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It’s all in the cloud, except when it isn’t

April 14, 2011

I’m in the early stages of two cloud migrations. One is a pilot of Salesforce.com for CRM. The other is a move of ERP (accounting) onto new software in a hosted environment. I’m finding that my expectations, coming from “premises based” systems tightly integrated with each other, need to change. I used “premises based” in quotes because half of our servers were moved to colocation some time ago but that made very little difference in day to day management. These moves are different.

Part of the shock on the ERP is just the change of scale. Our current system, Sage Pro Series, sits on any available file share (currently Novell OES). It’s written in Foxpro/Visual Studio and while the data is shared the executables run entirely on the user workstations. The replacement, Sage Accpack, requires four servers — a SQL server, an application server, a web server and a data store.  On the other hand, the old system won’t run on any OS after Windows XP, can only run from the LAN or by remote control of a machine on the LAN, doesn’t have great reporting flexibility, and is hard to integrate for related tasks such as time and expense reporting.

Since I didn’t want to bring up and manage four new servers a hosted environment seemed the way to start.  But this is ERP, fairly sensitive data. So we need a new security infrastructure between our workstations and the system. And then we need to assign a name in DNS so users can easily find the new system. And that’s about day one. More to come I’m sure.

Salesforce.com is more culture shock. Although my current vendors are pretty good at finding ways to upsell, once you buy something you own it. You can pretty much do what you want with it. With SF, and I’m pretty sure it’s true with their competitors, you buy in at a certain level which comes with certain features. But other features are always visible, if only you want to upgrade to the next level or license an additional feature. And it’s going to take some time to see which features would really be of value.

The next issue is desktop and handheld integration. Integration you say, aren’t these cloud solutions? Isn’t cloud about everything talking to everything? Yeah, well, but …  

Our current CRM is so tightly integrated into our Notes/Domino infrastructure that users refer to any client issue by the name of the CRM product. And they go to great lengths to avoid using it.

I support a mix of Mac and Windows users. My mobile users are split between Blackberry and iPhone. Hasn’t been much of an issue with CRM except for some back office functions like mail merge that want to see MS Office for Windows. The Macs and Windows machines run identical versions of Lotus Notes and can access all the same CRM applications. The CRM contacts database is set up as a secondary (directory assistance) directory in Domino and users can do look ups from either their Blackberry or their iPhone. Personal contacts sync throughout via Notes replication, BES for the Blackberry users and Traveler for the iPhones. The differences in functionality across platforms is pretty subtle.

But suddenly we’re in the cloud and nothing’s native and nothing can be taken for granted. There’s desktop integration software, but the Notes integration only works with older versions of Windows. MS Office integration only works with older Windows and doesn’t yet work with Office 2010. Outlook integration does work with Win 7. But none of it works with OS X without some 3rd party help. There’s a nice mobile client. On the Blackberry it lets you log incoming emails to SF and lets you copy contacts in either direction between the handheld contact list and SF. Very useful since there’s no way to copy an incoming email from Notes to SF in Win 7 or OS X. But the iPhone app doesn’t do it; apparently Apple doesn’t allow apps to interact with the core pda functions.

Meanwhile, back to the point about upsell, the “Professional” level of the solution comes with “basic” support. Which is two day response time. But you can upgrade…

There’s clearly some major functionality available in a new way through these web-based cloud apps. But it’s a steep learning curve. More reports to follow.

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