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The blogged wandering of Robert W. Anderson

The Cloud Services Stack — Infrastructure

I posted Cloud Services Continuum a couple of weeks back.  In that post I articulated a simplified view of cloud services and how they fit together.  This was simple by design — others had found this view useful, so I wrote it down.  I intentionally ignored some kinds of services, greatly simplifying the Infrastructure piece.  In this post I delve deeper into infrastructure services.  I’ll move on to platform next.

BTW: Stack is a more fitting word than continuum for various reasons, so I’m using that instead.  And a shout out to Matias Wolsky — check out his SaaS Taxonomy Map.

Infrastructure as a Serviceimage

In my earlier post, I defined IaaS to include provisioning of hardware or virtual machines on which one generally has control over the OS; therefore allowing the execution of arbitrary software. This definition isn’t really enough, because there are many other kinds of infrastructure.  Take a look at the services that are out there:

  • connectivity / messaging services.  Examples: Microsoft BizTalk Labs and Connectivity Services, Gnip.
  • identity services. Countless OpenID identity providers, again the BizTalk Labs Identity Services.
  • data storage.  Examples: Amazon’s S3 and SimpleDB, Microsoft SQL Server Data Services.

One might argue that together these services create a “platform” — and they get close — but since none of these host general user-written code, they don’t quite get there.

Then, of course, there is flexible machine provisioning like Amazon EC2.  These are definitely infrastructure — where the platform is the OS, Web servers, and other software.

Calling this all IaaS is fine — it is all infrastructure — but, maybe we should further divide these:

  • Virtual Hardware Infrastructure
  • Storage Infrastructure
  • (Other) Infrastructure Services

Granted, these names need some work, but I think the categories are useful.  And I won’t make them into acronyms because I think we have enough of those.

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Cloud Services Continuum

I have found myself talking about cloud services a lot recently.  We have been talking about them here — there is an obvious synergy between what we do at Digipede and cloud services.  And I’ve been talking about them externally too: at the recent CloudCamp, on the Gillmor Gang, and in all sorts of other interesting contexts. 

Note that I refer to cloud services, not to the cloud.  I am not interested in defining cloud as a term, because I don’t think it very useful.  For those of us in the distributed computing space, cloud is the latest buzzword to compete with the word grid in terms of utter ambiguity.  I think the ship has already sailed on this one and I’m not going to try to call it back.

So, everyone is talking about cloud services and much of the conversation centers on understanding them and how they are changing the landscape.  Of course, cloud services are not one thing.  I find it helpful to think about them as parts of a continuum.  This seems useful regardless of the technical level of the people with whom I’m speaking.

imageThe diagram to the right shows this continuum from infrastructure to platform to software.   Brief definitions of these parts are:

  • Infrastructure includes provisioning of hardware or virtual computers on which one generally has control over the OS; therefore allowing the execution of arbitrary software.
  • Platform indicates a higher-level environment for which developers write custom applications.  Generally the developer is accepting some restrictions on the type of software they can write in exchange for built-in application scalability. 
  • Software (as a Service) indicates special-purpose software made available through the Internet.

I have indicated several companies that play at different parts of this stack.  This list is not comprehensive nor does it attempt to represent motion across the stack.

One scenario in which I find myself talking about the continuum is when people equate Amazon EC2 with Google App Engine.  EC2 is a flexible / scalable virtual hosting platform with provisioning APIs.  It allows you to dynamically scale the number of instances of your OS (i.e., Linux).  What you do with those instances is up to you.  Google App Engine operates at a much higher level in the stack.  It is a new software platform with specific APIs.  It requires developers to build for this specific platform.  yes, they are both in the cloud, but they are very different services. 

Another scenario in which the continuum is useful is in thinking about what vendors and new entrants might be up to.  The continuum makes one thing even more clear: many vendors that operate higher in the stack are relying on their own internal lower-level infrastructure or platform.  This begs some questions: which vendors will expose lower-level interfaces?  And of course, which vendors will move up the stack? 

  • SalesForce is already moving down with their PaaS offering. 
  • Any chance Google will expose its infrastructure stack?  I doubt it, but I do expect them to move down a little. 
  • Some of the readers of this blog probably know better than I where Amazon and Microsoft are planning to go.

Yet another way it is useful is in comparing vendors inside of a particular category.  Maybe I’ll write more on that later.

Is the continuum obvious?  Using the definition of obvious from patent law, yes, but I think it a useful paradigm.

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The S+S Kool-Aid

Had a good talk on the Gang today.  Mostly we talked about Microsoft / Yahoo, if Microsoft can beat Google at openness.  A small part of the discussion was whether or not Microsoft can credibly move into an open Services space with their S+S strategy. 

Perception is that the Software in the S+S strategy is the Windows desktop & Office.  Of course, there is truth in that, but I maintain that Microsoft is also driving to enable their developer ecosystem to build rich S+S applications outside of the Windows desktop and Office.

