By News Editor

For companies with a need to connect Microsoft Dynamics CRM 2011 or CRM Online to other business applications, especially when the systems are a mix of on-premise and cloud deployments, Azure AppFabric has become a viable platform-as-a-service (PaaS) option for developing custom integrations.  

Just this week Microsoft released Version 5.0.6 of the Microsoft Dynamics CRM SDK on MSDN library.  According to Jim Glass on the Dynamics CRM Blog announcement, "this release is primarily to update the tools and documentation for the upcoming release of Windows Azure AppFabric Access Control Services (ACS) 2.0," including an updated Plug-in Registration Tool to work with Windows Azure AppFabric Access Control Services (ACS) 2.0."

But Azure AppFabric is a still a new option that is still only in use by early adopters.  What tools are companies turning to today?  For serious integration challenges, most Dynamics CRM customers looking to bridge their cloud and on-premise deployments still look to a more robust solution with the benefits that a real software vendor can provide.

Integrated Dynamics CRM using commercial software

Anyone considering a custom listener via Azure AppFabric can't ignore the fact that the owner of such an application takes on their own responsibilities when it comes to receiving, validating, logging, and otherwise acting on the incoming notifications from Dynamics CRM.  And that additional work is where many IT managers may think twice about going with a custom integration - especially for a more common integration scenario. 

"It's just one piece of the puzzle," says Girish Raja, technical evangelist for Dynamics CRM at Microsoft.  For example, when it comes to technical mechanisms for enabling Dynamics CRM 2011 to receiv messages from external applications, the REST and SOAP endpoints and BizTalk WCF adapter are key tools.

"From a partner's point of view, [connecting directly via Azure AppFabric] often does not represent good time to value," says Betsy Bilhorn, vice president of marketing and product management at Scribe Software, a Microsoft Dynamics partner and maker of middleware solutions. 

In many cases, even if the business application in question is custom or unusual, it may still be a good candidate for a pre-built integration solution if it uses one of the more common platforms or databases  -  things like SQL Server, Oracle, web services like REST and SOAP, or even Excel.  In that case, solutions like Scribe and others can provide the business rules, monitoring, alerts, reporting, errors, throughput, processing, user interfaces, and so forth. Not to mention the maintenance and management of code.

The prospect of a third party integration solution often wins out, Bilhorn contends.  "If I'm an IT person I want a user interface where I do some transformations, focus on what to do with the data at a business process level, and spend my time on that and not on .NET code," she says.  "With AppFabric, the keyword is ‘build'".

Connecting with BizTalk

If your company already utilized BizTalk for its integration needs, Dynamics CRM 2011 and CRM Online now work much more smoothly with it, says Girish Raja, CRM technical evangelist at Microsoft.  Now that BizTalk is standardized on WCF, Dynamics CRM 2011 no longer needs a separate adapter like it did in CRM 4.0.  "So for customers already using BizTalk and want to include Dynamics CRM, system administrators can now connect to CRM's BizTalk endpoint and you're good to go," he says.

As for real world testing, BizTalk solution architect, MVP, and author Richard Seroter gave CRM 2011 integration with BizTalk 2010 mixed reviews on his initial review and additional exploration of his ability to set up query and create operations for CRM 2011.

Seroter's posts are very detailed and worth reading for a technical look at the integration.  Overall, Seroter liked the integration capabilities of Dynamics CRM 2011 overall for its REST and SOAP interfaces, but felt that the un-typed iused for BizTalk integration to be a limitation.  "[I]t really handicaps BizTalk and other tools that can't leverage their SDK components," he wrote . "I can't see that many people choosing to build these functoid heavy maps just to create key/value pairs."  Later when Seroter builds a working example of pushing more complex data, he is successful but states that he wishes it were simpler to work with fields that hold option sets or entity references.

Find a pre-built solution

In some cases, the integrated solution you need might be available and ready to go.  If you are shopping for a customer service portal that hooks into Dynamics CRM, for example, you might be in luck.  The Dynamics CRM Marketplace offers an Azure-hosted Customer Portal solution developed by Microsoft that can create customer-facing portals to handle things like service scheduling, event registration, case management, and content management with Dynamics CRM managing the interactions in the background.

It's a pre-built example of a public-facing solution that can push customer data into Dynamics CRM 2011 or CRM Online.  The ratings for the Customer Portal are mixed on the marketplace, mostly focused on the robustness and the reviewer's success in installing the solution.  And like many free add-ons, the level of support and success in getting it up and running will vary.