April 25, 2013
Took a briefing the other day, regarding Elastic Intelligence’s new company/product, Connection Cloud. About a third of the way through it, I had one of those moments. You know, the one where you say aloud, “Why hasn’t anybody done this yet? Why haven’t I done this yet?”
Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself a bit, which means you have no idea what I’m talking about. Let me back up. Connection Cloud is a service that answers a question that users have made since the birth of software as a service: “How do I keep control of my data?”
In theory, your data is always yours, and you can move it around or feed it into disparate BI and reporting applications however you like. In practice, data is resident in the platform on which the business systems are built, and connectors must be coded to have those apps talk to each other and report on the same data, not copies of it.
Connection Cloud fills the role of middle man—or middleware, if you prefer—by being a data switchboard with connectors available for everything. It can pull info from any cloud application or group of applications into the reporting system of your choice, and refresh as often as you like. Build a report in any app, whether Excel or any SaaS vendor’s product, and you can populate it nearly instantly with live data. Not a static dump, not a preconfigured subset. Choose the fields you want and make your report happen.
I am very enthusiastic about Connection Cloud, which is strange because my focus is usually on customer experience and the use of social media, not running reports. The fact is, though, businesses run on information. They need to understand more than just what’s happening at the point of service, and that means detailed reporting of operational data. Anything that provides more access and easier management to that data makes it easier for businesses to operate with confidence, and without fear that working with a SaaS provider is a one-way street.
Am I being horribly naive about this? Have I missed something in the past several years? Let me know in the comments, because I think Connection Cloud is dead clever, and it’s doing something necessary and (so far) unique.
October 15, 2012
I just got back from a brief but intense conference with SAS. Followers of customer experience, social CRM, and other related topics will know SAS from … well, they might not know SAS very well at all. This is both understandable and a shame, but more on that in a moment.
On display at the the SAS Premiere Business Leadership conference were everything from customer stories of how high-powered analytical tools get them closer to their customers, all the way to computing clusters that eat terabytes of data in seconds and spit out detailed reports and predictive models in near real time. I got to watch a live demo of SAS Visual Analytics, a program that makes what used to take an advanced degree to create and turns it into a drag-and-drop tool with as much granularity and complexity as you want. It’s not just a dashboard, mind you—detailed reports with multiple variables and axes (the plural of axis, not the plural of chopping tool) can be built on the fly, several levels deep. The kicker? It’s all processed server-side so you can run it on a tablet as easily as on a PC.
Those servers aren’t necessarily budget-breakers either. SAS has been putting a lot of effort into working well in Hadoop clusters, inexpensive distributed computing environments operating under the Apache Hadoop open-source framework. There’s nothing to stop a company from running SAS on something like an Oracle grid (except maybe Oracle preferring you run Exalytics), but it doesn’t have to. Tremendous power is working its way into the hands of smaller and smaller businesses with each advancement; trickle-down theory doesn’t work in economics, but it works like crazy in computing.
SAS also talked bout products for information management, fraud detection, and hospitality/entertainment businesses (complete with their relevance to the average person), most of which are already in the wild or will be available by December.
An example of that relevance: Imagine a credit card company running multiple loyalty programs for cash back, discounts, etc., across multiple cards, each with a number of messages and contacts for customers. Customer X only wants a small number of contacts per day/week. Analytics can optimize and decide which messages to send for best results. It’s a very complex analysis that could take 4-6 hours. With the new system, running the same SAS interface, the company can do it in 2-4 minutes. Similarly, a retailer can manage pricing across thousands of SKUs and hundreds of shops on an individual level, rather than by region.
If you’re wondering at the amount of attention I’ve been devoting lately to high-end hardware, middleware, and enterprise software that the typical customer will never see or even know exists, let me explain. As much as I love the intimacy and immediacy of social CRM, customer experience, and all things SMB, it doesn’t happen ex nihilo. Businesses can track your preferences and history, make decisions about you as a customer, and provide compelling offers only because of advanced analytical engines running on powerful computing backbones. While it’s nice to imagine a team of elves personally interacting with you and evaluating your account, the fact remains that those elves are actually massive computing resources digesting millions of lines of database entries every second. Unstructured data—the kind that comes from social tools—is especially hard to manage, and the amount of it is growing at a rate that has storage vendors drooling.
