OPERATIONS

Missing Link

Getting programs to work together.
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Software

Jack Sands was frustrated. Vforce, his Worthington, Ohio -- based telemarketing company, which solicits membership renewals for some American Automobile Association clubs around the country, seemed to be doing things the hard way.

Once a month, each AAA club would e-mail Vforce a spreadsheet with the names of members whose memberships had expired. Vforce employees would then have to copy the information into its customer relationship management software, Salesforce, for its call team, which worked remotely. Then, once a week, the clubs would e-mail lists of members who had recently renewed. Once again, the information in Salesforce had to be updated. It made for a lot of importing, exporting, updating, and e-mailing. Plus, because of the lag, Vforce frequently wasted time calling members who had already renewed.

Sands thought if he could find a way to tie the clubs' proprietary databases into his Salesforce account, things would flow more smoothly. After some research, Sands found Scribe Insight, a program that allows companies to merge applications. About a month and $15,000 later, he had it up and running. Now, Scribe connects securely to AAA's database, grabs the list of members who need to be called, and pops it into Salesforce. Changes to the list are synchronized every two seconds.

Since then, Sands has made a variety of smaller, more affordable changes using Scribe. For about $100, he had a consultant configure Scribe to automatically display the price plan for each member's local AAA club, so his telemarketers wouldn't have to look it up every time. "It's become like heroin to me," says Sands. "Everything I do, I think, Let's integrate!"

Today, most companies rely on a hodgepodge of applications: some Web-based, some on desktop computers, and others housed on the company server. Transferring data from, say, your CRM software to your accounting program or from your client's database to your own can be a frustrating time-suck. But a growing number of programs -- dubbed middleware -- are cropping up to help companies link their applications. A recent study from the technology research firm Gartner (NYSE:IT) found that sales of middleware reached more than $14 billion last year, up nearly 13 percent from 2006.

In a tough economy, the benefits are clear: Automating tasks allows a lean workforce to get more done, and instead of buying a lot of new programs, businesses can get more use out of the ones they already own. Fortunately, some popular online applications, such as Salesforce, are making it easier for developers to incorporate other programs. Salesforce.com's AppExchange now includes more than 800 programs that have been tweaked to work with Salesforce. And several new open-source applications allow businesses to merge programs relatively cheaply.

The Marena Group, a Lawrenceville, Georgia, company that makes garments for patients recovering from surgery, uses Jitterbit, a free open-source application, to connect its patternmaking program with its enterprise resource-planning software, OpenMFG. Before Jitterbit, when an order came in, employees would manually copy a customer's measurements from OpenMFG into the other program. "It created a lot of errors," says Alex Knezevic, Marena Group's CTO. "If it was a first-time customer, it took a lot of energy to reassure them that we knew what we were doing." Now, when an order comes in, it automatically goes through Jitterbit, which grabs the measurements and creates a work order for the patternmaking program. Since Marena Group started using Jitterbit, Knezevic says errors have dropped about 80 percent. "We depend so much on it now," he says.

Jitterbit uses a drag-and-drop interface that makes it easy to get some programs talking without having to write any code. But it's not so simple with every program. After a few weeks, Knezevic decided to upgrade to Jitterbit's enterprise version, which comes with tech support and runs him about $10,000 a year. Ilan Sehayek, Jitterbit's CTO, says some 30 percent of users end up having to hire a technology consultant or software integrator to help them use the software.

It's easy to see how even free middleware can get pricey. Whether you'll be able to manage some of the more difficult projects without outside help depends on the expertise of your IT staff. But Jitterbit -- and many of its competitors, such as SnapLogic and Talend -- typically offers free or inexpensive patches for common software pairings. For example, if you want to connect Salesforce and Bugzilla, a program for tracking software bugs, Jitterbit offers a free plug-in that does the job.

Elie Ashery, president of Gold Lasso, an e-mail marketing firm based in Gaithersburg, Maryland, does all his software integration in-house using open-source programs, and he relies heavily on plug-ins. When Ashery wanted to hitch his CRM software, SugarCRM, to his online phone system, Asterisk, so employees could make calls directly from the CRM program with one click, he found a solution that someone had already posted online. "You can get a plug-in that any Tom, Dick, and Harry can download," he says. Both Ashery and his CTO, Michael Weisel, are self-taught programmers, and the company employs two developers. The more popular the combination of programs, the better the chance that someone in the open-source community has come up with a solution, says Ashery. To find out whether one exists, he recommends searching sites such as SourceForge.net and freshmeat.net.

Sometimes he has to modify the plug-ins to get what he wants. Nine months ago, Ashery decided to connect Joomla, the software that runs Gold Lasso's website, with SugarCRM to create an online help desk for clients. Ashery found two useful plug-ins, which his IT department modified to make the programs do what he wanted. "It was pretty simple," he says. "I had one guy doing it in his spare time for three weeks."

In the past 18 months, Gold Lasso has done at least a dozen other software integrations. Although hooking up several clunky enterprise applications can get expensive, Ashery and Weisel are seeing more and more tools that help companies with limited budgets patch together programs. "When Joomla introduced a new version in September, there were already people champing at the bit and sites set up dedicated to plug-ins," says Weisel. "As demand increases," adds Ashery, "there's going to be even more out there."

Last updated: Dec 1, 2008




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