Confusing Value Propositions: Cloud Platforms and Hosted Applications

it-balancing-actConfusing Value Propositions: Cloud Platforms and  Hosted Applications

When a service provider is in the business of selling computing resources – like bandwidth, processors and memory, and disk storage – it makes a lot of sense to also leverage the value of software products and systems which drive consumption of computing resources.  In short, they market and sell software that runs on the platform in order to get folks to buy the platform, no different from selling desktop and server software in order to sell the hardware to run it.  It’s just that these days the hardware and networking components are often referred to as the “platform” or maybe “the cloud”.

Let’s face it… cloud computing platforms are just no fun if there’s nothing to run on them, and a hard drive has little value when there isn’t anything stored on it.  Once there is something there – an application, data… something – then the part has actual value in terms of driving revenue.  This is the difficulty and the basis for confusing value propositions when it comes to offering and delivering services in the form of a hosting platform.  Once again: platforms are just no fun if there’s nothing to run on them.  Is the value is really about the applications, not the platform? Or is the value in the platform, because it’s necessary for running the applications?

The truth is that both are essential parts of the entire “solution”, and the value of how the solution is packaged and offered is purely up to the purchaser to determine in terms of applicability to the business.  When it comes to hosted application offerings for businesses, there isn’t a single one-size-fits-all approach that will work.  Sometimes people want to purchase from different vendors and put their own solutions together, and sometimes folks want turnkey delivery of whatever they need.  Even channel partners and value-added resellers are finding that, with diminishing margins and aggressive competition prevalent in the market, removing the time-consuming aspects of solution delivery becomes paramount to achieving some level of profitability on the work.

What this means is that providers are looking for ways to increase the overall value and usability of their solutions, and when it comes to platform services there are only two directions to look: automation to support self-service, and application software delivery to drive consumption and usage on the hosting platform.

So now we’re back to the applications again.  There’s no way to avoid them, but there’s no great way for platform companies to engage with them, either.  Working with business application software is sometimes complicated, often annoying, and can be exceptionally time-consuming and resource intensive. And there are few licensing models which make it really easy for hosts and ISVs (Independent Software Vendors) to work together.  Then, of course, there is the desire for exclusivity on one side or the other.

Software companies don’t generally want to select a single platform provider for their software for a very simple reason: they don’t want to limit their potential user base.  Now that Windows platform is available just about anywhere – on local computers, on mobile devices, from platform and infrastructure hosting providers – how does the ISV make a decision on a single delivery channel or model or provider?

Some lean towards working with hosting providers to create branded, point-deliveries of the application.  Too often, however, this approach removes the ability for customers to benefit from other applications or integrations, eliminating some of the value of the solution and certainly curtailing benefits for integrating partners of the ISV.

Host it themselves?  The last thing most software developers want is to be responsible for hosting and maintaining some other guys’ software products; they have enough to worry about with their own offerings.  If the solution is standalone, maybe this approach works.  But there are few solutions made for the desktop which don’t have some strange integration point with MS Office apps, Adobe reader, Internet browsers or other things prevalent on the user desktop.

There isn’t any proven or easy path for software developers, IT suppliers or small business customers looking to create mobility and managed subscription service around desktop and server applications, and there is likely never going to be a single story line that all will follow.  This is among the reasons for the popularity of the “hybrid” cloud approach and growing importance of managed application hosting and ISV-authorized delivery models.  Yet even key providers in those areas have a tough time really communicating what they do in a way that is meaningful to the buyer.  Are they selling a platform, applications, or both? Folks in the industry know the jargon and how to use it, and are often skilled at adjusting their language in order to obfuscate or confuse certain sticky issues regarding software licensing in the cloud and other similar aspects of hosting.  It’s no wonder that many customers remain confused as to what, exactly, they’re being asked to buy, and where the lines of flexibility and responsibility are drawn.

The applications justify the platform, and there are possibly multiple platform approaches to delivering the app. It is a confusing situation for business buyers of IT as well as for their resellers and suppliers, and the increasing number of options for how businesses approach purchasing and using information technology makes it unlikely that the process will become as simple as some suggest.

jmbunnyfeetMake Sense?


4 Rules of Thumb for Considering Cloud Applications in Business

With all the talk of cloud computing and Software-as-a-Service models, businesses are increasingly questioning their continued use of on-premises and “traditional” software implementations. Having heard that cloud applications are cheaper and better than locally installed solutions, some small business owners and IT managers are actively seeking alternatives to their current software selections. In too many cases, however, these business owners or IT managers aren’t looking at the longer term impacts of their decisions, and may be adopting cloud software solutions simply because it seems to be the way things are going these days.

