Cloud computing without support may be a myth!

12th November 2011

You can access software applications and operating systems and data storage and processing power on demand from anywhere with an internet connection. But as FSN writer Lesley Meall discovers, if you want to reach this point, and make the best of your systems beyond this point, you may still need some specialist support.

You could be forgiven for thinking that cloud-based software and services might eventually sound the death knell for the third party solution providers, systems integrators, and value added resellers in the ecosystem that has grown up around traditional on-premise software, but you’d still be wrong – at least for the foreseeable future. The day may eventually arrive when almost all software is ‘hosted’, and accessed from a ‘net book’ style device (as FSN highlighted here). But if and when it does, there may still be a need for third party support. Because despite the Software as a Service (SaaS) trend, and the proliferation of applications (that can be accessed ‘on demand’, over the internet, using a browser), and boxes with operating system software and other infrastructure tools (often described as Infrastructure as a Service, or IaaS), that can be used to run applications and store data in the cloud, what many businesses require might be better described as ‘software plus services’. 

The cloud can remove the need to physically install software and minimise the number of boxes you must buy to run it and store your data on, but the cloud doesn’t eliminate the need for help setting up new systems, product insight, systems integration, and various other types of ‘support’. There are cloud-based software applications and infrastructure systems that can be set-up and used with no assistance and very little IT expertise, or just the guidance and support of the software developer/vendor (on which more, later), and there are many individuals and small businesses exploiting this, as FSN shows here. But the possibilities are limited. As system complexity, customisation, user numbers, integration with other applications, and access device types, all increase, so does the need for specialist help during the set up phase – even if this need starts to abate after the implementation phase. 

‘When you move to SaaS, you still need help and support,’ says Mike Risley, commercial director with Nolan Business Solutions, which installs, develops and supports the cloud business solution NetSuite and the non-cloud Microsoft Dynamics GP and Microsoft Dynamics CRM. ‘A lot of things need doing only once during system implementation and configuration,’ he says, and whether this requires technology expertise, accounting expertise, product expertise, or all of these and more, there is a role for those with this expertise, because as he observes: ‘It’s easier to do these things if you are used to doing them.’ But while most of Nolan’s involvement with NetSuite users is about ‘helping to implement’ their systems, 90% of new users also sign up for a year of support. Though as he adds: ‘They wait and see if they are going to need it for subsequent years too.’ 

Even a business that doesn’t need ongoing support for their software from a third party may still need their services on an ad-hoc basis for things such as systems integration. A lot of businesses start by introducing a single, ring-fenced SaaS application, or finding that one has crept in via the back door, and then discover that this ‘isolation’ is not ideal. ‘Cloud computing is driving unprecedented data volumes and fragmentation challenges,’ reports Brad Whitt, an analyst with Gleacher & Co, and according to research (also from Gartner and Forrester), many businesses now want to move away from point systems and silo-type SaaS deployments (a path that mirrors the evolution of on-premise systems). But taking a more centralised approach can demand specialist help from a software developer, in-house IT team, or a third party integration specialist.

It can be complex. ‘At the most basic level, it’s all about understanding what the traffic flows are,’ says Adrian Taylor, the chief technology officer with Data Integration (part of Xchanging). But stopping those traffic flows from causing data fragmentation or data governance issues could mean: bi-directionally copying modified data between online environments and on-premises data repositories or warehouses, replicating data in real time so cloud and on premise applications can share the same information, negotiating a host of bandwidth issues, and doing all this for multiple fixed and mobile devices. It is getting easier. SaaS-based tools such as Adeptia and Boomi provide drag and drop tools and wizards that even non-tech people can use to connect applications together, without needing to understand the underlying technology, create code, or get help from developers. 

SaaS vendors themselves are also making it easier to do – and not just by publishing the API (application programming interface) information required, or creating more product-specific ‘connectors’ that can be used to create a link between two specific systems. ‘Vendors are also ramping up their professional services to provide best practices for success,’ says Liz Herbert, an analyst with Forrester research. This translates into quick-start implementation packages, vendor support that goes beyond either the very basic, as well as offering one-to-one consulting, which was anathema in the earlier ‘one service level and support contract size fits all’ world of public cloud services, as FSN highlights here and here. Cloud software providers are also developing (or strengthening their) relationships with integration partners, ‘because they can bring development resources and business expertise to deployments’. 

In many scenarios, the need for ‘services’ to accompany software in the cloud still has a tendency to go unmentioned, particularly amongst the hype that often accompanies cloud-oriented marketing. But it was highlighted by the recent launch of Microsoft Office 365 (a companion to the desktop productivity suite), which was very specifically labelled as a ‘software plus services’ product – and which serves as a good illustration of just how complex the configuration and implementation of a cloud-based software product can be. If your main exposure to software in the cloud has been through Facebook, or web-based email, or even web-based small business accounting software, the steps you need to go through to get access to Office 365 could come as a bit of a shock. Any organisation without its own IT expertise (and some with) will probably need external help.

In part, this is because Microsoft Office 365 comes in a weird and wonderful range of flavours. The Microsoft hosted ‘plans’ include P1, K1, K2, E1, E2, E3 and E4 – and most of these can be used instead of, or with, other approaches to providing remote and local access to Office tools. The complexity of volume licensing agreements and the subtle difference between using MS Office as a ‘software product’ and MS Office as a ‘subscription service’ is acknowledged in Microsoft’s recommendation that buyers of Office 365 use one of its partners ‘to support their transition to the cloud’. But Microsoft has created a new ecosystem to help prospective Office 365 buyers to ‘assess their needs’, ‘choose the right services’ and ‘provide add-on capabilities’, and although some of the inhabitants look a lot like the solution providers/integration specialists/value-added resellers you may be used to; some do not.

In addition to what Microsoft describes as  ‘adviser partners’ (think of them as the old face of third party support) there are ‘syndication resellers’ (think of them as the new face of third party support). Those in the latter group are typically large telcos and hosting companies, that are allowed (by Microsoft) to set their own price for the Office 365-related services they offer, and bill the customer directly for this, and provide some (but not all) support, whilst ‘adviser partners’ can’t, because Microsoft does this itself. Adviser partners get the equivalent of a finders fee, a percentage of net sales value in year one, then quarterly payments (from Microsoft) on active seats, but only if the customer identifies the ‘adviser’ as the ‘partner of record’ (POR) on the deal, and only for as long as the partner retains POR status (learn more, here).

Some see Microsoft is using its considerable might to force a restructuring of the marketplace, so that it can exploit its economies of scale (even more than it does already) by dealing with a handful of very large resellers rather than thousands and thousands of small resellers. But as support is increasingly where the money is in business software, the market may eventually evolve into one where even big third party resellers exist just to ramp up the volume numbers before Microsoft does all of its own support. Whether this is in the interests of buyers remains to be seen, and if you like having a personal relationship with the organisation (or individual) that provides your services, you may not like the sort of third party support this brave new world offers; but that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to manage without it.