Software as a service vs. old-school IT

Salesforce's Dreamforce show hints at the event-driven future of cloud services. As cloud capabilities get increasingly business-critical, how will enterprise IT's trust be earned?

Last week's Dreamforce event, like Amazon's re:Invent show the week before, provided a snapshot of cloud computing's steady progress as it eats away at conventional IT. At the same time, thanks to a couple of interesting interviews, I was able to contrast the Salesforce hoopla with the opinions of those steeped in more traditional IT thinking.

Like Amazon, the first large-scale IaaS provider, Salesforce proudly proclaims first-mover status -- not only for SaaS, in Salesforce's case, but also for PaaS (in the form of Force.com) and for the app store model (in the form of AppExchange, launched three years before Apple's app store).

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I was reminded of the accumulated power of the Salesforce platform at a press briefing by FinancialForce, which offers the top accounting and PSA (professional services automation) apps in the Salesforce ecosystem. Over time, Salesforce keeps updating and adding to its arsenal of back-end business services. As CEO Jeremy Roche noted, FinancialForce can quickly benefit from whatever services Salesforce chooses to add. For example, the big announcement at Dreamforce was the new Salesforce1 integration platform -- which FinancialForce used to build its Mobile 360° BackOffice mobile app, already in release.

The idea of API-accessible services -- from auditing to order processing to social media messaging -- as building blocks for large, complex applications is as old as Web services. Keep piling them onto one platform (actually multiple platforms, when you include Force.com, Heroku, ExactTarget, and the like) and you add to the range of existing Salesforce applications while expanding possibilities for new ones.

Still proceeding with caution

The notion of shared services lifting all boats is at the heart of the public cloud -- which even in 2013 remains distasteful to corporate IT, says Bill Allison, a principal at Deloitte Consulting. In the largest IT organizations, he says, resistance to the cloud is still strong, except for the least critical systems. His clients are more interested in souping up existing infrastructure with in-memory processing such as that offered by SAP HANA.

Specifically, Allison says, his clients want to use such new, high-performance, in-memory technology inside the firewall to enable quick response to events and to foster agility in core systems such as supply chain management. As for putting anything critical in cloud, Allison makes a joking reference to the way some in corporate IT view Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff: "Are you going to trust the guy in the Hawaiian shirt?" Although, for what it's worth, Allison is also quick to assert that reputable SaaS players do maintain good security and availably.

Obviously, such skepticism doesn't mean enterprises are ignoring the cloud. While attending Dreamforce, Sanjay Rishi, managing partner at IBM Cloud Consulting Services, asked a big IBM customer this question: "What is the one thing you would say cloud enables you to do?" The simple answer: "It's all about customer experience." Rishi adds that the customer experience gets industry-specific very quickly. For example: "For the health care industry, unless I can speak their language and understand the transactions that are very healthcare-specific, and provide them as a service on the cloud ... I wouldn't even get to slide two of that discussion."

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