Software integration is a burden that few – if any – IT departments can avoid. Indeed, making multiple systems work together is many IT professionals’ bread and butter.
And that work makes up a significant proportion of the IT expenditure that – to business eyes, at least – contributes little competitive advantage.
In the not-so-recent past, software-as-a-service (SaaS) offerings were a particularly virulent source of integration headaches. Not only was integrating such services particularly complicated – because the user organisation does not have access to the underlying code – SaaS integration also required on-premise middleware, and therefore contradicted the very principle of hosted delivery.
However, this shortcoming forced SaaS providers to think laterally around the problem of integration, and now the marketplace teams with numerous alternative solutions.
Just how easy integrating SaaS services can be was demonstrated by the co-operative announcement made by on-demand CRM provider Salesforce.com and search engine giant (and up-and-coming software provider) Google in mid-April and demonstrated at The Future of Software 2008 conference.
After receiving 16,000 requests to do so from Salesforce.com customers, the companies worked together to natively integrate the Salesforce.com offering with Google’s desktop applications, including its email client, word processor and spreadsheet package.
The integration will allow customers to move between their marketing campaign planning system and their calendar, for example, in a way that preserves key data.
But it is not the integration per se that is remarkable but the simplicity with which it can be achieved – from the end-user’s perspective. The two vendors have taken it upon themselves to handle the complexity of integrating one another’s products and to conceal it from the user – a marked contrast to the view among traditional software providers that integration is the users’ responsibility.
And while the combination of desktop software and CRM is not new, the co-operation between the two companies points to a future of computing in which all integration occurs on external, Internet-linked infrastructure – or ‘in the cloud’.
“Customers asked us for this because they want to run their businesses in the cloud,” says Woodson Martin, Salesforce.com’s European marketing VP. “They want ease of use without the hassles of traditional software,” he adds.
Both companies have made moves to take this development to its logical extension, by allowing customers to build their own applications that execute in the cloud – known rather clumsily as ‘platform-as-a-service’.
Salesforce.com has Force.com, where independent software developers and end-users can build their application using the company’s own Apex language. Meanwhile, Google recently announced the Google App Engine, on which developers can build and execute applications using the widely adopted Python programming language.
Although this product is in its infancy, Robert Whiteside, head of enterprise for Google UK, explains that the high user volume and online delivery of all of Google’s products means that its software services evolve rapidly. “Because we can see directly what people are and aren’t using, we have a very immediate feedback loop,” he explains.
The co-operation of these two companies is a reassuring sight. With potentially competing platform products, it could easily be imagined that these companies would want to avoid driving traffic to one another’s platforms. But instead, Google and Salesforce.com see the value in making integration as easy as possible for their customers.
And the potential is infinite, says Martin: “We believe we are approaching a time when businesses can operate entirely in the cloud.”