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10/16/2008
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SaaS Integration: Real-World Problems, And How CIOs Are Solving Them

Installing SaaS applications is easy. It's integrating them that can drive up the cost and complexity SaaS is supposed to avoid.

NOT ALL INTEGRATION IS EQUAL
SaaS vendors generally provide lists of third-party integrators and software vendors they've worked with. But it's important to understand the level of integration, as it could mean the difference between a few clicks of a mouse or days of coding by the IT staff. Says Chiquita's Singh: "Every customer has to ask every vendor the same question: What level of integration do you have?"

Chiquita, which works with several benefits providers on Workday's integration partner list, found their work varied from shallow to deep. "What I suggested back to Workday is they need to be careful when they go into the sales mode and say, 'We've got this benefits integration done,'" Singh says, since, if it isn't a deep integration, it could mean unexpected custom coding and cost for the customer.

Another integration problem Singh encountered was when one of Chiquita's benefits providers refused to feed data directly into Workday, saying its contract was with Chiquita. That required Chiquita to set up an FTP server on site to collect the data from the benefits provider, and then transfer that data to Workday. Once again, Singh needed to fight to keep from adding infrastructure to support his SaaS effort. After Singh raised the problem with Workday--and noted "any other customer using this provider is going to have the same situation"--Workday agreed to hook up the FTP server at Chiquita and remotely manage the data flow. "This wasn't a Workday issue, but a provider issue," he says. "But my expectation was to not get caught in the middle of it."

Don't misread Singh's candor as discontent. He says he's happy with Workday, pleased with how the vendor solved problems, and confident he can integrate much more with the platform.

In fact, Singh wants to use Workday as a master repository for all employee data, so that when a person leaves the company or changes positions, that move triggers a series of workflows that, for example, automatically remove network access rights or initiate a work order for a change in phone lines. That functionality will mean extensive integration, including a SOA link between Workday and several on-site applications, including Microsoft Active Directory and Lombardi Business Process Management. It's a big project involving a lot of legacy code, and Singh thinks he'll have his own team do much of it, using Oracle BEA AquaLogic middleware.

This is where SaaS applications are headed. The old days when SaaS was a renegade product, bought by a business unit and bolted on without IT's help or blessing are ... OK, they're not even close to gone. It still happens all the time. But that's all the more reason IT must prove it has SaaS integration chops. Sure, a small group can set up a Salesforce tool and get it running over the weekend. When that team sees what can be done by connecting Salesforce to ERP, or Exchange, they just might be glad to bring it out of the darkness.

Illustration by Sek Leung

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