While This is Awesome, There Must be a Better Way.
This is half an interesting post about how I solved a fairly complicated problem, and half me looking for a better way to do it. The problem I was solving in theory is fairly simple.
I want to import answers from an external survey software into our Salsforce org.
Pretty simple right? Standard import functionality. Nothing too complex. But now let’s build on this.
1) It should be automated. No manual triggering of the import.
2) It should be imported as it is created. Closer to real time than to ETL.
3) The place the data is coming from has no API. We only have direct ODBC access to it.
4) Since the process must be closer to real time, we should use a ‘push’ style mentality for import. The survey software should push the data into Salesforce as it is created, instead of Salesforce requesting it.
6) Solution should be as cloud based as possible. Ideally no code on our servers (we have a cold fusion server we use for a lot of data brokering, but we would like to get rid of it).
Suddenly got harder eh? Right off the bat, point 3 means we are going to need to use some kind of middle-ware (in this case our Coldfusion webserver that can talk to the database). Salesforce has no method to talk directly to a database, as it shouldn’t. Everything is done with API’s these days, nobody directly queries databases anymore. At least they shouldn’t. So my first task was to write an API that Salesforce could access to get it’s data. So I wrote up a simple ColdFusion webservice that queries the survey database, formats the data in a reliable way, and returns a JSON array. While not ideal because it does use our server, at least it’s fairly transparent. It’s just a webservice call that could possibly be replaced in the future if the survey software does release an API in the future.
With the webservice up and running, now I need some Apex code to call out to it, get the data and handle it. So I wrote a nice little Apex method that uses a simple HTTP get with some URL params to invoke my ColdFusion webservice. Now it can get the JSON data. Using the new awesome JSON parser in winter 12 I am able to parse the data into a list of custom objects. Hooray.
So now I need a Salesforce object to store this data right? Actually I am going to want a few. I ended up creating 3 in total. The first object ‘survey’, is just a simple container object with pretty much no fields. The second object, ‘survey entry’ is just an object that will contain all the answer objects for a person in a given survey. It of course has a lookup to the ‘survey’ object, as well as a lookup to a contact, and some other info (when they took the survey, etc). The third object ‘survey answer’ is where the real juicy data is. It has the ID of the question, the text of the question, the persons answer, and a lookup to the survey entry.
So now I modified my Apex class a bit to create the survey answers objects, and relate them to the proper ‘survey entry’ (and create one if one does not exist for this person in this survey yet). Boom, so now all the ‘hard’ work is done. I have a class that can be called that will import the survey data for a person into Salesforce. But wait, how do I actually call this thing? I don’t want this on a scheduler, I want it to get called when new data is available. So I need to make this class itself into a webservice of some kind.
I have a bit of experience with Apex REST so I decided that would be a fitting way to handle this. This class only needs the ID of the survey, and the person for whom it needs to import data. That information is easily included in the URL or in POST fields, so I quickly modified my class to be an Apex REST service. Now it was ready to begin being accessed from the outside world. The question now is, how do I invoke the service itself?
So now I have a URL that when called (with some arguments/params) will invoke my Apex REST service that goes and gets the survey data and imports it. So now I still need to get the survey software to call this URL. Here I use the classic script injection technique to make my cross domain request (because the survey software and my ColdFusion box live on different domains) and it much to my surprise it all worked. If you are curious, the code to do that looks like this.
var headID = document.getElementsByTagName("head");
var newScript = document.createElement('script');
newScript.src = url;
var survey = '12345';
var token = 'mkwcgvixvxskchn';
var contact = '003GASDFADFAFDAS';
newUrl = 'http://XXXXXXXXXXXXX/webservice.cfc?method=importData&survey='+survey+'&token&='+token+'&contact='+contact;
So in the end, this is the process I came up with.
1) User takes online survey from 3rd party site (lets call it survey.com)
3) ColdFusion receives the request, and ‘wraps’ it with the needed authorization information to make a valid HTTP request.
4) Salesforce custom Apex REST class receives the request (with survey id and person id still included)
5) Salesforce sends request BACK to a different ColdFusion webservice, which requests the actual question/answer data.
6) ColdFusion receives request. Queries survey database and encodes database info as an array of JSON encoded objects.
7) JSON encoded data is returned to the calling Apex, where it is parsed into custom objects and committed to the database.
So anyway, here you can see an interesting case study of integrating a lot of different crap using some fairly new methods and techniques. I am totally open to suggestions on how to refine this. Right now there are just so many points of failure that it makes me nervous but again it seems to be about the best I can do. Thoughts and feedback welcome in the comments.