The software as a service (SaaS) business application market is in an accelerated growth phase and is set to become a significant part of both the small and medium enterprise (SME) and enterprise space. Salesforce.com is one of the largest and most successful of these SaaS vendors to date, and it sets many benchmarks the latest being platform as a service (PaaS). So, what is now preventing other application service providers and software vendors from replicating the success of Salesforce.com and becoming leading SaaS providers themselves? An important reason could be that other companies have not yet conquered the dual challenges of rich internet application (RIA) development and SaaS delivery that would enable them to attract independent software vendors (ISVs) in great enough numbers to offer a full application portfolio.
The RIA Development Hurdle
One of the main conditions for successful Web-based SaaS delivery is RIA orientation. This means that the SaaS application must provide a user experience at least on par with traditional client/server applications. It also means that the delivery must be over the Internet via a very thin client that does not require any explicit installation or management.
A number of products such as Adobe Flex and Microsoft Silverlight have the toolboxes and platforms for delivering attractive RIA, including the user experience richness demanded today. However, this level of offering comes at the expense of a heavy development effort meaning that an organization must create separate client and server tiers in the in-between communication layer. This requires the management of at least two different development paradigms and developer skill sets. The result is a more complex project than the prevailing approach, which uses a single Java-style development paradigm.
The SaaS Delivery Hurdle
Adding to the difficulty of RIA development is the problem of SaaS delivery. One of the major advantages of SaaS, unlike application service provider (ASP) is their use of a single application infrastructure that can be applied to multiple customers (or tenants) and their users. However, while this is great for reusability and cost savings, it creates a challenge when using code-based applications where multitenant capability must be built in to the code. For example, how do you keep track of which tenant is using what and when? How do you manage their usage rights in a tailored subscription plan? How do you isolate each tenants execution environment (dealing with customization, selective software updates and database restores) while taking advantage of reduced overhead? Lastly, how do you work out how much to bill each one?
Overcoming the Legacy Application Business Barrier
Salesforce.com is the only player that has effectively answered both the RIA and SaaS challenges by developing their own platform and software application from scratch. Today, Salesforce.com has an attractive application and a series of ISV partner-created add-ons. However, what happens when a small ISV partner, wanting to add-on their application to a major vendor, finds they cannot do so easily, because their application was built using C++ or Java? Even players such as Salesforce.com face the challenge of increasing the variety of applications on its platform. For example, its new proprietary platform is unable to directly execute or enable the migration of applications built using traditional programming language.
There is a major business barrier to ISVs joining SaaS providers in greater numbers and it is now preventing more application vendors from replicating the success of Salesforce.com. The challenge of creating a well-rounded SaaS offering based in part upon successfully assimilating ISVs existing applications remains one of the primary stumbling blocks for SaaS providers today.
The Advantage of a Metadata-Driven Application Platform
Metadata-driven application platforms offer a way around the business barrier by effectively migrating and carrying business logic across successive generations of operating systems and hardware. In practical terms, the thousands of ISVs and enterprises that started working with MS-DOS/Netware-based applications can now render these applications into a RIA with minimal changes, while fully conserving the original business logic.
ISVs that operate on a metadata-driven application platform can now take the qualitative leap into RIA and SaaS mode without the expense of a rewrite and without having to acquire a workforce with multiple skill sets.
If enterprise application providers want to quickly and successfully build a SaaS portfolio, they must harness these ISVs. They must also develop a metadata-driven application platform to easily and cost-effectively transform client-based and server-based applications into the types of products demanded by todays customers. Metadata-driven application platforms represent a win/win situation for both ISVs and enterprise application providers, and they promise to open more markets to the full potential of the SaaS and RIA revolution.
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