At first glance, hosting applications in the cloud seems to require less setup and operational cost, which accounts for its great appeal. That said, the world is still trying to make sense of how cloud computing can really fit into the enterprise computing puzzle in the midst of so many of the complex challenges we face, like the ever increasing needs for security, continuing dependency on age old legacy systems, ever increasing uncertainty in the current troubling global economic situation, and more. Nevertheless, one thing that is quite clear to me is that cloud computing during this economic uncertainty does offer a great new hope for organizations if only for its "pay as you go" approach.

The realm of the Customer Relationships Management (CRM) has been a hotbed for Cloud computing. Salesforce CRM and Microsoft Dynamics CRM have been the leaders in offering cloud computing services to widely distributed sales organizations of many companies. Today, Salesforce.com is the leader in cloud computing, offering services to around 87,200 organizations as of October 31, 2010.

While organizations might gain a great deal with cloud computing, they still need a means to integrate information back and forth between cloud hosted applications and the others within their corporate infrastructure. Here is where Informatica's Cloud Express might come in handy. Cloud Express promises to provide the engine to schedule and automate cloud integration tasks without having to code custom interfaces to applications hosted on the salesforce.com platform.With over 1000 companies using it and processing over 10 billion transactions per month, Informatica Cloud Express won the Best Integration Application of 2009 and 2008 by salesforce.com customers on AppExchange. According to Informatica, "A pay-as-you-go approach to integration, Informatica Cloud Express is the most flexible, most economical and easiest way to integrate enterprise data with Salesforce CRM and Force.com." The product's pricing ranges from $99 per month to $6000 per month depending on the level of usage and features. Informatica Data Loader used for Ad-hoc data loading and extraction for Salesforce.com is offered for free. For a detailed summary of product offerings and the costs, click here. David Linthicum, in his blog post, "The Value of Pay-As-You-Go Pricing For Data Integration," presented an excellent case for the potential benefits of Cloud Express for the companies requiring lighter as well as heavier bidirectional cloud-to-on-premise data integration.

While the cost of operations with Informatica Cloud Express does seem very promising, traditional data integration challenges such as data integrity / quality, jobs scheduling, summarization and transformations, governance and ownership, etc., can be multiplied with the cloud computing in the picture. Therefore, most organizations would continue to keep the systems of record for the reference and master data like customer master, contacts, product / service categories, item master within their premise. Also, systems that administer basic configuration data or business rules such as the customer contract levels and contract-specific benefit offerings like special promotions are other examples of data that may need to stay within the compound. Cloud applications that support field sales force would require a well planned bi-directional integration with the data infrastructure within the company premise in order to get correct up-to-date information. Similarly, if deals or other transactions are executed within the cloud, they need to be properly posted back to the main backend systems in a timely manner. Cloud data integration, therefore, must be encompassed within the organization's overall Enterprise Integration Management (EIM) strategy utilizing the common services like security, jobs scheduling, batch / real-time services, production support and the like.

In summary, while the pay as you go model with Informatica Cloud Express can make it a very attractive and cost effective tool for data integration in the cloud, organizations taking advantage of cloud computing should realize that the apparent cost of operations with Cloud Express could be just the tip of the iceberg. One should not underestimate the need to budget for an effective overall data integration strategy to ensure that cloud services augment the organization's overall performance and effectiveness.