Automation for All: Connecting Internet Services Into Workflows

4 minute read
Tom Petrocelli avatar

Back in 2005, Yahoo introduced a product called Yahoo! Pipes, an early attempt at creating seamless workflows from unrelated bits of the internet. 

A pipe took information from a source, usually a webpage or RSS feed, and sent it through a series of steps to create a custom output based on parsing, aggregating and crunching this information. 

Yahoo! Pipes never took off. It was hard to use and only succeeded at solving this common internet problem in limited cases. Yahoo decommissioned the product in 2015.

Cloud Services Work Better Together

As is usually the case with a good idea, the basic concept behind Yahoo! Pipes never went away. Even though Yahoo couldn’t make it work — the company was arguably well ahead of the market — several services now do the same thing, but more elegantly (and with more success). 

Three of the most common of these workflow products, IFTTT, Microsoft Flow and Zapier, create information flows by connecting the unstructured information found in common cloud services in one simple interface. They employ a series of sources, triggers, actions and destinations to help move information to where it is most desired.

Why bother? In short: most cloud services work better when they work together. 

Cloud services are pretty useful in and of themselves, but there are always limitations. One piece of software will never do everything or be everything a customer wants. However, when combined with other cloud software services, a more complete solution emerges. Even reasonably integrated suites, such as Microsoft Office 365, can’t do everything by itself. They need help sticking together.

Getting Information Where It's Needed

Automation is another driver. Yes, one can cut and paste from one application to another, but having information move around without human intervention is certainly more convenient. Automated workflows make tying together multiple applications much easier.

Finally, this goes to one of the hallmarks of collaboration: moving information to where it is needed in the form it is most needed. These workflow services enable that form of sharing by making it easy to push information out to several applications at once, allowing people to consume information using vastly different applications. 

Learning Opportunities

Enterprise solution networks had tried to be this kind of information broker for unstructured information for years. But unfortunately, the ESN wanted to be a central hub to which all information flowed. Workflow services are not interested in being the center of the universe. They only shuffle unstructured information to where it is most wanted.

For example, imagine a social media manager. They use a series of tools to help publish corporate messages to a variety of channels, including internal employee channels. 

With a product such as IFTTT, when someone in the company publishes on the Wordpress-hosted corporate blog, it could immediately be reposted to the company Facebook Page, to Twitter, to LinkedIn, to the internal social media management Slack channel, to a general company-wide Slack channel and the link then copied to a spreadsheet which records all company blogs. Each message can be tailored for the specific channel. 

Whew. Imagine doing that by hand. If the social media manager was lucky enough to work in a very rich company, they might have a highly sophisticated social media management tool that does all this. But these workflow services make it possible for even a small company to have this level of automation.

Automated Workflows (Within Limits)

Two technologies have made these services possible: Public cloud computing, which makes software more accessible to other software, and APIs. Together with a central information broker and mover, i.e. the workflow service, information can move freely from one place and form to another, automatically and conveniently.

These products are not without flaws, of course. All are limited by the APIs they can access. This leads to some services having few triggers or only allowing one-way communication. Microsoft’s Skype, for example, can be posted to from IFTTT but has no triggers. That means it is possible to post a message from Slack to Skype but not let someone know via Slack that they missed a call on Skype. Ironically, Microsoft Flow doesn’t even support Skype at this point in time.

Yahoo! Pipes showed the usefulness of building solutions from disparate internet services. Twelve years later that vision has been more fully realized and, with the commonplace nature of cloud services, more useful than ever. 

About the author

Tom Petrocelli

Tom Petrocelli is a contributing analyst with Amalgam Insights. His area of interest is collaboration and new ways of work, developer tools, IT project efficiency, governance, and methodologies, and DevOps.