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Hey SaaS Experts : What’s Your Cloud Computing IQ?

I’ll say it again: SaaS is NOT cloud computing. As the industry rushes to embrace cloud computing, too many SaaS experts and vendors are simply updating their marketing messages with cloud buzzwords. This is not enough.

When I started this blog, the biggest challenge faced by SaaS vendors was getting our heads around the new lightweight paradigm for marketing and selling an on-demand Web application versus the heavy-handed direct sales approach of traditional enterprise software.

SaaS vendors with high cloud computing IQ’s
recognize the cloud as the new channel.

Today, a new challenge is arising. However, this time the threat comes not from the past, but from the future. Just as SaaS vendors have found their Internet footing, cloud computing is destabilizing the very ground beneath our feet. Depending on your SaaS business, cloud computing could impact everything from application architecture to channel strategy. Or, it may not affect you at all. Either way you should know. What is your cloud computing IQ?

The Cloud is the Computer

John Gage’s prophetic remark “The Network is the Computer” beautifully highlights the difference between SaaS and cloud computing. While SaaS applications provide on-demand services to millions of users across the Internet, cloud applications provide on-demand services to millions of other applications across the Internet. The network really is the computer.

Why should this matter to SaaS experts and vendors? Two reasons. First, because most SaaS applications today exist as silos that only solve a piece of a customer’s puzzle. Second, because cloud computing enables new economies of scale through shared infrastructure that properly designed SaaS applications can leverage to further drive down total cost of service.

SaaS Model Economics 101 states that SaaS competitive advantage comes in two Internet-enabled flavors: network-based differentiation and lower cost from economies of scale. Cloud computing creates new opportunities for SaaS vendors to extend their competitive advantage by opening their applications to the cloud through Web services and further driving down costs by running on shared cloud infrastructure.

SaaS Silos vs. Cloud Platforms

SaaS Do #9 – Open Up to The Cloud encourages SaaS vendors to reach out to complementary applications on the Web through open, standards-based APIs. But opening up to the cloud is not just about easy integration. Comprehensive Web service access will transform your SaaS application into a cloud computing platform. Virtually everyone today knows about Facebook. But, what not everyone in the SaaS community knows is that the fundamental reason Facebook kicked the crap out of Myspace and all the other wannabees vying for social network dominance was the introduction of the Facebook platform that allowed independent developers to create Facebook applications. Platform-as-a-service (Paas) opportunities are not limited to pure play PaaS companies making cloud development and deployment toolkits, PaaS opportunities are open to every SaaS vendor that thinks beyond the browser and is willing to expand its definition of “user” to include not only people, but other applications as well.

Have SaaS, Will Travel

It’s hard to believe, but we already have a “traditional model” for SaaS application architecture based on database multi-tenancy and a vertically integrated delivery infrastructure. This architectural model is the foundation of the SaaS cost advantage. However, it originated in a pre-cloud computing world based on the pre-cloud computing assumption that the SaaS application would run on a static host infrastructure.

To fully realize the cost advantages available on the Internet, the next generation of SaaS applications will not only be multi-tenant, but will be multiple tenants in their own right on shared cloud infrastructure. Monolithlic, vertically integrated SaaS applications will be broken up into loosely coupled, multi-layered Web service components that can be dynamically deployed to multiple cloud platforms in order to meet production requirements. This trend is so visible to the VC community, that the folks at Bessemer promoted it to the #1 spot of their recently revised 10 Laws of Cloud Computing and SaaS.

Blooming Channels

The inadequate grasp of cloud computing in the SaaS community was highlighted for me by some of the reactions of my fellow SaaS evangelists to this recent post of the emerging PaaS channel opportunity. As if the emergence of the PaaS channel somehow devalues the “pure” SaaS channel. This is not the case. There are fewer “pure” SaaS channel partners simply because SaaS vendors are doing a good job of making their applications easy for people to deploy and use. This is a good thing!

The fact that there are fewer “pure” SaaS channel partners does not in any way discount their value. SaaS channel partners have naturally gravitated to very high value services such as business strategy, process design, requirements definition, vendor selection, and training. However, from the SaaS vendor’s perspective these types of channel partners are gatekeepers. They don’t move product. And, anyone who has spent any amount of time in consulting will tell you that while a strategy project may net you $100K in services revenue, a development project can net you $1M. So, I’ll say it again. Cloud channels will follow the money.

This is not to say that we’re going back in time with the PaaS channel reliving the custom development glory days of enterprise software VARs. PaaS channel partners will be leading the charge into a new paradigm of cloud-based application development, sewing SaaS applications and Web services together into flexible mash-up cloud applications and application suites that are dynamically deployed across the Internet. The retooling required of traditional software VARs to deliver these services is no less daunting than the shift required of enterprise software companies to deliver SaaS. (How long did it take SAP and Oracle to get with the program?)

SaaS vendors with high cloud computing IQs recognize the cloud as the new channel. They will transform their applications into cloud computing platforms and will see their PaaS channel opportunities bloom. Whereas today’s “pure” SaaS channel opportunities are largely limited to marketing referrals from trusted advisers and affiliates, tomorrows PaaS channel partners will redistribute SaaS applications over the cloud as components, complements and containers of other applications. They will extend both the market reach and product capabilities of SaaS vendors that embrace PaaS the same way they have already done this for Salesforce, Facebook, Google and Twitter. The network is the channel.

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