Integrated solutions as a service – iSaaS anyone?

Against the background of ever increasing hype around cloud computing, it’s interesting listening to keynotes from senior executives on the supplier side of the equation. I was watching a video of CEO Marc Benioff speaking at the company’s recent Cloudforce event in the UK, for example. Stirring stuff, and some great material explaining the value proposition for ‘Software as a Service’ (SaaS), or ‘enterprise cloud computing’ as Benioff and his disciples now call it. Well worth a watch.

If you took it all on face value, though, you could walk away with the impression that all of those headaches we have struggled with for years in IT have disappeared overnight, and that all you need to do is whip out your credit card, sign up for a few cloud services, then sit back with your feet up. In fact, if you were tuning in from your computer room sitting next to your racks of servers and other kit, you might even get a complex about being one of the backward few who aren’t already moving everything into ‘the cloud’

The trouble with all of this time shifting, i.e. talking as if activity in the mainstream is more advanced than it is in reality, is that it creates the impression that all of the problems have been solved. If we stick with our example, while this particular supplier must be congratulated for creating a great proposition around a very specific application – sales force automation – when claims are made that this is an indicator of application requirements as a whole now shifting en masse the Software as a Service (SaaS) model, there is a danger of losing sight of some of the significant challenges that still exist.

Many of the questions to do with integration between services, and between in-house systems and service provider offerings, are yet to be resolved, for example. All the big players have views on this and can deliver great PowerPoint presentations and demos to illustrate how it will all work. But if you were to scale out your commitment to cloud computing today beyond a small number of discrete services, you would very likely end up in a unpredictable mess, at the mercy of a range of providers who are not yet mature enough to play nicely together from either a physical integration or commercial cooperation perspective. The reality is that we have a long way to go before real-world integration, support and maintenance requirements in even some of the simplest multi-provider scenarios will be dealt with to the satisfaction of most mainstream enterprises.

There are some examples of more mature thinking in the cloud computing arena, however, that acknowledges some of the practicalities. I recently attended a customer day run by Cobweb Solutions, a UK based provider that has been delivering hosted business services, predominantly to small and medium businesses (SMBs), for over a decade now. I was actually there in my capacity as a customer (we use Cobweb’s hosted Exchange service at Freeform Dynamics), but I couldn’t help listening as an industry analyst.

During his introduction, Mark Adams, the Managing Director of Cobweb, talked through the history of the company, from being labelled an ‘Internet Service Provider’ (ISP) in 1998, an ‘Application Service Provider’ (ASP) in 2001, and a ‘Managed Service Provider’ (MSP) in 2004 after the wheels fell off of the ASP bandwagon. More recently, people have referred to Cobweb as a SaaS or cloud service provider. As Mark explained, however, while the services offered have been evolving, extending and maturing over the years, the core Cobweb proposition hasn’t really changed. The fundamental components of this boil down to no capital investment, no hardware to maintain, and enterprise level security, resilience, recovery and compliance for the SMB customers served.

Having said this, the way in which the Cobweb service has been evolving is quite interesting. The pivotal hosted Microsoft Exchange and SharePoint offering has been gradually extended to include complementary services like mobile access, content filtering, archiving and retrieval, etc – all pre-integrated and presented as options that can be selected from a self provisioning portal. This approach, with Cobweb basically assembling pieces of an overall solution jigsaw and providing a single point of support for everything, has now been extended to include ‘Customer Relationship Management’ (CRM) based on the Microsoft Dynamics CRM 4.0 software suite.

This integrated solution services model overcomes a lot of the integration and accountability related gotchas that can potentially trip customers up as they broaden their commitment to the cloud computing – if something goes wrong with the interfacing between your CRM and messaging system, there is no ambiguity about who is responsible for fixing it.

In acknowledgement of another often glossed-over practicality, Cobweb has teamed with ConsultCRM, a professional services firm that will help customers with everything from analysis and scoping of requirements, through configuration and data migration, to training and rollout of the CRM service. While other providers often give the impression of it just being a case of ‘subscribe and go’ with SaaS services, Cobweb is up front about the need for most customers to go through a traditional implementation cycle if they are to be successful.

In many ways, firms like Cobweb are setting the benchmark for delivery of genuinely integrated SaaS based solutions into the SMB space that bring together multiple packages and components in a way that minimises hassle and risk for the customer. The downside, however, is that the integration work required takes time, which may frustrate some customers who would prefer not to wait for new components and upgrades to be added to the service. This is something we at Freeform Dynamics had to deal with last year, for example, when we were forced to introduce a second provider into the equation to gain access to the latest version of SharePoint because it was so far out on Cobweb’s roadmap. And while Cobweb is now up-to-date in this area, the lag in delivery of new capability is still evident, e.g. it’s still going to be a while before a unified communications capability will be offered, which is a natural next step for its customers.

Ultimately, the emergence of standards and the maturing business practices within the cloud provider community will allow mixing and matching of services that need to work together coherently to be achieved more conveniently and with less risk. But for SMBs in particular, the broader solution approach will continue to have a place for those needing a relatively standard mix of pre-integrated capability, prioritising cost, coherency and risk management over always being smack-bang up to date.

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