Analytics, grid computing, in-memory operations—these are how the sausage is made, and the more advanced it gets the better the sausage tastes. Understanding what’s happening behind the CRM suite and the social platform makes me that much better at my job.
Besides, all that metal, silicon, and Big Data feeds a deep-seated geek desire in me for tech porn with MOAR POWAH! Petrol heads and overclockers know what I’m talking about. The possibility that all this face-melting power will make my life more science fiction than it already is sets me all a-quiver.
October 8, 2012
Oracle OpenWorld got me reacquainted with SaaS ERP and CRM provider NetSuite, as part of a week that was all about making clear that which had been a bit foggy for a while. I hope you’re not expecting me to be writing about how NetSuite has re-emerged, because they never went away. The fault is all mine for not providing more coverage of the company the past couple of years—I let the San Mateo-based company drop off my radar because their primary focus is ERP, while mine is not.
There are two reasons this was a mistake (three, actually, but only two of them matter to you). The first is that NetSuite’s CRM prowess, while not the thing that brings most customers to the door, has been consistently excellent over the years, good enough to rival any CRM vendor’s offering. Second is that the company has found a way of making ERP relevant to customer experience, which is no mean feat—more about that in a moment.
The third reason is that the NetSuite team is composed of some of my very favorite people in the industry, and I’ve done them a disservice by not staying in touch. It has nothing to do with the lovely dinners and bottles of liquor they’ve bought me in times past, not the CES-level swag that often accompanies their conferences and other gatherings. I mention that because it’s always a good idea for people like me to disclose what might serve to bias us in a company’s favor. It takes a lot to bribe me, though; I’m perfectly happy to pee in a vendor’s Cheerios if I think there’s something wrong with their products or strategy, no matter how nice they’ve been to me; the best they can hope for in such a case is that I’ll try not to be mean about it. Fortunately, NetSuite has given me no reason for any cereal micturation.
Here’s what got me back in the business of observing NetSuite. The company showed off a very snazzy e-commerce engine that runs directly on top of the two-tiered ERP system that’s part of NetSuite OneWorld. I say snazzy because there’s nothing basic-looking about it; you get a highly polished front end for the minimal required work of setting a few parameters and telling the system what colors and logos it should use.
The two-tier ERP concept is pretty clever in its own right; the system allows users to run NetSuite OneWorld ERP at subsidiaries and satellite offices, while maintaining the value of its existing investment in on-premises ERP software (in this case Oracle’s) at the home office.
I am probably assuming facts not in evidence, but the sample we were shown seemed superior to anything I’ve used as a consumer—uncluttered, sensible, and minimalist, yet vibrant and friendly enough to draw the user along the buying process. I haven’t had a proper demo—as I said, we’ve been out of touch—but I plan to rectify that ASAP and let you know what’s going on with NetSuite behind the pretty face.
I will caution you not to take my initial enthusiasm as anything more than that; because I have recollections of NetSuite products from just a couple of years ago, and am impressed with what little I’ve seen, I am inclined to think the company’s offerings are still strong. However, I also recall a notable lack of redundant data centers just a couple of years ago, and it appears they still only have the one. It should also be noted that there’s a good reason for NetSuite to be present at an Oracle conference: Larry Ellison owns a consiberable stake in NetSuite, and in fact his money is what founder Evan Goldberg used to get started in 1998. If Oracle wants to buy itself some new toys, NetSuite is always a possible target—and that has to factor into any assessment I make.
October 2, 2012
Every year, I come to Oracle Open World. Almost every year, I leave with a combination of excitement (for technical innovation and the possibilities inherent in the applications) and a vague sense of disappointment (in corporate direction and messaging). As of this writing we haven’t discussed the applications yet—I’ll talk about that in Part 2—but I think my disappointment in the other stuff is over.
