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Automating the cloud, one website script at a time

Cloud-based APIs offer the promise of seamless integration between services. All you need is the programming chops to make the most of them and the bandwidth to keep up with the rapid pace of change of today's most popular services.

Enter sites like Zapier and If This Then That. This new class of Web-based scripting services offer users the ability to craft simple scripts to siphon data out of one cloud-based service and move it to another automatically, no programming expertise required.

The point-and-click interfaces at the center of these Web-based scripting services provide an easy way for users to automate workflows among various cloud services, thereby enhancing each service's value and usability. Moreover, users can get what they want from their assorted cloud services by visiting one hub that connects all their accounts to one another.

Think of it as a pipeline to greater productivity that crosses the consumer/business divide.

One scripting service to automate them all

Even people who don't understand conditional constructs can put them to use with the Web-based service If This Then That (ITTT). The site's service is straightforward: Allow it access to your cloud-based accounts, and it will help you stay on top of your online, cloud-based life by crafting "recipes" you can use to automate specific tasks. Each recipe is triggered by specific events and culminates in specific actions.

For example, you might write a recipe that lets you move files from a Dropbox account to a specific chat in Campfire -- a handy way to disseminate files to a collaborative group the minute you upload them. Or if you maintain your company's social media streams, it might be in your best interest to archive your work in the event of a review -- and ITTT can help set up a script that lets you save every Twitter message or Facebook status update to a stored file in Dropbox.

Creating a recipe is a matter of pointing your cursor at an application's icon and clicking it. First, select the application. Then, select the recipe's "trigger," such as the event that will activate the recipe's script, like creating or uploading a file. Next, direct where you want that bit of data to go and what you want to have happen once it's been pushed to the second app. Then click Create Recipe, and your automated script is written and attached to your user account, set to go off when the triggering event takes place.

The site's greatest strength is in providing tools that manage archiving data on a personal level or sift through social media account activity to direct your attention to the highly relevant updates. It's not all saving Twitter messages to text files; I've set up my account to check my voicemail and create a backup archive of phone calls received and messages recorded. This archive came in handy when trying to coordinate the details of a mortgage application.

One scripting service aimed at the business-class user

Although ITTT has taken off among the BYOD crowd -- amassing more than a million user-created recipes and counting -- the Web-based service Zapier has set its sights on the business crowd.

Its operating premise is very similar to ITTT's: The user selects one service, identifies a triggering event in that service, then selects the service that will react to the data or event generated by the first service. The script that automates this sequence is called a "zap."

But there are key differences: Zapier offers users the opportunity to automate tasks associated with typical enterprise applications like Basecamp, Formdesk, Jira, MySQL, Salesforce, and Zendesk.

Second, while ITTT is free for all recipes linked to a user, Zapier offers tiered pricing based on usage. Users who sign up with Zapier receive five zaps per month for free. Zapier also identifies the transfer of a chunk of data between two cloud-based apps as a "task" and limits the number of free tasks to 100 per month. Because tasks are automated based on zaps, users have to keep an eye on how many times their zaps are triggered per month if they want to continue using the service for free.

Pricing for Zapier ranges from $15 per month for a Basic subscription to $99 per month for Business Plus. Business Plus users can craft as many as 125 zaps with 50,000 separate data transactons. Paid subscribers, from Basic to Business Plus, also receive access to several "premium" enterprise-friendly cloud environments (including BaseCamp, Formdesk, Jira, MySQL, Salesforce, and Zendesk), whereas free users do not.

The future in drag-and-drop scripting

Using a cloud-based service to automate tasks across two cloud services makes ITTT and Zapier tricky to troubleshoot. Moreover, both ITTT and Zapier depend entirely on the consistency and robustness of a wide array of cloud vendor APIs, which can be moving targets, to say the least.

To prevent API changes from disrupting its service, Zapier has cultivated personal contacts at nearly all of the 168 services it integrates, says CEO Wade Foster. This has translated into a heads-up for API changes to come, enabling Zapier to stay in front of the curve and minimize disruptions for customers, he claims. Zapier has also instituted its own early-warning system against changes in the APIs it supports.

Although services such as ITTT and Zapier abstract away the actual scripting needed to integrate these cloud services, they still require users to apply basic scripting logic. ITTT walks users through the process of making two cloud accounts talk to one another, and Zapier provides templates for users to copy. However, anyone using these sites is on their own for assembling the pieces and putting together a working script. Still, it's a small price to pay considering the overhead it would otherwise cost IT to maintain custom integrations between users' cloud service accounts.

That's another facet to the encroaching consumerization of IT. Services like ITTT and Zapier provide an outlet for users to think like programmers. Figure out what data you want to move and find a way to automate that process. The interfaces are prettier and simpler, but the underlying premise is similar.


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