CRM seeks Web exposure

In an attempt to tackle application integration complexity, enterprise CRM vendors are working to build Web services capabilities into upcoming releases and to establish a set of transactional standards.

Although CRM applications are still immature in terms of Web services adoption, the activity represents a push toward harnessing the integration efficiencies promised by exposing business services and assembling multiplatform CRM functions via the Web.

Siebel Systems is one vendor working to achieve those efficiencies by adding SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) and WSDL (Web Services Description Language) support to the next release of its CRM platform, Siebel 7.5, this summer.

Also planned for Version 7.5 is support for JCA (Java Connectivity Architecture) for lower-level connections between Siebel applications and Java clients. UDDI (Universal Description, Discovery, and Integration) directory support is anticipated some time after the release of Siebel 7.5.

The release will benefit developers by enabling them to use higher-level tools from Microsoft Corp., BEA Systems Inc., or IBM Corp. to create more dynamic Web-based applications, said Doug Smith, senior director of the architecture group and product management at Siebel.

The support adds to Siebel's existing capability of exposing business services such as a pricing engine via XML over HTTP, Smith said. He added that Siebel is also working with other vendors to help define transactional standards for Web services.

For its part, E.piphany Inc. has integrated its Real-Time application and call center offering over the Web, said Paul Rodwick, vice president of market development and strategy at San Mateo, Calif.-based E.piphany.

E.piphany also plans to boost its integration capabilities with other applications such as ERP, SCM (supplychain management) systems, and Web sites. The company currently supports XML and SOAP and plans additional SOAP interfaces to enable better integration with third-party applications, Rodwick said.

The plans are important to reducing the cost of integrating different CRM platforms, said Bill Bunker, vice president of marketing at Onyx Software Corp. in Bellevue, Wash.

"I would publish a SOAP-based Web service that enables a partner to get [my] customer information," Bunker said.

Some of this work is already happening at Pleasanton, Calif.-based PeopleSoft Inc., said Jim Littlefield, director of product marketing for PeopleTools technology.

The company already exposes all of its application functions via XML, which means any transaction can be exposed as a Web service. If a distributor, for example, wants to access information in PeopleSoft CRM, he or she could access the data from a Web site or through any application that supports Web services, Littlefield said. This includes access to information in a non-PeopleSoft application, he said.

Although most current adoptions of Web services are found in business-to-business communications, Littlefield said future adoptions might include consumer-oriented functions that give customers the ability to download billing history to an Excel spreadsheet or to Quicken.

That type of application integration is also on Oracle Corp.'s mind. The company now supports multiple Web services standards such as Java, UDDI, XML, and SOAP, said Mark Barrenechea, senior vice president of applications development at Redwood Shores Calif.-based Oracle.

The standards support enables, for example, extracting information out of a print publishing application and moving it into Oracle's eBusiness Suite, Barrenechea said.

But despite all this noise, CRM vendors recognize that significant hurdles remain, including security.

E.piphany's Rodwick said the notion of run-time assembly of applications via Web services requires attention to detail on security and privacy issues.

Siebel's Smith agrees, noting that what's needed is a better authentication model and improved transaction support to enable delivery of related messages. HTTP, which currently provides the means for Web-based data delivery, needs to be either replaced or enhanced, Smith said.

"What I would say the more likely solution is we need to extend the HTTP standard to have the notion of reliable delivery," Smith said.

CRM vendors will also have to work hard to communicate the benefits of their Web services enhancements.

One E.piphany CRM user said Web services offers the promise of boosting application functionality, but he does not expect it to radically change his company.

"What [Web services] means to me ... is more mileage out of applications" and no need to deploy them on desktops, said Matt Doyel, director of customer focus at San Francisco-based Reflect.com, which sells women's beauty products.

Another user to incorporate Web services and CRM is American Honda Motor Co. Inc., in Torrence, Calif., which runs an XML-based CRM system called OwnerLink that allows its 70,000 subscribers to get technical information about products and to conduct transactions with dealers via XML, said Mark Bieschke, engineering lead of the project.

"What these kinds of Web services do is allow us to gather information from many different places," said Steve Center, assistant vice president of the e-business division at American Honda.

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