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Microsoft GM Gives Peek at Platform-as-a-Service Strategy

Microsoft leverages its discovery that customers are using its Dynamics CRM 4.0 platform to develop applications beyond CRM 

ORLANDO, Fla.—At Microsoft’s annual Convergence Dynamics user conference here this week, Brad Wilson, general manager for customer relationship management at Microsoft, sat down with eWEEK Senior Writer Renee Boucher Ferguson to talk about Microsoft’s quiet platform-as-a-service strategy that’s emerged with CRM 4.0, the company’s December 2007 release of CRM that includes multitenant, on-demand capabilities.

It seems to be the case that partners and customers are using CRM 4.0 as a development platform, but I don’t really hear Microsoft talking about having a platform as a service like does. What’s the deal with 4.0 as a PAAS?

What we’re doing is seeing a lot of customers and partners building xRM applications, which are using the CRM platform to build non-CRM stuff. So for instance, ING built a vendor relationship management system on CRM. It’s not CRM; it’s kind of VRM.

We’ve got the U.S. Air Force [using] us for their task management platform to manage tasks for all their service personnel in Europe. The U.S. Department of Agriculture uses us for conservation management.

I was in New Zealand last week, and we have some customers there using us … for the blind matching service to track dogs, pet owners and training programs. It’s a very noble thing, but it’s not CRM. It's sort of DRM. It’s the sort of thing we are seeing a lot of.

So there are a lot of people who look at the core platform and say the platform is extremely configurable and very, very flexible, and they’re building other kinds of categories beyond CRM.

Some people buy it for the core sales, service and marketing, but some people say, "You know what? I also want to go ahead and build other things." Some of our partners have built project management and accounting on CRM. They use CRM for leads and opportunities and build project objects and consulting objects and work plans. … You just create the entities and workflows, and off you go. So we are seeing a lot of that where people are using us as a flexible work platform.

Is PAAS a goal?

It’s been a goal of ours to create a platform that enables rapid development in the CRM space. We weren’t so much targeting non-CRM scenarios, but we certainly recognized about 18 months ago—and now our partners and customers have clearly caught on to it.

And we decided to go ahead and talk about xRM, and xRM means any kind of relationship management. At its core what we’re really good at is defining entities and its relationship across entities and planning workflow and tasks and flowing all that stuff automatically through Office and Outlook or through a browser or a portal.

So it’s like what the U.S. Air Force is doing. They just use us to define their work types, define their workflow, drop it through Office and Outlook, drop it through a browser, and spit it out to thousands of people.

Does Salesforce wish it had Microsoft's PAAS? Read more here. 

What about the 4.0 platform makes it extendible as an on-demand platform?

The configuration model is fairly consistent. There are new things in there like support for many-to-many relationships, which allow you to model more complex scenarios in the system than you could in 3.0. So you can literally define and build richer data models that can support different kinds of businesses.

We moved to Windows Workflow in 4.0, from our custom workflow model in 3.0. What we're proudest of in the transition is we changed our entire workflow engine and maintained perfect upgradeability because in our model we define workflow definitions in meta data and the workflow state goes in the database, so we’re able to take a workflow service out, toss it away, put it in Windows Workflow and simply keep it going because they were functionally equivalent. It’s like changing the water pump in your car.

That’s what SOA [service-oriented architecture] was supposed to be about. You can change a service like the water pump on your car. So we did that to maintain perfect upgradeability. That’s a big thing. Windows Workflow, many-to-many relationships, multitenancy is a big deal for us in that area. If you want to offer an on-demand platform, we can easily scale out in an economical hardware fashion by using multitenancy. It’s what’s in Live by the way, of course. So making it available in that kind of model is a big deal.

Well, the application is defined as an application. You can choose if you want single tenant on-premises, multitenant off-premises, single tenant on-demand. It’s really your choice how you want to configure it.

But if you’re a partner and you want to have an HR [human resources] application, you can do it for a customer, single tenant, or you can take it to a data center and … run 15 parallel systems on one box that is HR for 15 different companies, going multi- or single-tenant. Some people might have data privacy regulations, and some businesses can’t do shared data environments because it’s against regulatory, government policy or their own policies.

To use CRM as a development platform, what do you need underneath?

Windows and SQL is all you need. You don’t need Office, you don’t need BizTalk, you don’t need SharePoint, and you don’t need a lot of those things. But if you want to add those things, they exist and there are additional scenarios that can be supported. So things like Windows Workflow Foundation that exist in 4.0, you’ve got it in your CRM or xRM application.

Is it important for Microsoft to come out at some point and say, "Hey, we have an on-demand development platform just like’s platform as a service," or is that not part of your message at all?

Well, we’re pretty focused on doing and executing and helping our customers and partners. We’re not perhaps as focused on talking about it. So we’re focusing more on execution in our customer and partner network.

When we have all the right customer evidence that we’re amassing right now, we’ll tell a broader story. We are now talking to our customer and partner base about xRM. It’s our way of talking about different ways to use CRM as a non-CRM application platform. So we’re by no means done in rolling out our story, but we’re taking a very deliberate approach to getting people doing more and more things in different categories.

Are you getting a lot of people like me asking about platform as a service?

(laughs) Oh yeah. Everyone realizes the capabilities there. We’re not hyping it to the heavens; we’re just sort of doing it—in 25 languages in 80 countries, with a global partner base in small and medium enterprises. We’ll get the appropriate recognition for it at the right time.

When do you think that time is?

I can’t say. We’re seeing more and more of this stuff coming out. There will be further announcements coming out in the future. This is an area we are definitely investing in. We think a lot about our platform and applications as the application content resides on our platform. Our CRM, or scenarios, are supported by our platform. We think clearly about the two things being complementary, but different. So one is a general-purpose application platform, the other processes content like leads, opportunities and the like.

OK, same example—where would ERP [enterprise resource planning] fit in? Is it content?

Again, we’re not trying to do a new supply chain or accounting, and all the great things we’re doing in AX or NAV. We’re not trying to go and plumb a new ERP system. We typically find people that say, "I need a new project management solution." So we’re not trying to build a new ERP system on top of CRM, but there is this whole class of applications.

I was thinking more on-demand ERP. Is that a direction for you?

We do have partners that are building those kinds of applications on top of CRM, but we’re not chasing after that. We like our ERP portfolio. We think we have a very strong strategy there. We’re looking for CRM and adjacent scenarios.

What’s going on with Microsoft’s marketplace?

It’s still ongoing. There’s a marketplace team building out the marketplace. I don’t have an update on a release date, but there’s been a lot of investment in developing an online marketplace that CRM will be a part, so you can go and download applications for CRM based on the marketplace. It’s in progress.

Can you talk about what it would look like? Would it be a marketplace just for CRM or for the rest of Microsoft as well?

Oh no, it’s being built as a Microsoft asset, so different kinds of contributed content, templates, configurations, different kinds of products would live in the marketplace, right? We just happen to have a meta-data-driven model that lends itself to an e-service module—you could put an e-service module on the marketplace and download it.

So we are very much oriented toward a marketplace scenario, and the marketplace is not just for us. It’s across Microsoft’s board. But a lot of our [Dynamics] requirements are driving the marketplace because we have a lot of interesting content to add that we can configure dynamically.

Again I go back to Salesforce, this time with its AppExchange marketplace. Are you looking at the same sort of scenario with partners?

Well, a similar scenario. We’ll have similar assets with an applications marketplace, billing provisioning—all those sorts of things. They are all part of our model.

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