When ERP and CRM Connect in the Cloud

In 2010, Plex Systems, after several years of obscurity, became widely recognized as the provider of Plex Online, an enterprise resource planning (ERP) solution in the cloud. For more detailed background information on this company and its product, see TEC’s recent Certification Report as well as my 2010 blog series on Plex.

The privately held company is just closing its 2010 financials, and Plex’s current state of affairs looks like this:

  • A 27 percent growth in top line revenue over 2009
  • About 50 new contracts, expanding its customer list to 586 companies and organizations
  • The company’s biggest customer yet, Invensys Controls, signed in September 2010
  • The strongest ever sales pipeline going into 2011

In addition, Plex is in the early stages of planning for a possible initial public offering (IPO) in late 2011 or early 2012. Of course, that type of move raises all kinds of caveats, but right now things are looking good.

For its part, publicly traded salesforce.com no longer needs an introduction; it has become the leading provider of cloud-based customer relationship management (CRM) systems, i.e., Sales Cloud 2 and Service Cloud 2. A trailblazer in software as a service (SaaS), salesforce.com has forayed well beyond the realm of CRM. (We’ve previously covered salesforce.com’s expansion of its offering, diversification within the platform-as-a-service [PaaS] space, and focus on collaboration.)

The Meeting of Plex Online and Sales Cloud 2
It was just a matter of time before these two applications “met” in a cloud to satisfy the needs of their joint customers. To that end, in early 2011 Plex announced that it has integrated its SaaS ERP product with Sales Cloud 2. Plex worked with consulting firm The Revolution Group to evaluate and execute the integration work. The result is a composite application focused on the lead management process.

The initial use case was developed to support a customer that is using Sales Cloud 2 to track marketing leads and Plex Online to track sales leads. Once the lead has been developed and qualified by the marketing group in salesforce.com’s environment, it is handed over to Plex Online for the sales team to execute the sale. Plex customers might pay an extra cost for this capability, which will vary depending on the products’ configurations and the data to be exchanged. For more information, see the official press release from Plex.

Plex’s VP of Marketing Tells All
To expand the discussion beyond what the press release chronicles, I spoke to Patrick Fetterman, Plex’s vice president of marketing.

TEC: Plex Online is based on Microsoft .NET Framework, which means that we are talking here about application programming interfaces (APIs). It’s not about Plex developing on the Force.com platform, is it?

PF: That's correct. We are not doing any work on Force.com, which is why salesforce.com didn't participate in the announcement. This wasn't a strategic partnership announcement, just a technical integration.

TEC: Is the Salesforce Chatter collaboration cloud offering involved here in any way?

PF: No, not at this time.

TEC: Is this a move by both Plex and salesforce.com to counteract the success of integrated cloud ERP and CRM offerings from, say, NetSuite or Epicor Express?

PF: While this development has some strategic implications, it was a strictly tactical move to meet the requirements of a handful of customers who use Sales Cloud 2 (as well as to satisfy some of our internal team members). Again, salesforce.com didn't really have any input on the project.

TEC: Do Plex and salesforce.com have any joint customers? Is Plex Online part of the AppExchange marketplace now?

PF: We have a handful of customers who use salesforce.com, and as we expand into new markets (such as food and beverage, medical devices, etc.) we're finding that Sales Cloud 2 is more commonly used in those markets than it is in automotive or industrial manufacturing. Since we did not do any development on Force.com, we are not part of the AppExchange.

TEC: What about Plex’s own CRM capabilities—what makes these customers prefer salesforce.com? Do you have any customer inquiries about integrating with Microsoft Dynamics CRM, Oracle CRM On Demand, Sage SalesLogix, etc.?

PF: We occasionally get queries around integration with SAP ERP, though this is usually at large enterprises (over US$1 billion revenues) who have settled on SAP as their corporate standard for financials. In these cases, a manufacturing division (or sometimes a newly acquired company) is looking for a manufacturing-centric solution that can feed information up to the corporate backbone. (Note that this doesn't happen with Oracle. In our experience, either you're an Oracle shop or you're not; if you are, it's highly unlikely you're going to let another ERP or manufacturing application inside your enterprise, even at the division level.)

For the specific CRM packages you mentioned, we have never been asked to do integration with any of them. The issue, I believe, is our industry focus. The CRM capabilities within Plex Online were designed to meet the requirements of companies in automotive and general industrial manufacturing: repetitive and discrete manufacturers who don't take in a lot of new orders within a year, but for whom each order can be a substantial portion of their revenues. To that end, Plex Online includes tools for contact management, opportunity and quote tracking, order tracking, price configuration, and other common CRM processes.

But, many of the manufacturing industries that are newer to us (e.g., food and beverage and medical devices) have very different sales cycles with very active sales forces chasing down new deals. Salesforce.com has enjoyed great success in these industries.

There's another issue here as well. The companies that are choosing Plex Online are doing so more and more because we're a cloud-based solution, not just because of the product fit with their requirements. We are finding that, in some cases, their salesforce.com deployment was such a huge success that it has led them to consider the cloud delivery model for other enterprise applications—and that's what led them to us.

TEC: Why was this particular system integrator (SI) company used for integration and not, say, Appirio or Astadia, as more prominent cloud-to-cloud integrators?

PF: The Revolution Group has been a Plex Online implementation partner for several years, and is a certified salesforce.com partner as well. As they know both systems intimately, they were a natural choice for us.

TEC: Where does this integration take you?

PF: This was really a tactical project with some limited scope—but, it was a proof of concept as well. Our aforementioned partner, The Revolution Group, developed the integration connector, which runs natively in the Force.com environment.

We can easily expand the integration to encompass a wider portion of the data set, and/or to include triggers for business processes, now that the initial mapping is done and the Web services are connected.

Most importantly, this project represents a retreat from full-fledged service-oriented architecture (SOA)—a world of hybrid environments with both on-premise and on-demand applications. The relative ease with which this integration was accomplished demonstrates how much easier it is to integrate applications in a lighter-footprint Web services world.

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