Microsoft pushes innovation on the integration front

According to some Canadian channel partners attending Microsoft Corp.’s Worldwide Partner Conference this year in Toronto, the software giant is making great strides to help small- and medium-sized businesses deal one of their biggest pain points: integration.

On Monday Jeff Raikes, group vice-president of the Information Worker Business, which is responsible for Microsoft’s collaboration-related technologies, announced during his keynote the general availability of the Information Bridge Framework, which Microsoft hopes will help partners and developers integrate disparate systems. The Framework will include tools and components to help information workers find, access and work with data from disparate line-of-business enterprise systems in the Microsoft Office System environment, he said.

“The challenge is to be able to get users connected with the business process and business application systems, and have insight into the business. That’s a customer pain point,” Raikes said.

For example, when users are working on a document in Office and want to include some information or find out more about their relationship with their customer, they have to toggle back and forth between Office and the customer relationship management (CRM) system to find the context, he said. But with the Information Bridge Framework, the user could, for example, click on a person’s name in the Word document, which would cause information about the business’ relationship with the customer to pop up.

“Instead of an Office user having to switch over to another application, they can work in context, look at the details, look up opportunities on the way….They can look at service requests, connecting to back end systems, (which bring) the information back to (them),” he said.

According to a Microsoft statement, there have been more than 3,000 unique downloads of the Information Bridge Framework beta, and more than 50 partners and customers are actively learning how to use it to develop and deploy solutions.

Doug Burgum, senior vice-president of Microsoft Business Solutions (MBS), also took the stage to discuss integration. MBS is the umbrella brand that covers Microsoft CRM as well as ERP offerings under the Great Plains, Solomon, Navision, and Axapta names, among others.

Burgum outlined the progress that his division has made toward achieving the goal of integration with other Microsoft products. Microsoft along with its partners, both integrators and ISVs, must use “smart integration to ‘wow’ customers,” Burgum said. The effort to get MBS products and infrastructure platforms to work together should be a “two way street.”

It’s especially smart to develop deep integration across the Microsoft product line when targeting small- and medium-sized customers, who are “not too concerned with heterogeneous [environments],” he said. “It’s okay [for them] to work with one vendor.”

At an earlier Q&A with channel partners and Microsoft executives on Monday, Gerry Rivers, senior vice-president, integrated technology management for CGI Corp. in Toronto, said the ability to share data effectively has been a challenge for some CGI’s customers, including the International Species Information System, a society of over 600 zoos and aquariums with animal researchers and veterinarians spanning 70 countries and 40 languages. “They had no mechanism to share data effectively,” Rivers explained.

CGI put in a bid to build what became known as the Zoological Information Management System in the .Net environment that would “connect all the pieces. With a single application all those folks would be connected” and able to access information on animal sharing and movement between zoos and breeding opportunities, among other things.

Brad Bushell, chief operating officer for The RSC Group, a Microsoft Business Solutions partner in Vancouver that provides consulting and business implementation services to customers across North America, noted that there has been a “huge shift” in the nature of integration pain points customers experience these days. “It’s no longer about just capturing everything and doing the transaction. Now it’s about pulling the information out. It’s not about doing the work anymore but about getting the stuff out and pushing the information in from external sources.”

Bushell also highlighted the integration complications that arise when businesses have multiple remote offices across the country. “Canada is a big place and there’s lots of space to cover,” he said. One of RSC’s customers, Sun Rich Fresh Foods, a producer of fresh fruit salad, has offices in Richmond, B.C. and Toronto, as well as production plants in other two other locations. In addition, the customer has three different product lines.

The customer was faced with the choice of either implementing order processing and distribution software from Navision in three different locations, or centralizing everything on one server in Richmond and accessing the information in one database. RSC recommended a fully integrated solution, from Windows Server 2003 all the way up to Navision, which has made a world of difference for the customer in terms of timely and accurate information access, Bushell said.

In other conference news, Micrsoft has announced some new progams to support its independent software vendors (ISVs) and convince software developers to start using its Microsoft platform technologies including Windows Server 2003, Microsoft Office System and Visual Studio .Net.

One of the programs is called the ISV Royalty Program, which provides an integrated way for ISVs to embed key elements of the Microsoft platform into their applications, Microsoft said in a statement.

Microsoft explained that the new program ensures ISV developers that customers have all the technology components necessary to deploy their solutions, without having to purchase elements separately.

The other program, called the ISV Buddy Program, matches ISVs with Microsoft employees in an effort to provide increased technical support and access to resources through the development, sales and marketing process, Microsoft said. To date, there are about 430 ISV in the program, and over 800 Microsoft employees have signed up to become buddies.

– With files from Allison Taylor, IT World Canada

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