Getting cloud apps out to the cornfield

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright July 28, 2013
Summary:
US agribusiness Wilbur-Ellis is using Okta's single sign-on technology not only to harmonize login to its mix of cloud and on-premise apps, but also to help enable  its own proprietary mobile apps.

Dan Willey headshot
Dan Willey, Wilbur-Ellis

Two years ago, when US-based agribusiness Wilbur-Ellis started looking for a way to make it easier for users to sign on to cloud-based applications, its CIO Dan Willey was relieved to find ready-made solutions out in the market. He hadn't wanted to spend valuable resources skilling up for technologies that weren't core to the company's goals.

"The last thing I want to focus people on is single sign-on. It's not helpful to my business. We don't really want to cultivate that knowledge," he told me when we spoke last week.

For several years it had been a niggling problem. A number of smaller cloud applications had been adopted and each had their own separate ID and password regime. But it never became a big enough problem to justify finding a solution until the company decided to adopt Ultimate Software's Ultipro HR management system. All employees would need to access the cloud application's self-service portal.

"We were going to have suddenly everybody signing on. That's when I pushed the issue of getting a single sign-on capability," said Willey.

"By the time we came along the market had settled out," he added. There were a number of options available and Wilbur-Ellis selected Okta's single sign-on service. "To me it was perfect. We didn't have a big investment. Because we lagged we were able to have Okta build that all for us."

Plugged in

The 90-year-old company has 4000 employees in total, split into three business divisions. The largest, with 2,500 employees spread across 160 locations in the US, sells plant protection, fertilizer and seeds to growers. Another focuses on forage and animal nutrition, while the third distributes specialty chemicals from the US into the Asia Pacific market.

Ten years ago, the company centralized its core business systems on a JD Edwards ERP system, with Microstrategy providing business intelligence. Later it added various cloud applications such as Salesforce.com, Taleo talent management, a cloud-based learning management system, and an Exchange email system with web email access.

The Okta single sign-on system plugged into an existing system for managing user credentials running on Active Directory. This is one of the most common scenarios for Okta, which uses the SAML standard to synchronize with the Microsoft identity server.

"We were able to stand it up from pilot to implementation within three months," said Willey. But it wasn't all plain sailing. While some of Okta's pre-integrated connectors work well, that wasn't the case with Ultipro.

"We had to have them help us with the SAML connection for Ultipro. It's not seamless, but it's not terribly difficult once you put your mind to it," recalled Willey.

"Part of Okta's challenge is all these applications and the possible negative interactions," he added. Another problem had been a display glitch in Microstrategy when connected via Okta. "There's just a lot of applications. The long tail of having to support all those, it's going to be a challenge [for the vendor]."

Pushing the envelope

Although Wilbur-Ellis has avoided becoming a technology innovator in non-core aspects of its IT infrastructure, it is currently developing its own mobile-first sales support application for use in its core agribusiness division.

"This is definitely pushing the envelope. I think it's going to change our industry," Willey told me. "Our intention is to own the IP and market it as part of our general offering to growers."

Built on .NET architecture with a PostgreSQL database, the app will be used by sales people on their iPads to diagnose issues and suggest solutions while literally standing in the customer's field.

Wilbur-Ellis has turned to Okta to help it implement multi-factor authentication for the app. Users will sign in on first use to register their device, and thereafter they'll authenticate using a PIN.

"Not having to worry about the servers and the instances I think is great, we don't want to have to be in that business," commented Willey. "You have to be very careful about what adds value — the long term effect of building your own software is you get that drag of legacy code and technical debt."

Hosting the new app on Amazon is another factor helping to reduce the resources needed. "There's no way you could do this in-house without making a $1 millon investment — for infrastructure we can get for $50 a year," said Willey.

Verdict

In developing its own proprietary application to productize its intellectual property, Wilbur-Ellis is a real-world demonstration of Marc Andreessen's line that software is eating the world. Every business has to become a software business in the modern, connected world.

In the cloud era, though, business can do that without having to build all of the computing infrastructure for themselves — they can rely on third parties like Amazon and Okta for much of the technology hard graft, leaving them to concentrate on the business logic where they have their competitive edge. Businesses can innovate without having to worry about (or sinking massive resources into) the enabling technologies.

Disclosure: Salesforce.com and Oracle are diginomica premium partners.

Image credits: Harvester © sergbob - Fotolia.com; Dan Willey headshot courtesy of Wilbur-Ellis.

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