Cloud computing, so much more than multi-tenancy

Cloud computing, so much more than multi-tenancy

Summary: Who cares whether it's multi-tenant, so long as it plugs your business into the global, real-time Web? Vendors should focus on what the cloud delivers that matters to business people, rather than lecturing them about the underlying technology.


I settled in for one of Marc Benioff's legendary two-hour-long CloudForce keynotes in London yesterday morning (an abridged, snappier version of the nigh-on-three hour marathon delegates sat through at last month's DreamForce, Benioff had assured me beforehand). As I listened, I thought about the role of multi-tenancy in cloud computing. The keynote hall was full of customers and prospects — a thousand or more altogether — and I'm guessing that, even though always makes a big deal of multi-tenancy and how fundamental it is to cloud computing, very few of these business people really care what technology the platform is built on, so long as it delivers the goods.

I believe SaaS and cloud vendors have got to move beyond talking just about the technology and instead talk about what cloud computing delivers — which in any case will shift the conversation onto ground where the pureplay, multi-tenant cloud solutions are better placed to win the argument, for reasons I'll come back to later in this post. The trouble with talking about multi-tenancy itself is that it draws you into an abstract debate with conventional software vendors over the relative merits of alternative deployment platforms for a given application. This immediately brings the debate onto their home ground — a place where applications are discrete, deployments happen as a batch process and you have to get the system up-and-running before you even start thinking about meeting the business requirement. That's not where the cloud is at.

Right after saying the cloud is founded on multi-tenancy, Benioff adds, "Cloud computing is also a shift to real-time." Rhetorically speaking, surely this is to put the technology cart in front of the horse? The driving, motive force behind customer adoption of cloud computing is the business need to be out there on the Web, interacting with their customers in real-time, having their fingers on the 24x7 global pulse of the market, able to react and respond instantly to changing competitive threats and opportunities. And how are they to do that if their business systems are cloistered somewhere off the Web, safely tucked away behind an enterprise firewall whose main purpose in life is to keep the Web at bay?

Cloud computing is far more than just multi-tenancy. The technology is core and it's essential, but it's not the whole story. What matters is a raft of capabilities and concepts that I prefer to group together under the umbrella term of 'platform bandwidth', all of them concerned with a cloud platform's capacity for unremitting, uncapped and continuously improving web connectivity.

When evaluating a cloud platform, rather than starting with multi-tenancy, I'd suggest buyers check through the following list of questions:

  • Will it remain capable of sustaining high-bandwidth connectivity with all of your customers, suppliers, employees and other stakeholders, even at times of unexpected peak load?
  • Will it stay up-to-date with every new technology development (opportunity or threat) that emerges in the global Web ecosystem over the next days, weeks, months and years — without ever making you wait for your own implementation to catch up with the state-of-the-art?
  • Can you choose to participate in a community of other platform users, exchanging information and perhaps extensions and add-ons, all referencing — and ready to run on — the same shared infrastructure?
  • Will it give you freedom to connect to the widest potential range of third-party services available in the global Web, and to connect to the most popular of them over a shared integration infrastructure instead of having to custom-build your own?
  • Will you be able to access limitless capacity on-demand to meet all your computing needs and still only pay for what you use?
  • Will your provider monitor usage in real-time and continuously tune platform performance to ensure the infrastructure remains as secure, responsive and cost-effective as possible?

I defy anyone to build a cloud platform that can deliver all of the above without making it multi-tenant at every layer of the stack. But multi-tenancy is not enough on its own. Just as important are components such as: massive Web-facing bandwidth: an API that's architected to interact with the widest possible spectrum of web resources; and an integrated operations and development team that's committed to continuous enhancement of the platform to meet the constantly-evolving needs of its customer base. By focusing the debate on multi-tenancy rather than these wider considerations of platform bandwidth, we risk misleading our audience. This year, I've seen some vendors building multi-tenant architecture for deployment on-premise. I've seen others build single-tenant applications and deploy them to a multi-tenant infrastructure. Neither approach will equip their customers with business systems that allow them to compete and thrive in the real-time, always-on, fully connected, constantly evolving environment of the connected Web. Multi-tenancy is the foundation, but it can only deliver what customers today are looking for when it's deployed in the full context of the Web itself.

Topics: Browser, Cloud, Hardware, Virtualization

Phil Wainewright

About Phil Wainewright

Since 1998, Phil Wainewright has been a thought leader in cloud computing as a blogger, analyst and consultant.

