Software-as-a-service (SaaS), generally referred to as cloud computing, offers small businesses a way to gain a range of enterprise-quality technology such as software, services, IT infrastructure and data backup. Even better, business owners can access it all without having to invest in, deploy or maintain the technology that makes a business run efficiently and effectively.
Still, many small businesses remain cautious about operating in the cloud. A study conducted by Forrester Research indicated one of the main reasons for that is concern about integrating SaaS applications with the software small businesses owners already have on site.
So how do you make those cloud-based applications play nice with your existing technology? We spoke with Chandar Pattabhiram, vice president of marketing at Cast Iron Systems, a company that specializes in integrating cloud-based applications, about the business value of integration. A partnership between Cast Iron and HP now makes the Cast Iron integration services available to small businesses.
As an example, Pattabhiram sited a scenario of a sales team using Salesforce.com, one of the leading cloud-based CRM applications. Questions a sales person needs on any given day might include: where are my hottest leads, whats this prospects credit rating, has the customer paid, where are my orders, and whats the status on invoices?
According to Pattabhiram, most companies house this information in back-office systems like Microsoft Dynamics, Oracle, Quickbooks or home-grown systems. Without integration, the sales guy has to call somebody in his shipping or finance departments to get this information, he said.
Not getting that information in a timely way results in disappointed prospects and lost revenue. Integration takes information from disparate areas and makes it available in one location, said Pattabhiram. And, he added, integration applies to other applications beyond CRM.
In this case, Salesforce.com provides that information in a single dashboard screen, but Pattabhiram said that Salesforce, or any other SaaS application, houses the info and makes it available. The middle piece requires someone to collect the information and provide it to Salesforce.com.
You need a solution that handles transferring the relevant information and moves it to your CRM application in real time, said Pattabhiram. This isnt a one-time event, its an ongoing exercise.
Before we get into what Cast Iron does and how that differs from traditional integration methods, lets just note that Cast Iron is one of many companies that integrate SaaS with on-premises technology. Others include Jitterbit, Boomi and Snap Logic. If you need these types of services, look at each vendors products to see which best matches your particular needs.
Traditional Approaches to Integration
There are two traditional methods of integrating applications. The first method involves using an integration package designed for a Fortune 200 company and trying to force a workable solution. That approach is akin to the Grimms Fairytale version of Cinderella, where each step-sister mutilates her foot to in order to make it fit the glass slipper. Its both painful and a poor fit. The associated complexity usually drives people to the second method.
The second way is writing custom code (or hiring a programmer to write it). Aside from the cost involved, Pattabhiram claims that custom code is cranky and prone to breaking over time.
Custom code is fine when things are going well, but it provides no error tracking when things fail, he said. Imagine a scenario where Fedex cannot provide you a tracking number to track a package moving from Dallas to Atlanta this is the problem with custom code; there is no automatic data tracking built in as youre moving data from system A to System B.
A Non-traditional Approach
Pattabhiram calls Cast Iron the Turbo Tax approach to integration. By that he means they use a template-based method as a starting point. The pre-configured templates (TIPs for template integration process), are designed for different scenarios, depending on which applications youre integrating.
A wizard lets you customize for the most common applications such as Salesforce.com to Microsoft Dynamics, said Pattabhiram. This pre-configured method lets us connect the cloud with the rest of the business in a matter of days and for about 80 percent of the cost of traditional methods.
A Partnership with HP
Cast Iron and HP have joined forces and formed a partnership aimed to bring SaaS integration to small businesses. HPs 25,000 VARs (value-added resellers) in the U.S. now offer pre-configured Cast Iron solution on HP servers.
HP customers can obtain the Cast Iron service through a subscription-based model in one of two ways. The first is called Cast Iron Cloud, which is an integration-as-a-service product. The second option, is an integration appliance that runs on an HP server.
Cast Iron says that both methods solve the three main integration problems
The Cast Iron solution for HP customers is offered via a subscription model and can be deployed in two ways: an Integration-as-a-Service offering called the Cast Iron Cloud and a self-contained Integration Appliance that runs on the HP server platform. Both delivery models provide the same "configuration, not coding" approach for HP Channel Partners' customers to solve three types of integration problems:
- Connect SaaS applications with each other (e.g. Salesforce.com and NetSuite)
- Connect SaaS applications with on-premise applications (e.g. NetSuite & MS Dynamics)
- Connect internal applications with each other (such as home-grown systems built on SQL server)
Any small business wants its users to be productive and efficient with the applications they use, and integration is a great catalyst to make that happen, said Pattabhiram.
Lauren Simonds is the managing editor of SmallBusinessComputing.com
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