SugarCon Speaker Spotlight: Plus Consulting’s Heath Flicker and Sasa Trklja

SugarCon is always a great time for me to get in touch with the people that are active in the field every day – helping make customers successful in their CRM initiatives. Regardless of my vendor association, I am still a technology evangelist at heart, and learning what people are really doing gets me excited.

As the cloud brings new and interesting deployment, development and systems management ideas in to play, one of SugarCRM’s partners is right on top of this trend. Plus Consulting is one of Sugar’s most active North American VAR partners, and among the earliest to deploy CRM in the cloud for end users. I was able to track down Heath Flicker, Managing Director and Sasa Trklja, CRM Delivery Manager at Plus, to talk about their SugarCon Presentation, as well as how the cloud is changing the way companies think about CRM.

How has cloud computing changed the nature of CRM deployments?

Heath: Good question, and one of the reasons I’m so bullish on working with Sugar. Cloud computing to me just offers a) added flexibility in deployment options and b) lower TCO on overall implementation, as we’re seeing with most early adopters.

Where is the cost savings coming from?

Heath: Some is obvious, some less. The obvious area is less overhead managing internal infrastructure. So that means less IT staffing needs internally, fewer resources needs in the company’s own data center, things like that. The thing that I didn’t think about, but what we’re seeing, is most of the time systems like CRM are being put in place because of the ROI expected. The faster you are up and running, the faster you realize ROI. With cloud computing, we get to first productive use of systems like CRM, or an integrated system, in a much shorter time frame.

Sasa: I agree, now that we’re venturing into the [Microsoft] Azure platform, in terms of that TCO concept – one of the things Azure does is offer redundancy in terms of database backups. So, now you’re getting total backup and failover for a low price. Also, for example multiple web server loads are automatically balanced in Azure – which lowers IT resources from a man power and cost perspective. The redundancy in the infrastructure alone saves a lot of money. It’s a paradigm shift – the biggest issue people have is “how secure is the cloud?” and as more tools become available in terms of security more and more customers will be comfortable in the cloud.

For me personally if I was a customer the architecture is much more attractive of say Sugar on Azure than a product like Salesforce.com, because my data and app is not lumped in with everyone else in some multi-tenant database like it is with Salesforce.

Heath: Yeah, it really is the best of both worlds. You get the power of on-demand form a cost savings perspective, with a majority of the flexibility of on-premise applications. It’s easy to do a lot of great things, like operate parallel production and development environments; and you can more easily “pull everything down” from your cloud environment into a local data warehouse, for example. There are simply much less restrictions.

Sasa: The best way to phrase it is portability. So if I am not happy with Microsoft Azure, I can move to Amazon. If I’m not happy with Salesforce.com, I can’t even get all of my data let alone go to another environment.

Do most companies really “care” where their software is housed these days?

Heath: Industry matters – in that some industries are still sensitive about their data.

Sasa: Some of our financial services customers – their corporate policies are that absolutely nothing is hosted. It is not about cost savings, it is just their policy. Just from a data perspective, it is not an option for them.

Have we moved from a “can it do it” to a “should I do it?” mode?

Heath: In recent history, we are still in the early adopter phase, but within that I think there has been a pretty deep education through most organizations to this point that the cloud is a viable, secure deployment option. I think we’ve gone past “is this viable?” to “we agree it’s viable, now we have to assess if it is right for us.”  Amazon did a really good job of starting and incubating their product as a virtual private cloud for Fortune 100 companies to kick it off; then made it public. Any time you have Fortune 100 firms saying this is our de facto deployment approach – it shines a pretty positive light on the space. Most IT groups we work with understand the cloud as a deployment option pretty well today.

Sasa: I equate that question to the whole people using credit cards online. People didn’t know how safe it was at first. But through education and time, people simply adjust.

Does the cloud make it easier or harder for a VAR to manage its customers’ deployments?

Sasa: I think it depends on the offering. With Azure, Microsoft manages a lot of the patches and maintenance of the apps for you. On [Amazon] EC2 we manage patches and such. It depends on how you slice it and set it up. It has streamlined things for us overall, I think.

Heath: Yeah, it depends on what you’re comparing it to. Compared to On-Demand in the vendor-provided SaaS or multi-tenant sense, there is a little more we need to do. You have to look at disk space, performance levels, processing power etc. You still have to manage things like application level upgrades, where that isn’t managed by the partner but rather the vendor in a traditional SaaS model. But we put a lot of the responsibility of managing infrastructure on the client – so it is net zero to us in a lot of ways.

We like the cloud versus traditional on-demand because we deliver customization and integration services – and we can simply do significantly more in a cloud environment than in an older SaaS model. It gives us more of a tool box, as it were. All in all, the pros far outweigh any cons.

How has the Cloud changed the VAR/vendor relationship in your eyes?

Sasa: I think it’s two-fold. On one hand it’s just another deployment model. But when it comes to licensing or cloud space, etc., that dynamic could change the way we interact.

Heath: One of the things I would say is that from a feature request perspective, it may change what is on our priority list in regards to features and functions. As a partner, if the cloud becomes the most attractive deployment model, then we may come back to the vendor and say “we need better management tools to manage multiple customers in the cloud. I know Sugar is doing a lot of work with Microsoft for example to make it as compatible as possible, but we’ll keep the pressure on to make these apps and environments run as seamlessly together as possible.

We at Plus Consulting are committed to keeping the cloud as a popular deployment option, and having more tools to manage these cloud deployments, such as Sugar’s Cloud Console, is definitely of keen interest to us.

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