SugarCRM appliance sweetens CRM pot

Open source-based Sugar Cube  brings on-demand CRM in-house

SugarCRM's latest release, Sugar Suite 2.5, is an open source-based commercial CRM project able to manage select tenets of customer-relationship management.

The Suite is presented in several flavors, including a Professional, code-only version, and an on-demand model. For my tests, I received the Sugar Cube -- a LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, Perl/PHP/Python) stack server appliance with Sugar Suite Professional 2.5 installed.

There are several new features in Sugar Suite, which improve dashboard charting, implement an administration interface, and add a bug-tracking facility of potential benefit to customer-service agents.

Although Sugar Suite makes headway for sales- and service-related tasks, it still lacks a marketing component, so don't expect e-mail-response or campaign-management features. Other key criteria, such as workflow and forecasting, are also absent.

What the Sugar Cube/ Sugar Suite combo does offer is an on-demand solution capable of mitigating the technical expertise typically required for in-house CRM deployments. For smaller companies with narrow requirements, Sugar Cube could be a good CRM option.

Interface Finessing

The Sugar Cube appliance is a rack-mountable 1U chassis sporting dual Xeon processors, 2GB of memory, and four 36GB Maxtor SCSI drives on an Adaptec RAID controller. The unit arrived with Sugar Suite Professional 2.5 preinstalled on Red Hat Enterprise Linux WS 3 running MySQL Pro. It was a cinch to deploy.

Sugar Suite's strongest aspect is its sales-force component. The browser-based interface has a layout reminiscent of the one used by Salesforce.com: It's tab-based, well designed, and easily traversed. An agent's home page presents a nice overview of pending duties and a pipeline snapshot.

I found ample tools for account and contact management. The calendar, although lacking real-time alerts, was useful: Activities and tasks were easy to track and associate to my leads and opportunities.

Sugar Suite could use some finessing when it comes to usability. For example, inviting multiple attendees to a meeting required moving back and forth between screens to select each person individually. Also, the search tool only encompasses basics such as contact names and numbers -- not notes or meeting descriptions.

Some minor bugginess notwithstanding, the interface performed well and, despite being written in PHP (PHP: Hypertext Preprocessor), its response times proved quite respectable. Features such as one-click lead conversion made assigning new opportunities a snap, and the ability to add a product catalog and generate quotes helped to close part of the usability gap.

Although there's no inbound e-mail integration, I could cut and paste e-mail messages into the system for archiving to specific opportunities or contacts. The plug-in for Microsoft Outlook, however, offered a far more streamlined method of archiving -- even allowing me to create new cases and opportunities within Outlook.

To support customer-service efforts, Sugar Suite's case-management tools let me create and sift service issues by criteria such as priority and status. I was also able to search open cases by keyword or search on a particular agent's open case assignment to gauge workload.

This would be a good spot for SugarCRM to introduce alerting and auto-escalation features to ensure cases don't slip through the cracks. There's currently no knowledge base to aid in finding solutions, but your reps can use the new bug-tracker functionality for defect logging and monitoring.

The reporting engine offered no graphing capability or relative date parameters (for example, "today + 5 days"), but it did include summary options and good filtering tools to scrub data for relevance.

A separate dashboard tab integrated Macromedia Flash-driven charts, although choices were limited to a small set of prefabricated options. The chance to drill down on a chart to reveal underlying data added a nice touch.

The new administrative interface was modest but effective. It was relatively simple to manually add new users and create teams, although I would prefer to have templates for easy assignment of permissions and settings to new users (based on job description or job title, for example).

Field-level security is not an option, but administrators can control the tabs available to an agent. Page layout and customization did benefit from an inline layout editor, making it simple to reorder fields directly on a live page. The administrator interface would benefit from CRM-specific log and system insight as well as quick stats on user activities.

Taking Your Lumps

Although a single Sugar Cube appliance could handle traffic from several hundred users, limitations in the software toolset make it more practical for fewer than 50 seats. Exceed that and the administrative overhead may become too unwieldy.

SugarCRM will have to make some necessary additions before the Sugar Suite can be considered viable for wide-scale enterprise deployment. Workflow is integral to put the "automation" into what is currently a sales-force tracking tool. An integrated help facility would also improve training and adoption efforts.

You can customize and contribute to Sugar Suite's code -- making it an excellent springboard for customizing in-house CRM efforts. The Sugar Cube offers an on-demand experience without sacrificing opportunities for deep customization and data security.

SugarCRM earns a round of applause for sweetening the pot in a competitive CRM market, however, it needs more work to become a full-fledged enterprise option. But if Sugar Suite is any indication, open source CRM may, in time, give its commercial counterpart a run for its money.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Value (10.0%)
Administration (15.0%)
Ease of use (15.0%)
Integration (15.0%)
Features (30.0%)
Performance (15.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
SugarCRM Sugar Cube and Sugar Suite Professional 2.5 6.0 6.0 8.0 8.0 6.0 8.0 6.9
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