Case study: Why Sugar proved sweeter than Salesforce for EMIS

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By John Leonard

May 1, 2013

EMIS primary care software is used by 52 per cent of GPs in the NHS. The company's two data centres in Leeds host more than 39 million patient records, and its software makes these records searchable and available to GPs wherever they might be through secure data sharing across operational systems.

Recently EMIS launched a new support centre portal for its GP customers, bringing together a forum, a service booking system and a learning centre, accessible with a single login.

Following some initial research, the list of suppliers for this new system - and later add-ons to follow – was whittled down to three contenders: Microsoft Dynamics, and SugarCRM.

"Dynamics we ruled out fairly early because it doesn't have a great portal integration without banging SharePoint on the back end, which we didn't want to do," EMIS chief technology officer, Phil Webb (pictured), told Computing.

"We were at the eleventh hour of signing the contract with, but what stopped us is that there was no offline option. 

The lack of an offline option revealed itself as a problem once all of the ways in which the portal might be used had been considered, some of which could potentially breach strict rules on data protection.

"No patient data should ever be on there, but it just takes a GP or one of our staff to reply with patient data in a ticket and it's in the Salesforce cloud," explained Webb.

Costs were problematic too.

"It would have been very expensive for us. For the portal the Salesforce model is pay-per-click. So on the customer portal, although you don't need a licence for it, you have to pay for usage."

But the final nail in the coffin of the Salesforce deal came with EMIS's frustrations with the vendor's responsiveness. "Salesforce were difficult to deal with. Every single decision had to go back to California. That's crazy for a company of that size," Webb said.

Having reviewed all the options EMIS rowed back from its original first choice. Owning two data centres just added weight to the conclusion that the customer support system would be better hosted on the company's own infrastructure, not in the cloud.

"Sugar were so much easier to deal with," said Webb. "They had people who could come in, people who could make a decision out of a local office in Germany. It was just a much easier transaction to do."

Then there was the need to customise the platform to fit EMIS's unique needs. 

"Absolutely we tailored it. We used Sugar partners and professional services, and we've got two dedicated engineers. We're using Sugar as a framework. Our portal is much more like a real portal than one you'd get out of the box. The upgrade journey is clearly bespoke to us, so we had to write some custom modules for that. We also have it doing our expenses, our travel, our bookings and internal forums," said Webb, before going on to explain how SugarCRM's framework made this easier.

"The Sugar framework is open source. We could have probably done a lot of the same customisations on [the cloud platform], but it's a language that no one speaks whereas Sugar is just PHP."

One of the main advantages of the cloud model, of course, is that upgrades are taken care of automatically. A quick trawl of internet forums reveals that on-premise Sugar CRM upgrades are not always straightforward.

"We haven't gone through a major upgrade yet," conceded Webb. "But we read the [forums] when we started, so we made sure all our coding was upgrade-safe. If you understand how Sugar works and use their Studio system it lets you generate upgrade-safe code. I guess we were forewarned on that one."

So, has EMIS investigated the much-vaunted new models for CRM: social and mobile?

"We've dabbled with mobile, mainly for our sales staff, when they're out on the road. But it's not ready yet. It's got lots of promise but it's missing some of the offline stuff which is coming in Sugar 7 – or so they tell us. The social stuff less so because it's not really appropriate for our market"

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