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SaaS integration easier said than done

Questions for you Software as a Service (SaaS) devotees about SaaS integration:

Did your vendor give you enough information up front about the potential difficulties of integrating the SaaS application with your existing applications? Were you able to find SaaS user groups to vet concerns before signing on the dotted line?

I am asking because I recently heard a panel of Boston-area IT and business executives talk about their companies’ experiences with SaaS implementations. One company had just gone live with customer relationship management (CRM ) software from Another talked about her firm’s implementation of a time-tracking and scheduling system from OpenAir Inc. The largest company there was weighing whether to go with or the CRM on-demand offering from Siebel. The company had just gone through a labor-intensive migration to an on-premise Siebel CRM solution! (I can’t name names: Press is tolerated at these seminars but only as flies on the wall — ugh, not a very appetizing metaphor on the eve of Thanksgiving, sorry.)

All three sounded like happy campers (the flexibility! No capital investment! No server room!) until the moderator probed about integration challenges. Whoa, Nelly! Out came the sob stories, snags and second-guessing. The guy whose company had recently gone live with Salesforce, for example, basically said his team grossly underestimated the technical conundrums that can occur when there is a “significant difference” between the technology of the in-house database and the “family” of apps and tools. He said that for all the attention they thought they had paid to integration, it wasn’t enough. In retrospect, they should have done a sample movement of data.

“We discovered, frankly too late in the project, that the original technology approach was just not going to work.” In fact, they had to switch integration tools midstream.

Asked if the snags were a matter of his company not asking the right questions or a vendor failure to understand the problems of clients, the guy politely acknowledged it was a “combination,” then pointedly added that the implementers “are very immersed in the Salesforce community and how you do integration within that community, but what we were doing was going outside that community.”

The kicker? On the question of how this SaaS integration compared with other software integrations he’d done — just as hard, or less so? “I think it is substantially harder just because of some of the unknowns in the process.”

The OpenAir gal? There were problems mapping billable and nonbillable expenses to her firm’s accounting system. Manual checks were still required to make sure the coding was right. But the biggest adjustment was having to modify the firm’s business processes to fit the software. As for the big company trying to decide between Salesforce and Siebel, he’s keeping a close eye on how the CRM on-demand solution will integrate with Business Objects reports that currently feed so nicely into his company’s on-premise solution.

All three panelists said that what was really needed was for the SaaS vendors to go public with the potential problems customers will confront if they are integrating outside the family of apps pushed by the vendor. User groups would help. And the user groups should not be for just existing customers, but for prospective customers before they sign the contract.

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As an ex-CIO, I can understand that all of us have made mistakes on migrations (and unfortunately will probably continue to do so), but your description of the issues makes me think that the "buyers" needed to ask more questions (remember the age old phrase - "buyer beware") about integration and adjust accordingly based on the answers (or non-answers) they received....Migration to new software is always challenging, but stating that process changes are the biggest challenge, or that the teams should have done a sample data move unfortunately makes me think that the CIO's adopting SaaS should have done a bit more homework. That said, I am not giving the vendors (Salesforce, OpenAir, or Seibel) a "pass" -- they clearly could have been more helpful, but I learned early on as a CIO that you take nothing for granted, ask way more questions than would seem normal, and then still plan for a VERY challenging migration with contingency built in.....I hope all goes well for these panelists as SaaS does hold great current and future potential for all involved.
As an IT system architect for a large company, I have extensive experience with and integration. Although it's "in the cloud", it doesn't necessarily mean integration will be more difficult than with an on-premise application since a lot depends on your integration strategy. For example, if your integrations are primarily at the database level using direct database connections (i.e., PL/SQL), then integration will be difficult without an integration tool that sits between Salesforce and your database (CastIron, Relational Junction, etc.). However, if your integrations are more modern SOAP / web services or TIBCO, then integration to Salesforce will in most cases be easier due to the very open and robust API Salesforce provides. There have been a lot of misconceptions about integrating with Salesforce versus an on-premise application like Siebel. My experience over the last few years has shown integrations are actually easier -- not harder with Salesforce than our previous on-premise CRM system.