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PaaS delivers a virtual toolbox

PaaS delivers a virtual toolbox

Platform-as-a-service is the new 'it' thing in software technology.

Just when you thought you had a grip on your techie acronyms, along comes another one that experts predict spells the future of software development. The good news is that this one has the potential to build new business opportunities, too.

Platform-as-a-service, or PaaS, is essentially a virtual tool bag with all the high-tech gadgetry you need to build, test and deploy custom software for every imaginable application. Rather than buying and installing application building blocks on their own hardware, PaaS users tap into Web-based integrated development environments such as .Net or Java to quickly build exactly what they want.

In the Australian market, NetSuite took the wrappers off its SuiteCloud Developer Network platform-as-aservice providing on-demand products, tools and services, last month.

“Think of PaaS as a sandbox where you can build an application that, once built, you can also run on the same [Web-based] platform,” CEO of Author Solutions, Kevin Weiss, said. The $US100 million publishing company tapped PaaS to build what he called “a full-scale publishing ERP system” in a span of just four months.

“PaaS is where and how you build the application; SaaS is what you’ve got when you’re done with it,” Weiss said.

The company hired Appirio, a US systems integrator, to develop its Gemini custom-publishing system on Force.com, Salesforce.com’s PaaS offering. Author Solutions uses the Gemini software to track all content, including the millions of edits it makes to the thousands of manuscripts it publishes each year.

“Gemini includes content management and an extensive workflow system with an enormous number of triggers along the way because there’s a lot of tracking back and forth between authors and our publishing experts,” Weiss said.

The system, which has been up and running for almost a year, has allowed Author Solutions to execute its own business plans much faster and more cheaply, and to take on outsourced work from other companies – thus generating new revenue.

Some of the company’s outsourcing customers want to track the workflow of their manuscripts differently. “But this is pretty easy to do on the Force.com side, because you can go in and move triggers around and reconfi gure an application to do what you want, rather than write hundreds or thousands of lines of code” to make a change, Weiss noted.

According to Jeffrey M. Kaplan, a SaaS analyst at consulting firm ThinkStrategies, PaaS offers more than an opportunity to cut software development costs. “The functionality allows companies to generate new business opportunities for themselves,” he said.

“With PaaS, you can build or customise your own applications very quickly and then run them on the platform,” Appirio CEO Chris Barbin, said. Appirio, for example, has built its own software licence management and human resources applications, which it runs in the cloud. Other software developers can build applications and add them to various PaaS ecosystems, where they can be licensed by other Web-based users.

Hidden market

“We were initially thinking of our customers as companies that are already software vendors who want to offer SaaS,” chief technology offi cer at PaaS start-up Savvis, Bryan Doerr, said. “But there’s no reason that it has to be a previous software vendor.” In fact, Savvis has created a Web-based sandbox “where any customer can drop their software and see if it could be virtualised, and test whether or not to proceed with a hosted version,” he said.

Doerr said PaaS and SaaS “offer a new way to capitalise on intellectual property and are lighter-weight in terms of investment costs”.

That is what drew Paul Minor, CEO of Digicontractor, to Corent Technology. A former real estate developer, Minor had an idea for Webbased software that would allow users to derive physical dimensions and exact measurements from any digital image.

For example, engineers and contractors can upload digital photos to obtain precise measurements of land parcels.

“We also have some unique applications, ranging from nuclear power facilities that want to measure the dimension of rods in reactors, to scientists who want to measure whales in the ocean as a way to determine the health of the food chain,” Minor said. Looking ahead, the company is aiming to set-up kiosks in big-box home stores like Home Depot and Lowes.

Digicontractor explored the option of developing the software in-house and hiring it out to a traditional software development firm but determined it would be too expensive, especially for a start-up, Minor said. What Corent offered is “a turnkey process”.

“We were able to have our core application up and running in three months, and now we can do our own software changes without having to hire a developer,” he said. Digicontractor has also licenced its uPhotoMeasure software to HomeTips.com, which is running the application under a SaaS model on its website.

Economic influencers

Getting software up and running fast and on the cheap is appealing to all companies, especially in this brutal economy. That’s one reason why early adopters and analysts alike predict that the PaaS market will become large very quickly.

“I think you’re going to see more people move to this platform,” Author Solutions’ Weiss said. “Right now, it’s a sweet spot for companies my size – in the $US100 million range – but I don’t see any reason why a large enterprise wouldn’t think about putting pieces of their application portfolio on a PaaS exchange, especially applications you want to put up real fast and test out.

“I don’t see this as a pure small and medium-sized business play.”


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