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Sweet communications

Open source software purveyor SugarCRM practices what it preaches, using a set of open communications tools as the foundation of company -- and customer -- communications

By Paul Desmond, Network World
October 13, 2008 12:00 AM ET

Network World - The question is not whether you should implement unified communications technologies when your company is in the open source community and full of employees fresh from college who would rather instant-message than make a phone call. The question is how, says Lila Tretikov, CIO at SugarCRM, an open source software company founded in 2004. The company ties multiple unified-communications packages into its own relationship management platform to enable effective communications among its workforce of 150 employees -- at least 25% of them remote -- and a development group in Shanghai, China, as well as customers and the extended open source community.

What are some of the tools you use that play into unified communications?
We have our own plug-in for VoIP phones, called Sugar Phones, for our CRM system, which is what the company runs on. The CRM system is not just for sales, it's a tool to keep people, management and communications in sync across the organization. Everyone in the company uses the Sugar platform for whatever they need to do, whether it's HR or support, sales or finance. On top of that there's the phone, IM and e-mail all plugged in. Those are the dominant ones, and then there are infrastructure pieces, such as VPN.

Is your VoIP platform open source?
The VoIP server is built on top of Digium [which developed the Asterisk open source telephony platform]. We use the supported version. We get voice mail by e-mail, as part of the VoIP server setup. We have a converged network going into headquarters, with all voice, data and video going over fiber, all IP.

What about presence capabilities?
Calendars plug into Sugar's own software, and you can use Outlook or whatever client you're comfortable with. So, you can see if somebody's in a meeting, and over IM you can also see whether someone is available or not. Today everyone uses Yahoo IM. That is going to change in the next little while to an internally hosted solution. We're not sure which one yet.

Why are you making that move?
For a few reasons, security being one -- so we don't have company data going across the Internet unless it's secured. And we can encrypt messages, so there's more control. On top of that, there's convenience. We can have our own subgroup, and everybody in the company is automatically assigned to it, so it's less confusing; people don't need to use their personal IMs.

Do you also use online meeting tools?
Our biggest installation is [Citrix Systems'] GoToMeeting, but some people choose to use others for specific reasons. So, we use [Cisco's] WebEx and some Dimdim, for really simple things -- the open source version of Dimdim that has video, audio and everything else built in.

How does all of this play out in practice?
Let's start with the meeting tools. They are mostly used by sales engineers and the sales department, who use desktop-sharing and presentation-sharing software. More often than not, especially for initial meetings, it's very satisfactory. They can take the customer along, doing a presentation completely virtually. We also set up a lot of training Webinars that we publish on the Web. Some are live, some prerecorded. In terms of educating and early sales education, that is invaluable for us. And we use it internally to communicate with remote employees. When engineering has meetings with China, they use VoIP communications and video to communicate with them. We have a room with a big flat-screen TV so people can see each other -- a virtual office. We use Skype for video, and the environment is set up so you don't have to use your own computer.

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