A step closer to the integrated cloud

Internet-provisioned apps can save money but don't integrate well; ZoHo is the first to try to change that

If there's any suspicion that cloud computing is just about building "best of breed" stand-alone application silos on the Web, the recent move by ZoHo may show that cloud computing is finally moving to a more integrated approach.

ZoHo, a subsidiary of AdventNet, will sometime in the second quarter launch one of the first, if not the first, suite of desktop productivity applications integrated with a set of back-end business applications — all of which sit in the cloud.

[ Exactly what is the cloud? InfoWorld blogger Bill Snyder describes what the nebulous term "cloud computing" really means. ]

The suite will include the usual word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation tools. But it also includes a suite of business apps more associated with what IT manages: ZoHo Meeting for Web conferencing, ZoHo Project for project management, ZoHo DB and Report for online databases and reporting, ZoHo People for HR services, and ZoHo CRM.

The SaaS (software as a service) approach thus far has been to offer independent apps on the Web that work essentially in isolation from each other, such as using Salesforce.com to manage sales contacts and SuccessFactors for employee reviews. That approach doesn't let businesses easily orchestrate those independent apps, and it has limited enterprise adoption to nonstrategic or isolated applications in many cases. But the ZoHo approach of providing a suite of business and productivity applications from a single vendor may let businesses get both the cost savings of SaaS and the collaboration capabilities of self-hosted applications.

Microsoft has sketched out a similar vision, in which it would provide extensions to Office for document sharing and collaboration, but that effort remains in very early stages. And Salesforce.com offers a platform in which developers create their own apps that share data with each other, as well as an exchange for third-party add-ons to the core Salesforce application, but neither is about presenting a broad business suite.

The cloud's integration challenge
Today's cloud computing environments — that is, SaaS delivery platforms — present no magic bullet for solving application and data integration problems, which are always a major challenge with best-of-breed, siloed solutions, said Josh Greenbaum, a principal at Enterprise Applications Consulting. "Different applications will have different data models and interfaces; that will always be the case," he said.

But on another level, cloud computing provides a more standardized interface and a more stable environment than an on-premise application does, Greenbaum said. "The moment you give someone an on-premise application, they start modifying it." In SaaS platforms, the vendor controls the environment, data structures, and APIs, resulting in a more consistent target for IT to link other SaaS or on-premise applications.

Still, getting much beyond simple integration at the data-exchange level typically requires either far pricier on-premise suites or partnerships between software vendors. Such is the case between SAP and Microsoft, which offer Duet, a technology that gives users a limited amount of integration between Microsoft front-end productivity applications and SAP ERP apps.

Connecting apps in the same cloud
ZoHo's answer to this dilemma is to provide those apps in its cloud, so the integration among them is built in. "The sales force at a company often finds it easier to put CRM information into a spreadsheet. With ZoHo CRM and its productivity applications integrated, a salesperson can edit data in the spreadsheet and save it to the CRM solution," said Raju Vegesna, a ZoHo spokesman. ZoHo's pitch is that its products become a small business's preintegrated IT department.

Melissa Webster, a senior analyst at IDC, said ZoHo's combination of back-end applications with hosted and edited tools is an attractive proposition for small businesses, which don't have the resources to do custom integration, nor the complex tools and IT infrastructure in which high customization usually occurs.

Microsoft is moving in the same direction, though more slowly. Earlier this month, it announced the next version of its Live platform, which it says will give users greater flexibility in editing and saving their Office documents online. But it has not said that it plans to provide Microsoft Office as a hosted service or even that its Microsoft Dynamics CRM app will integrate with Office Live.

Google, whose Google Apps is probably the best-known SaaS-delivered productivity suite, has no ability, or even partnerships, to deliver any back-end services such as CRM or financials. Last June, Google and Salesforce.com agreed to "mutually use their product, packaging, and promotional resources," which so far has meant only that Salesforce.com is reselling Google's AdWords service. But rumors have been rife across the Web that a forthcoming deeper alliance between the two companies would allow Salesforce to incorporate Google Apps into its CRM offering. Other rumors have Google partnering with Intuit, the small-business accounting provider.

What is not a rumor, according to ZoHo's Vegesna, is the fact that Salesforce.com tried to buy ZoHo. "They wanted to participate in our platform. Then they wanted to acquire us," he said.

IDC's Webster said the industry is witnessing a "profound demographic shift" in distributed computing, with companies deploying teams that are virtual and collaborating around the globe. The best way to support this shift, she said, may well be by tapping into the cloud — through which these users connect to each other and their companies anyhow — and offering integrated solutions from the cloud.

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