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SaaS: integration in cloud

This article appears in the issue January 2010, [Volume 19, Issue 1]
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The advantages of software-as-a-service (SaaS) products are well recognized by now: lower cost of entry, minimal demands on IT and easy upgrades, as well as more rigorous security than can be provided by many small to medium-sized businesses (SMBs). But what happens when a company is using multiple SaaS applications that need to communicate with each other, or when SaaS applications need to access information contained in on-premise or legacy applications? At that point, businesses are “in the cloud” and will likely need some help in integrating multiple services.

“The value proposition of cloud computing is that it allows companies to focus on their business activities, and not on their IT functions,” says Daryl Plummer, management VP and Gartner Fellow at Gartner. “However, it’s important to get all the applications working together toward the organization’s business goals.”

Moving to the cloud

AWPRx provides pharmacy benefits management services for workers’ compensation organizations. Through its Direct Access software and aided by its Client Protocol Guide, AWPRx validates prescriptions and notifies its clients when medications are filled or need an approval. The company has contracts with more than 60,000 pharmacies that reduce prescription costs for their clients, and an automated prescription process that reduces workers’ comp fraud.

Poised for significant growth, AWPRx was hampered by management and maintenance of its current IT environment. The company took some interim steps, such as moving to a storage area network environment. However,  to eliminate the complex IT infrastructure required for its databases and transaction processing, AWPRx decided to move all of its IT functions to the cloud.

The Direct Access application has been relocated to force.com, a cloud computing platform as a service (PaaS) offered by Salesforce. Additionally, AWPRx opted to store its data in EC2, the “elastic cloud” solution provided by Amazon. “Moving to EC2 offered the promise of essentially unlimited and flexible storage at a much lower cost,” says Jay Roy, CEO of AWPRx, “and would let us get out of the server business entirely.”

A potential obstacle to a cloud-based infrastructure was the fact that the Salesforce platform does not connect natively to the many data sources on which AWPRx relies. Through its relationship with Salesforce, AWPRx discovered Jitterbit, an integration platform for on-premise and cloud-based applications.

“We tested Jitterbit thoroughly,” Roy says, “processing every client file and confirming the workflow. Jitterbit was able to provide the same functionality that we had with our in-house database software.” Reports that formerly would have required a request to be sent to IT can now be generated by department managers and processed in 10 to 15 minutes.

Jitterbit serves as the interface between force.com and third-party databases such as pharmacies, providers and the insurance companies that are AWPRx’s customers. Rather than storing provider data, AWPRx uses Jitterbit to look up what’s needed. Once it picks up data from the pharmacy, Jitterbit extracts data from the pharmacy database and other information sources as needed, and routes the data to Salesforce. The data flow is bi-directional; for example, Salesforce provides information to the pharmacy about what prescriptions the worker is entitled to, and enforces dispensing rules.

AWPRx expects to complete the transition to the cloud-based system at the beginning of February and to begin reaping benefits in many areas. “We now have scalability and replication that we could never have afforded to do with an on-premise infrastructure,” Roy explains. “And with our IT staff no longer required to carry out routine data management tasks, they can now focus on our Direct Access software and other products that provide value for our customers.”

Jitterbit was already offering  traditional integration services to its customers, but the process was often cumbersome. “We wanted to expedite integration,” says Ilan Sehayek, CTO and co-founder of Jitterbit. “One way to do that was to look at common integration points and design a product that would let non-programmers define the steps.” Part of the value of SaaS products, he maintains, is that business users can be more self-sufficient. “Putting in a complex integration product negates this because it means that IT has to intervene,” Sehayek says. “Jitterbit returns control to the business users while still allowing them to create sophisticated business processes.”

In the cloud from the start

When Ingres was purchased from CA by an investor group five years ago, its open source database was valued in the millions, but the company had no offices, computers or any other type of infrastructure. Ingres established its headquarters in Redwood City, Calif., and as it rolled out the resources necessary to establish itself as an independent entity, decided that its computer infrastructure would be entirely SaaS-based.

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