The cloud is simply a term being applied to a new way of looking at information technology – how businesses buy it, how they use it, and what they expect from it. Even as technology gets more complicated, users are demanding greater ease-of-use and lower costs. The response to these conditions is the cloud: addressing basic and common requirements and delivering the solution for a low-cost to many users. While the approach meets the simplicity and affordability elements, it may or may not fully address all the functional, compliance or sustainability needs of the business.

4-rules-of-thumbOne size never fits all, and this is as true with cloud computing as it is with bathing suits. For the business owner or IT manager considering adoption of cloud-based applications for the business, keep in mind these 4 Rules of Thumb so that the hype and excitement doesn’t cloud your judgment.

Rule 1: Software is software, and it is installed somewhere. Just because an application is accessed using a browser (which is software) doesn’t mean the product isn’t installed somewhere. When it’s a SaaS solution, the product is simply installed and running on the provider’s servers rather than your own computers.  Software can fail even when it isn’t on your computer, so it should be expected that failure could happen with SaaS solutions.  The difference is that a failure of an app on one machine isn’t news; failure of an app that lots of people are using at the same time is news.

Rule 2: Software that talks to other software means there is integration between the two. Whether the products are installed on the PC or whether they run from different providers’ systems, they still have to be able to communicate together at some common level. The Windows platform used to provide a “common” standard for integration of Windows applications. When applications move from the desktop platform to the web, many of the common integration approaches no longer work and new methods must be developed.  Just because a solution integrates with the desktop edition of a product does not mean it will automatically integrate with a web or SaaS edition of the product (QuickBooks exemplifies this).

Rule 3: Software still requires hardware and other resources. When cloud-based solutions are implemented, the cost of the server and storage facilities (along with other elements) may be included in the subscription price. The efficiency and scale economies developed by the provider will ultimately determine their profitability, but it is generally the case that centralization of resources, management and administration can significantly reduce the cost of operations. With most cloud solutions, it is the assumption of scale (leveraging a single asset base to many subscribing customers) which makes things more affordable than deploying similar capabilities individually for each customer. Consider also that any deployment of cloud software solutions still means that businesses must retain their local networks and devices. While PCs, laptops and tablets may not be running business applications, they are still computing devices which may need to connect to networks, have virus protection, have remote access or connection software installed on them, and any number of other things. In short, moving to the cloud does not remove the requirement to have and maintain user devices, printers and LANs.  And really, don’t most people still want Office applications on their devices, even if they also have remote access to such applications?  Office for iPad is somewhat of a tell in that respect; kind of proves the point.

Rule 4: Not all data is stored in the same manner. This is as true on a PC or LAN as it is in the cloud. However, cloud solutions can introduce quite a wrinkle when it comes to keeping copies of business data over time. With PCs and local networks, a business would back up their data in any variety of ways, preserving the files and formats for possible later use. As long as there was software available to read and open the files, the backed up data would be usable. Simply due to the popularity of some data formats, there might also be tools or utilities available to read the data even if the original application was lost. The wrinkle introduced with cloud solutions is not necessarily that the format of the data is strange – it is likely that most cloud-based business applications use fairly proven and recognizable database technology. The difficulty is that the actual database file(s) containing a company’s unique data may or may not be separate from other company data. If it is separate (single-tenant database), it is unlikely that the database as structured is portable. The fact is, most web-based or cloud solutions will allow users to export data from the database, but cannot provide actual structured data files ready for use with another application, lacking logical data or table relationships. Some solutions suggest that simple list exports are sufficient, and others may say they have data conversion capabilities, but the reality is that data existing in a cloud application is not very portable. Business intelligence is a terrible thing to waste, so it is really important to be able to take all the data with you (in a meaningful way, not as a bunch of disparate lists).

Cloud computing covers a really broad spectrum of technologies and delivery models, and most of the above is more about SaaS applications rather than actual cloud platforms. The platforms are where the applications live – server and network environments.  This is where hosting companies do their work, as the things they host live on the platforms.

Businesses electing to add mobility, management, fault tolerance and other capabilities to their systems should explore the benefits of application hosting and cloud platforms, and not immediately look to SaaS and cloud application alternatives to their existing software solutions. By deploying their systems in a managed hosting environment, businesses can often keep using their existing core software products, integrations, and data archiving methods while gaining the best benefits of “cloud”.

Joanie Mann Bunny FeetMake Sense?