The race to find the “secret sauce” of hosted application services for small business
Cloud computing is here to stay. What was once viewed as bleeding-edge technology fraught with peril and risk is now recognized as an emerging standard for application deployment and delivery. The race to the clouds represents a significant challenge, however, when issues of application interoperability and integration are introduced – particularly when it comes to small business solutions which traditionally reside on the local PC and network.
Today’s available technologies and platforms quite nicely facilitate single application deliveries, yet frequently fail to address the dynamic provisioning and deployment requirements of a rich integrated application environment. Users who desire to select from a variety of applications in a hosted environment are most often met with barriers which won’t allow them to have the particular mixture of solutions they need.
While virtualization approaches for platforms and applications are gaining popularity and increasing in capability, the reality of the problem still rests with the fact that, in order for the applications to integrate, they must be installed on the same machine. There is a race amongst the virtualization platform providers to find the “secret sauce” of application hosting; to enabling a flexible, dynamic, rich application delivery method which overcomes the need to have integrated applications installed together on servers in pre-selected ‘packages’. With the secret sauce, the provider would be able to offer the customer any possible combination of available applications, and offer them as fully integrated solutions, regardless of whether or not those applications were actually installed on a machine together somewhere.
Currently, the solution is addressed (sort of) in how the provider deals with three main elements in the service model, which are packaging, provisioning, and business rules. With these three ingredients appropriately approached in a flexible infrastructure and partner network, the potential for broad hosted application delivery and distribution exists. Service providers are still stuck with the requirement to pre-select their various partner or integrated application inclusions, but it is possible to offer the perception of maximum flexibility without actually having it. The challenge is not presented with the business rules, but in the packaging and provisioning processes.
Packaging is the step where the item to be provisioned is combined with other elements, resulting in a service or installation “package”. Much like a manufacturing assembly process, packaging takes into consideration the total resource utilization or requirement, accounting for all resources combined into or used to create the package. Packaging cannot be performed without first understanding, at a detailed level, what can be provisioned and how. With the variety of applications, data services, implementation methodologies and models which exist, a single method approach has proven to not address a majority of software products currently available on the SMB market, and is unlikely to in the near future.
An example of this challenge is partially revealed when we look at the diversity of applications involved in the Microsoft Office ecosystem. Many businesses rely upon the functionality present on the Office suite desktop products, such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint. For some application users, this functionality is not present in their primary use software, but is presented via desktop level integration methods. In order to deliver the full functionality and capability of the primary use application, the installation and integration support for the Office applications must also be provisioned and packaged into the service. Offering even limited integrations and options like Office for inclusion in the package can introduce challenges in data access and management, permissions and file level security, and ISV licensing of applications. For these and other reasons, attempting to provide a rich, user-selected mixture of deliverables poses the ultimate challenge to the application service provider.
When a cloud or application hosting provider can offer their customers the ability to sign up for, purchase, and utilize without complication or delay their selections of desktop or web-based applications, services and integrations, and pay for them as a subscription service accessible at any time and from anywhere – that’s the secret sauce of application hosting and cloud IT that everyone’s looking for.