Monday, April 23, 2012

Business value for Business Connectivity Services (BCS)

In the coming few weeks I will be walking you through Business Connectivity Services (BCS), a cool functionality that comes with SharePoint 2010. I will cover topics ranging from the business challenges addressed by BCS to configuration and finally coding (a treat for developers).

This blog post may sound like a business pitch, a salesman's talk. Well that is because in my other hat I do pre-sales. But hey if you are a developer or SharePoint administrator stay close because the coming sessions will cover some exciting coding examples you need to hear about. The first part I want to address is the definition for BCS.

What is Business Connectivity Services
Most of you are familiar with the SharePoint Capability Wheel shown below. Under Composites lies Business Connectivity services (BCS) model/layer. Microsoft defines BCS as a set of services and features that connect SharePoint-based solutions to sources of external data." Again this definition may vary depending on who you are talking to:
  • To developers -  BCS is an integration layer. It can be programmed, extended and customized.
  • To business users - BCS is simply an application that allows users to pull enterprise data from various systems in the organization into SharePoint. Usually when you hear folks talking about unlocking enterprise data through SharePoint, they actually referring to using BCS to surface data into SharePoint. 
Now in the "Wheel" below BCS is included in Composites capability.

Microsoft defines Composite applications as "ability to quickly create customized solutions without involving corporate IT in each request. At the same time, the IT staff needs the capability to empower business users to create these applications while ensuring the environment’s stability and availability." Essentially they have put tools such as SharePoint Designer, BCS to enable business in making ready made solutions.

BCS was first introduced on SharePoint 2007. Although it was a limited functionality, in SharePoint 2010 advanced features are introduced including full read and write capability.

Now lets look at the business value offered by BCS.

Business value of BCS (What are issues addressed by BCS )

Here is the scenario. Let start from my recent customer request. One of my clients asked me to advise them on how they can empower users to seamlessly send data to their Demand Management System through a form hosted on SharePoint-based intranet. The proposed system should also be able to pull Status field of the requests and other information related to the form. All these information should be available to users in SharePoint.

The above problem is not unique to my client. Many organizations have scenarios depicted by the graphic below. The challenge to these organizations is that information required by business managers even general employees to make quick decisions resides in different specialized systems such as SAP, Siebel, PeopleSoft, Oracle Financials, or CRM. 

Well, these systems are great but they are designed to serve within specialized vertical business functions. In fact as outlined in one of the documents I read recently, these systems are great at supporting structured decision making and processes within their business functions. But silos exist between these applications themselves and the decisions and processes they support. These make it impossible for business manager to collaborate across departments or business units. The other drawback to this systems is that they require specialized skill-set to maintain them.

Lets look at the few user challenge scenarios:
  • A user who just want to know how many days are available in his or her leave bank, or details of their paycheck may need to contact someone in HR who knows how SAP HR systems works to process the request. 
  • What about Sales guy who wants to create a quote. He will typically lookup customer information in a CRM system, get financial information from another system. 
  • What about information dumped into flat files by mainframes based systems

Challenges presented by disparate systems are enormous and poses challenges across different spheres of the business including: integration, user or IT challenges.

BCS Solutions and advantages:
These issues can be addressed by surfacing critical line of business applications in SharePoint. This can be achieved by using Business Connectivity services.

Some advantages of surfacing information in SharePoint are:
  • Provides business with quick access to critical information from LOB
  • Provides one point of access - one entry point. Think single sign-on to all the different systems in your organization
  • Cut dependency on IT or specialized skills
  • Streamlines management of user accounts, only one account the user maintains
What is your long IT strategy
If you are the CIO or IT manager and you are interested in long term strategy typically you want to:
  • lower the cost of maintaining IT systems
  • empower business managers to make quick decisions
  • reduce the burden on IT staff
  • Ensure there is single point of entry or access - single point to access information quickly as is needed -this assumes you have SharePoint-based Intranet.

BCS will help to address these common strategic areas. It is extensible, scalable and makes it easy to integrate external data into SharePoint 2010 and office 2010 by providing infrastructure and help solve many IT problems inherent in data integration solutions.

Follow me in the coming few weeks. I will touch base on the Architecture, and some configuration issues around this beast.