Influencers in CRM and customer-facing technology (some consider me a member of that group) have been critical of Oracle’s strategy the past few years, because it hasn’t been terribly clear. We respect the company’s position as a “fast follower” (in Anthony Lye’s words) where applications are concerned, but we expect some kind of leadership and vision nonetheless. The messaging has been focused on hardware and middleware, things that turn on the server farmers but don’t apply directly to line-of-business personnel. This year, the reason for all the investment in infrastructure products was expressed clearly for the first time in quite a while.
Large enterprise applications and infrastructure are expensive. Oracle Database 12c running on Exadata X3 metal and silicon makes that level of power much cheaper and greener. While this is good news for big companies, it also means that smaller entities will have access as well. If—as Larry Ellison and others claim—the new tech has 100 times the power, then it follows that you can have the current level of power with one one-hundredth the infrastructure.
Let me be clear. Oracle is a big corporation, whose customers are one level removed from the ones I’m typically most interested in—the customer’s of Oracle’s customers. But Oracle’s technology combined with its sheer size can drive economies of scale that benefit the person on the street. Trickle-down economics doesn’t work, but trickle-down technology does.
Data management is also getting a shot in the arm. Oracle announced Oracle Database 12c—”the c is for cloud”—which is claimed to be the first multitenant database. Nobody is saying that Oracle invented multitenancy, but all of the databases and other systems that did MT were built on old technology that wasn’t really intended to support it. This new one is designed from the start to be multitenant, allowing better performance and security than one that had to be tweaked to do the job.
ODB 12c is a pluggable database, serving as a database of databases (wow, that’s meta). Rather than managing disparate DBs in their own silos, 12c becomes the management platform for all of them.
Since it’s cloud, ODB 12c is being touted as enabling infrastructure as a service: IaaS, or infrastructure in the cloud. The X3 hardware allows such high volumes of throughput and in-memory computing that more of the computing load can be done remotely.
Does all of this work? I have no idea, but I really hope so. Not only do they have the potential to be game-changing in their own areas, but they extend the capabilities of any software applications you care to develop. Developers have access to a whole new level of processing power and data management, and it will cost users less to access it.
There is always the question of customer lock-in, especially as Oracle has stated its intention to own the business technology environment, from racks to apps. This doesn’t need to be the case; while Oracle will likely get a huge bump as its customers trade their now-obsolete tech for new, they will be buying the tools to let them develop their own tech, which will compete with (and in some cases outperform) Oracle. Yes, Oracle wins no matter what, but they don’t necessarily monopolize the industry.
Tune in next time when we review what this all means to Oracle line-of-business applications and software in general. Expect there to be a lot of interest in how the new toys will crank social data analytics up to eleven.
January 31, 2012
I tweeted a link to this Software Advice article a few days ago because it looked pretty cool, it had a lot of my friends in it, and another friend (Lauren Carlson) wrote it. That’s good enough for most people, and I hope you read it and got something out of the experience. I can’t let it go at that, however, so I’m going to respond briefly (you hope) to some of the ideas the article brought up.
Not so briefly, though, that I could just write, “They’re all totally on target. The end.” Smart they may be, but not so smart that I can’t have a variant opinion or two.
Context services and real-time customer intelligence are the first two topics in Lauren’s article, and that makes some sense; the two can go hand-in-hand in many cases. Think about it: If much of the context info is coming from mobile devices (as Ray Wang posits), and that information is processed immediately (as Esteban Kolsky hopes), it stands to reason that there’s an opportunity to use that intelligence to reach out to the customer at the point of engagement. Granted, a business that could take advantage of this would have a structure that I can’t picture, but it’s possible. What’s more likely is that these two technologies will give businesses a better sense of macro trends in the customer base over shorter stretches of time, and allow them to adjust campaigns on the fly for better immediacy (and better incremental sales).