But maybe Gianpaolo Carraro, Director of SaaS Architecture at Microsoft, disagrees with me.  In his post, S+S- Real or have I drunk too much Kool-Aid- -), he shows a feature of Office that can open and save Office Live files.  He asks if this example shows that S+S is real or if he has “drunk too much (of the Microsoft) Kool-Aid”.

Short answer, yes.

I seem to have stepped into the middle of an argument between Gianpaolo and Phil Waineright of ZDNet.  What are they arguing about?  Not that software is required on the front-end — I think we can all just get past that one.  Not that deployment isn’t an issue.  It seems they are arguing about whether Office + the Cloud is better than free on-demand office productivity “in the cloud”.  Fair enough, but I think the root of the issue is the term “S+S”.

Gianpaolo, is essentially saying,

Look at this nifty integration between Windows desktop & Office + Office Live.  This proves S+S is real.

Real?  Maybe.  But it that is S+S, then it just isn’t a useful term.

If it is about more than that, then let’s stop talking about little integration features between Office and Office Live.  Instead, let’s see some good examples of what it means outside of the Windows desktop, outside of Office / Office Live, even outside of Microsoft.

And this is what S+S being real and, more importantly, being relevant is going to come down to.  Regardless of how much Kool-Aid you consume.

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Marc Benioff & Hybrid Hosting

Marc Benioff was special guest in the recent Gillmor Gang (VIdeo Gang Parts I and II).   After getting through the initial discussion on earnings we moved on to talk about the SaaS business and their application platform.

Mike Vizard led off the questions about ApEx with a good one: how will SalesForce get developer traction for their language / environment / form?  Marc enumerated several things they are doing about that.  Most of this is kind of “business as usual” for those building a developer community, though I do think that one of their strategies is pretty innovative: rent out cubicles to developers in a building devoted to ApEx development (this is happening in old offices of Siebel — this would be ironic if it weren’t intentional).  These developers get everything they need to build apps on the SalesForce platform.

This may turn out to be of great value to those who are already interested in the platform.  Of course, the drive for developers to build applications on ApEx will come down to one thing: is there a viable marketplace for the applications they build? 

Clearly Marc and SalesForce understand this fully.   They are not pushing the “build it and they will come” mantra; instead, they have built an application exchange (i.e., the AppExchange) to enable a viable marketplace.

On a slightly different tack, I asked Marc to talk a little about their hosting capabilities for third party applications sold through the AppExchange.  Without getting into too much detail about the different kinds of applications that support the ApEx (native, client, hybrid, etc.) there is a class of applications that requires external hosting.  These applications take advantage of the APIs yet are not built on the ApEx platform.  As a result, these applications are not hosted by 

I grok why they choose not to post these hybrid applications.  Doing so requires a different hosting model: one that is application-specific possibly supporting different hardware requirements, different OSes, different staff, etc. I can only guess that they have made the decision not to do this in favor of their “pure” ApEx strategy.  Certainly the “pure” strategy is a lot cleaner, more focused, more repeatable,  more like an “product sale” instead of an implementation sale . . .

However, lets go back to the earlier point of developer adoption.  Wouldn’t it be easier to get developers to adopt ApEx and AppExchange and the whole concept of SaaS if you were able to provide a hybrid hosting solution?

This reminds me a little bit of .NET.   One of the key features of .NET is support for COM.  If users had to throw out their legacy code to begin to adopt .NET in their organization, .NET would have had a much slower adoption rate.  They don’t. 

It sound likes an ApEx developer who wants to take advantage of the AppExchange has to either start everything from scratch or provide their own hosting solution.

So I wonder, would SalesForce be able to ramp up developer adoption rates with a hybrid hosting strategy?

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SaaS Lighthouse Program Flickers

From Don Dodge: Microsoft has unveiled the Microsoft SaaS Lighthouse Program.

This program is designed to help SaaS startups with licensing, technical, and marketing assistance.

I have been talking about this hole in Microsoft Partner Programs for sometime — a little on my blog, but mostly in person to Robert Scoble, Sam Ramji, John deVadoss, and many others. Pretty much every Microsoft person I meet. Microsoft has a good program (called Empower) to help the ISV startup and has, up until now, really had nothing for the SaaS startup. Why is the SaaS startup important? Because Web 2.0 companies are essentially all SaaS startups. Why are Web 2.0 companies important? If you don’t know, well . . . stop reading here.

It is obvious that Microsoft is trailing in the Web 2.0 community — this is embodied in the negative perception of Microsoft I found at a TechCrunch party: “anti-Microsoft” is a buzz word?. Most Web 2.0 startups are making use of free tools to build their sites and view Microsoft’s products (primarily Server 2003 and SQL Server) as being too expensive. While the productivity gains attained using these tools trumps licensing costs, Microsoft still needs programs that will help the adoption of their technology in SaaS startups.

Unfortunately, this program isn’t it.