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  • Wow

    Can anyone else smell that? If I was playing BS bingo, this article would have
    been a winner!
    • I think it can be smelled across continents

  • RE: Cloud computing, so much more than multi-tenancy

    My belief is that if it's it not multitenant, it's not
    really SaaS:

    Simply hosting software that was built to run on
    premise on Amazon is a useful IT infrastructure
    deployment option, but it's not true SaaS.

    Having worked for a vendor that was single tenant, I
    saw first hand the challenges of managing,
    maintaining, and upgrading hundreds of trial and
    production servers. While much of this was transparent
    to customers and prospects, ultimately the costs were
    passed down to customers.

    With every vendor now trying to jump on the Cloud
    bandwagon, it's never been more important to highlight
    the importance of mulitenancy and to zero in on the
    customer benefits in terms of online trials with zero
    sales intervention, rapid implementation, ease of use,
    automatic upgrades, frequent releases, community
    sharing, etc., etc.

    The challenge is to help customers choose the right
    solution (that is multitenant) without having to get
    into the architecture weeds with a business audience
    that is looking for a vendor who can solve their
  • Agreed - dated "controversy".

    Agreed 100%. While it's a valid point if you are just
    talking about competing with Oracle, as you noted,
    there's a huge and entire category of apps that can ONLY
    be multitenant to work. E.g., Google. Salesforce (for
    AppExchange and to really work). Just for
    starters. So this concept, like "no software", is a bit
    dated b/c the argument has been "won" ;)
  • RE: Cloud computing, so much more than multi-tenancy

    I agree with Phil. I've been guilty in the past of getting my customers mired down in the characteristics of multi- tenancy primarily in an effort to help them understand why hosted services weren't the same.

    But discussing multi-tenancy plays into the hands of the cloud pundits who want to drive the discussion back to the technical considerations for cloud in the first place as opposed to the clear and obvious business advantages that are available for those who would redeploy their IT systems today.

    Dave Rice, CEO
    dave rice
  • RE: Cloud computing, so much more than multi-tenancy

    I don't think it's so much that "multi-tenancy" is too
    abstract a point for people to's just that to the
    user it's irrelevant in the main. Where multi-tenancy may
    become relevant is when we move to the core of a
    corporation's business (away from fringe operations like
    CRM and ERP). Some companies will be averse to multi-
    tenancy because of *perceived* potential security concerns.
    ("Platform bandwidth" is too vague and even more abstract.
    I don't think the term would help as it has too many
    connotations, in IMHO.
    • Fringe Ops

      I wonder if you can expand on CRM and ERP being "fringe operations." ... hard to believe that the front-offce and back-office stacks are fringe ... sales, finance, marketing, talent, etc. I might be missing something.

  • There is more than multi-tenancy and more than just elasticity


    One of the key innovations in and most other SaaS vendors was the concept of "Configuration - not - customization". As a certified Siebel Administrator and a user of Admin, I can't even begin to describe this innovation. It is amazing to see Sales Operations managers - even sales managers administer through simple point and click configurations and do amazing things.

    Of course multi-tenancy is a big part. During Dreamforce, I attended Craig Weisman's talk (CTO @ SFDC) who described the multi-tenant kernel and the very interesting computing challenges that they overcame. He mentioned that all of SFDC customers run up about 235 million transactions every day.

    Multi-tenancy and running on a single version of the code makes it possible to make the software easy to use by adding point and click configuration.

    Unless both multi-tenancy and configuration capabilities are delivered, it is hard to create a SaaS offering that drive adoption.

    --Ajay D.
    Ajay Dawar
  • What is Value?

    Deriving value from expanded platform capabilities is a McGuffin, multi-tenancy or not. The how is totally irrelevant. Value is derived from a) being able to do something you haven't been able to do before at acceptable cost or b) doing something that you do today better and/or at a lower cost. That is what customers care about. If you can do that with Cloud or SaaS (easier), Open Source or On Premise (much harder) then customers will vote with their wallets.
  • RE: Cloud computing, so much more than multi-tenancy

    Phil, You are right and I like your argument. But to stop
    speaking about MT is to concede that all solutions are equal.
    Single tenant is making an attempt to blur the distinction and
    therefore lock in customers for an extended time. Only a
    vigorous debate about the merits of MT/ST, along with your
    suggestions, win the day.
    Denis Pombriant