Television as a customer engagement channel is next, with Brent Leary predicting a convergence of CRM tech and TV tech. I’m going to come down hard here, which shouldn’t be seen as a reflection on Brent’s wisdom; he’s very smart and a good friend, I just think he’s wrong here. I’ve been following HDTV since the late 1990s—before there was content for the expensive-as-a-new-car sets that existed then—and the same hope was expressed then as now. “Digital TV will free bandwidth for added content and two-way interactions,” they said. It has happened, in limited cases with limited success, but the idea has never really blossomed. The idea that TV can be a customer engagement channel is as old as TV itself—where do you think commercials came from? The fact is, nobody wants their TV time interrupted with sales pitches (Super Bowl ads notwithstanding). The “Is this ad relevant to you?” bar at the top of my Hulu window doesn’t seem to have any effect on what I’m shown, either. Now, if the engagement was something where the consumer could quickly and unobtrusively request information from an ad to be sent to a PC or mobile device, I could get behind that. It would answer the advertisers’ need to know if they’re having an effect, and give the consumer something of value without getting in the way of the show. Also, anything coming from a Nielsen report on usage trends is a bit suspect nowadays, if my February edition of Pint of View carries any weight. It should be up on CRM magazine’s site any moment now. EDIT: Here it is.
Virtual meetings, according to Denis Pombriant, will change the way people do business. I say they already have. We travel less, have more teleconferences and Webinars, and have tools that allow us to get more done in virtual meetings than in real ones. The technology will continue to advance—it will have to, especially if we run out of oil before the newer energy sources can take up the slack and nobody can travel—but all in all this is a safe prediction. I’d love to see what we have in five years’ time, but I hope I can still go to work in my PJs and slippers, as is my right as a self-employed kinda dude.
Unified communications (UC) also gets a mention, from Paul Greenberg no less. Like virtual meetings, I feel this is something that has already arrived, and will continue to grow. There is not only a place for it, but a real need—while I say UC has arrived, it isn’t nearly universal enough. If you don’t believe me, see how well an IVR hands you off to to a live agent sometime. A lot has been done here, and I am thankful for things like screen sharing in customer service, and the ability to engage in multiple channels, but more is better. (Paul is also found earlier in Lauren’s article discussing in-memory and distributed processing technologies like SAP-HANA and Hadoop, but I’m not knowledgeable enough about them to weigh in—yet.)
Gamification bats cleanup in the article, and Brian Solis gets the thankless task (except for where Lauren thanks him) of predicting what will happen with something that is still a buzzword fantasy for many people. I think gamification has the potential to fundamentally change the way businesses and customers interact, and can also have serious positive implications for the workplace itself. I have some thoughts on this that should be published soon, so I can’t expound on them here yet, but gamification is big. It’s not for every brand or every person, but it opens up possibilities that are as yet untapped. EDIT: Here’s a link to the article, by Ryan Zuk.
Of course, these are all just my opinions—and you know what they say about opinions. A difference of them makes a horse race. Wait, what did you think I meant?
November 10, 2011
It’s my pleasure to share somebody else’s research with you from time to time, and this time it comes from Lauren Carlson. Lauren is a SFA software analyst with Software Advice, a consultancy that does exactly what it says on the tin. Her latest article, “Salesforce’s Next Buy: Applications or Platform?”, takes a close look at Salesforce.com’s M&A activity over the past five years and what it suggests about the company’s direction. It’s a good read, and her conclusions are definitely worth considering. I’d be annoyed at her being so clever at so young an age, but (1) that would be patronizing of me and (2) we’re all about reflected glory here at Third Idea. This means (3) I also get to weigh in on her article with my own opinion.
Salesforce, as Carlson says, has maintained a steady focus on being a platform company for several years. But it has done so through relatively few acquisitions of “platform” entities—Sendia and Heroku are the only ones on her list, versus more than a dozen in the apps column. We need to ask what more Salesforce requires to build out its platform capability, and that’s where things get muddy for me.
As a cloud apps provider, Salesforce doesn’t need to have a clear line between what is an application and what is part of its underlying platform. Sitemasher and Jigsaw are both considered applications acquisitions, but they add to the whole package, and can be leveraged by any Salesforce user to some extent—clever developers and homebrewers can use these apps (among many others) in Salesforce’s development environment to create something unique. All it takes is imagination and some computer savvy.
Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff knows this, and is himself a creative visionary. Building the platform means adding apps, and building the apps means growing the platform. It’s hard to make a mistake when every move you make is a net positive. The way to answer the question Carlson poses in her article is not with one bucket term or the other, but by imagining what would add the most to what’s already under the Salesforce umbrella.