Q&A: Building Simpler Data Bridges with Open Source and SaaS

What’s driving the interest in software as a service, and how can the right integration solution move the integration process out of IT and into the hands of tech-savvy business analysts?

It’s an age-old business concern: how long will a project take, and what will it cost? Although the question hasn’t changed, today’s tough economy has sharpened the importance of the answer. With reduced resources, companies are increasingly turning to cost-effective solutions such as Software as a Service (SaaS).

In this interview with Ilan Sehayak, CTO of Jitterbit, we discuss the surging interest in SaaS and how the right integration solution can move the integration process out of IT and into the hands of tech-savvy business analysts. Jitterbit is an open source integration platform that gives end users a cost-effective way to connect with data in different sources, such as ERP and CRM systems, as well as with Web services and other applications. The company helps enterprises overcome the huge costs and complexities often associated with connecting data in different applications and systems, especially in large enterprises.

BI This Week: There are challenges to data integration that are particular to the SaaS market. How and why are they different from standard in-house data integration challenges?

Ilan Sehayak: A key challenge for business units that adopt SaaS is that when it comes specifically to integration, the business unit tends to lose its autonomy and is forced to once again rely on a lengthy IT process to support their business processes. This detracts from the initial appeal of SaaS, which offers quick and easy setup and configuration of applications without the need for resources outside the business unit.

It’s a challenge unique to those adopting SaaS -- the tools necessary to deliver value from the promised quick setup require adopters to give up on that very promise and to take on time- and labor-intensive processes.

What’s behind the boom we’re seeing in the Software as a Service market?

SaaS is providing organizations greater autonomy by empowering them to do more with less. SaaS gives users fast setup and turnaround times, allowing business analysts to customize and manage functionality without relying on IT resources.

Additionally, the maturation of services and the ability to extend and integrate SaaS offerings allows organizations to move away from poor IT investments to those with relatively little risk but which yield a fast return on investment.

What about the cost factor? Is that part of it?

Cost is definitely a factor. Because the cost of entry is so much lower, SaaS can deliver a return on investment quickly and with far less risk than in-house applications and SOA. In addition, increasing competitiveness in the SaaS market is driving down the cost of the services themselves.

What are the downsides to SaaS? Are you hearing objections in the marketplace? Are there still concerns about security and control issues?

For compliance reasons, organizations embracing SaaS are choosing to run their business on multiple applications to maintain a separation of duty. In addition, the current SaaS market lacks solutions that can replace the custom functionality of complex ERP systems.

This means that integration of SaaS offerings with existing IT assets becomes a necessity, and as we all know, integration introduces costs and risks to any SaaS investment. Regarding security, I don’t see it as an issue. Very large enterprise Jitterbit users today integrate sensitive information with their SaaS applications. For example, customer contract information is integrated between SAP and Salesforce.com, and payments are integrated between JD Edwards and Autodesk’s Constructware SaaS offering. Given today’s advanced technology around security, I don’t think it’s a concern with customers any more.

Can you make a crystal-ball projection about the progress of SaaS over the next 12 to 18 months?

Over time, as the space is getting more competitive, costs are coming down. Even better, SaaS vendors are evolving from discrete functionality providers to platform providers. For example, vendors that initially addressed salesforce automation are now providing platforms customized by users for HR applicant tracking. As a result, vendors will re-brand their offerings to deliver on customers’ ever-increasing expectations of SaaS capabilities.

Specific to data management, you’ve mentioned the desire of departments or divisions within a company to perform ETL without turning to IT, as part of the move toward empowering users in the workplace with better data access. How does SaaS work on that front?

To date, SaaS offerings mainly have addressed operational and transactional processes (CRM customer tracking or ERP accounts payable functions, for example). SaaS offerings really haven’t been designed to address complex BI and analytical functions. In general, they haven’t been designed and built to deal with large volumes of historical data -- the sort of data volumes that large enterprises need to process for CRM, ERP, and other functions.

Enterprise customers still need to process SaaS data into their in-house data warehouses, but they need to do this with the same degree of autonomy, and using the same business resources, as they use to manage and customize their SaaS functionality.

It’s a challenge that even newer SaaS offerings do not address satisfactorily. The solution lies in delivering the tools necessary to create a hands-on environment for the business analysts who handle these functions on a daily basis.

How does your company, Jitterbit, fit into the SaaS marketplace?

In short, Jitterbit is trying to address the major downside we see in SaaS -- to reduce the costs and risks associated with integration.

To do that, Jitterbit is being used directly by businesses to integrate SaaS offerings with various applications and data warehouses. We provide tools that enable the same business analysts that customize and maintain SaaS offerings daily, to implement the data integrations they heed. By doing this through open source, Jitterbit makes cross-platform functionality readily available to users at any technical skill level.