one system to another defines how the data will be exchanged, making it easier to export, group, or analyze later. For example, a customer enters information into a contact form within one application. The data is then mapped to corresponding fields in adjacent applications.

Common application integration challenges

When done properly, enterprise application integration can help organizations become more responsive and agile. However, it can also be a complex undertaking. 

With careful planning and the right tools, application integration can help businesses thrive in a competitive environment. Some of the common challenges organizations encounter when implementing application integration projects include:

To succeed, an organization will need a robust EAI strategy, an executive sponsor, and the expertise and skills to guide, build, and execute the strategy, supported by a comprehensive set of application integration tools.

Explore SAP Application Integration solutions

Learn how you can increase business efficiencies, automate workflows, and enhance interoperability across your organization. 

Frequently asked questions

One example of application integration is an e-commerce use case where the front-end business processes (client interactions, online sales) must integrate with back-end processes like inventory management and fulfillment. The company relies on application integration to automate these workflows, ensuring data from each interaction flows seamlessly across all applications.

Process integration is the sharing of events, data, and transactions between business processes that span multiple applications across different departments in an organization –typically in real time. It is also used to extend processes beyond an organization to a customer or a partner.

In many cases, events or transactions are used to trigger a process, such as a sales transaction triggering the process to set up an account in a billing system.

API management is the process of distributing and controlling APIs that connect applications and data. It allows organizations to publish, supervise, and secure API activity to support developers and applications. The process enforces usage policy, controls access, monitors performance, publishes documentation, and monetizes access. 

Companies use API management to democratize secure access to data and services. Businesses can share digital assets and processes, and developer communities can access assets with ease via new channels, devices, and user interfaces. 

IPaaS is a managed service in the cloud that supports application integration for cloud-to-cloud, hybrid, and on-premise-to-on-premise scenarios. The process helps businesses deliver digital solutions faster, accelerating time to market. It reduces dependencies on IT, enhances developer productivity, and provides a unified customer experience.