Migrating CRM to a standards-based platform: a future based on integration and interoperability

Migrating CRM to a standards-based platform: a future based on integration and interoperability – CRM

Ken Heiman

The next technology evolution–or revolution, depending on how you look at it–is here. Battle lines are being drawn between supporters of Microsoft’s .NET and Sun’s J2EE platforms for creating Web services. The common ground in this battle: the market will head toward Web services.

Web services provides a standard method through which components can communicate and interact. Similarly to how ODBC/JDBC, COM, CORBA, etc., allow interapplication communication, Web services also allow applications to communicate and interact with each other. The difference between Web services and the previous specifications is that there is a set standard to which all platforms adhere. Communications via the SOAP (Simple Object Application Protocol) and XML standards allow applications to consume Web services regardless of their own development platform. Component interaction is no longer limited to an organization’s network; it now encompasses the entire Internet.

The CRM application space has long been an area where universal standards have been seen as a sort of “holy grail” of enterprise application development. The challenge of CRM is to provide a single, enterprise-level view of customers and their interactions. With the advent of Web services, and the varying platforms that can take advantage of them, CRM applications are presented with a unique opportunity to serve as the true information hub for the enterprise.

Gone are the days of the complex, custom solutions that were previously necessary to integrate systems. As the Web services architecture enters the mainstream, CRM systems must evolve to take advantage of the integration benefits provided. With Web services, this task will be greatly simplified. Rather than creating static, inflexible synchronization scripts, or asynchronous batch processes, Web services-based solutions can simply and cleanly access and affect each other synchronously. As CRM systems are able to make direct calls to content management, ERP, or inventory management systems, integration will take on a more API-style development approach. This will allow CRM systems to more easily display real-time data, which is critical in managing customer relationships.

For example, imagine a series of price lists stored in an ERP application that calculate the price of a product based on sales region, quantity purchased, applicable discounts, etc. If the CRM application needs to calculate the current price for a product, without directly accessing the ERP application, the entire logic for this functionality, as well as all the data involved, must be built and stored locally in the CRM system. However, if the ERP application provides a Web service that calculates a price by passing in a certain set of criteria, all the CRM application needs to do is make a single call to the native application. Customer lists, service calls, products owned, and various other data can all be pulled together from their original sources and displayed from within a common CRM portal.

Publishing Web services outside of the enterprise will allow partners and even customers to consume the information/functionality and use it on their extranets/intranets. Partners can access product lists and real-time pricing changes on their Web sites by consuming Web services created as part of a CRM implementation. Customers can view open orders on their intranet to better track their progress.

This ease of interoperability will also enable more loosely coupled CRM systems. CRM vendors will now be able to focus on their core product rather than creating commonly available functionality such as document management, messaging, or workflow. This is made possible by relying on partnerships with ISVs whose core expertise is in developing these components. Customers benefit be-cause they can purchase the key components of the CRM suite. For example, they can purchase the core CRM functions from the vendor and easily integrate added functionality from existing applications or third-party vendors to address the needs of their users. This allows organizations to save in licensing and customization costs for unused or incompatible functionality, and the ability to provide a more tailored, functional system that better meets their users’ needs.

New technologies can improve upon existing ones, but you must also be aware of the implementation challenges. Integration design becomes even more complex as additional internal and external groups (partners and customers) are included. Each new interaction between systems must be understood and mapped between the data context of the participating systems. In addition to the same basic data mapping issues that EDI processes have faced for years, one must now deal with providing external functionality as well as data. The benefit of this extra effort is a more complete and usable system.

Another challenge to consider is the impact on security. Any Web services exposed, whether to customers, partners, or the general public, must be designed with these new security issues in mind. How will data be encrypted? How will access be controlled? These are not new issues, but the audience that must now be considered for these exposed Web services is no longer a controlled internal group, but could potentially include anyone on the Internet.

Technology improvements without a clear business benefit are a difficult sell for IT departments in today’s economy. Organizations have a responsibility to define ROI that can justify all costs associated with re-engineering the enterprise application infrastructure. This includes hardware and software infrastructure costs, as well as developer training and costs associated with updating existing interfaces between systems. If the key elements of system interoperability already exist in the enterprise, it can become very difficult to justify such a major change (e.g., “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”).

With the advent of Web services, the competitive landscape for CRM vendors changes significantly. The possibility of loosely coupled systems will force vendors to focus on a core set of CRM capabilities. Modular CRM packaging will lead to more partnerships as ISVs look to one another to provide more complete applications. CRM vendors may replace their own version of fulfillment or collaboration with a partner’s version that offers a more robust solution.

The future of standards-based Web services will be focused on integration and interoperability. With the adoption of standards-based platforms that can provide Web services, CRM can give enterprise users a more complete picture of their customers. Collaboration among customers, partners, and vendors can provide all parties with a more functional and efficient system. The future of enterprise applications is Web services, and as CRM follows, it can provide a central point in the enterprise to bring information together in real-time to better manage customers.

Ken Heiman is a senior associate with Green Beacon Solutions. He has worked as a technical architect and developer in the Microsoft and Java platforms since 1995, and is an experienced CRM consultant. Ken specializes in Web, COM, and .NET CRM and Telephony/SIP solutions.


Michael Venturelli is a senior associate with Green Beacon Solutions. He has worked as a technical architect and developer on CRM implementations in the financial services and software industries. Michael specializes in VB and SQL Server development.


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