You see, to get into this program, your company must have venture funding. A few problems with this:

  • A venture-backed company can afford the licenses and training. Period.
  • A Web 2.0 startup doesn’t start with venture money. In fact, very few startups begin with venture. So, the Web 2.0 startup gets no help from Microsoft until after VC? Kind of obvious, I know, but the startup has probably already built a service and released it before they get serious interest from a VC.
  • The venture clause is likely a way for Microsoft to get external validation that the startup isn’t wasting their time and money. OK, but that is no way to increase adoption.

Now, I cannot claim that the purpose of this program is to help Web 2.0 startups (or to increase adoption of Microsoft techologies).

Just to be clear: it doesn’t.

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Interested in ASP.NET for your startup?

A question I ask Microsoft people frequently is: what are you doing to promote your tools in the Web 2.0 world / to help SaaS startups use your technologies?
I saw two posts today that, while not answering this question, seem to me like progress:

ASP.NET 2.0 Training Center

Microsoft (and CMP and O’Reilly and Dr. Dobb’s) have rolled out the ASP.NET 2.0 Training Center. This is to help PHP / JSP / ColdFusion developers learn about .NET. This looks like a great resource for developers to learn about the capabilities of .NET. If you are a developer using one of these other technologies, check it out. There is a free copy of Visual Studio 2005 Standard in it for you if you view 3 webinars.

Obviously, this is a great tactic to get non-.NET users to see what ASP.NET has to offer — I’m sure they’ll get plenty of free-riders too 😉

I found out about this from an O’Reilly post (see ASP.Net on a Roll). According to them, ASP.NET 2.0 is gaining leverage (as measured by book sales). Good news for Microsoft and for developers. ASP.NET is really a great way to build Web sites and services. I personally much prefer this to PHP, for example. Scripting languages are fine, but I’m in the strong-typing camp. And now since ASP.NET 2.0 can recompile your code on the server, it takes away a major scripting advantage.

Microsoft Startup Zone

In Microsoft Startup Zone Launches, Don Dodge announces the new Microsoft Startup Zone, sort of a portal into Microsoft’s Emerging Business Team. This site is full of resources for startup companies. While I still would like to see a partner program for SaaS startups, this site is worth a visit if you want to see what Microsoft has to offer emerging companies.

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On Dan’l’s List

Today Dan’l Lewin, Microsoft Corporate VP of .NET Business Development, highlights some startups using .NET (see Checked My List Twice). Of course, he included Digipede! About his list, he says:

I believe they are among the most creative, inventive (and yes, ‘innovative’ startups) that we follow. They are doing some amazing things — creating solutions and products that would definitely make it to Santa’s list (not that any of us actually make lists anymore.)

Thanks Dan’l!

Postscript: Robert Scoble and Don Dodge blogged about Dan’l’s list too.

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John Powers interviewed at WindowsHPC

John Powers, the President of Digipede (my company) was recently interviewed by WindowsHPC about the Digipede Network, how it fits into the distributed computing market, and how it is a good fit with SaaS providers. We designed it with SaaS in mind. After all, we came from a company where we had a SaaS product (and enterprise products) that needed scale-out (I mention the product briefly in my previous post).

You can read the full text of the interview, here: An Inteview with John Powers, President of Digipede Technologies.

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Contrary Evidence to SaaS

In his post Contrary Evidence at the SLC, Sam Ramji of the Microsoft Emerging Business Team is surprised by big CIO resistance to SaaS pricing models. No surprise, really, that CIOs want the best of all possible worlds (a ceiling on price with lowering price as appropriate and lowest overall cost).

He makes some good points about confusion surrounding standard (or lack of standard) pricing models and conflation between value-based and usage-based pricing. I certainly agree that pricing models are getting more complex. There is a real need for simplified / standardized pricing as well as licensing agreements. This would be a real help to all types of software vendors.

Back in the Web 1.0 days, my former company Energy Interactive sold SaaS to large energy providers (both vertically-integrated electric utilities and deregulated energy suppliers). Of course, we called ourselves an Application Service Provider (though SaaS is a better term).

At the time we sold the hosted product as a one-time setup fee plus annual bundle of license, maintenance and support. We also sold the product as installed software with a perpetual license + maintenance and support. There was a direct correlation between the size of the customer and their level of comfort with the SaaS model: the bigger they were the more they wanted to just buy it and install it themselves. Truthfully, we didn’t want to sell it as an installed product for the typical reasons (i.e., it was much easier for us to maintain and support it if we had direct access to it, etc.).

Again and again we had to convince the large prospective customers that it made sense for them to go with the SaaS model then for them to host it themselves.
Of course, times have changed: SaaS is more accepted. Small customers (both individual users and small to midsize companies) certainly benefit from it; however, Mr. Ramji has detected that this is still the case for large enterprises. Certainly there are the financial and licensing issues to be resolved, but this will continue to be a hard sell for the large enterprise that is used to having absolute control over their brand, operations, IT environment, security, etc.

I don’t have the answer to question, “will SaaS fail to penetrate large enterprises”, but I do think it will continue to be a hard road.

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