It's sort of like a marketplace in the cloud on steroids, on someone else's servers, perhaps to engage on someone's business objectives, and maybe even satisfy some customers along the way. It's really a way to make fluid markets adapt at Internet speed, at low cost, to business requirements, as they come and go.
I, for one, can imagine a dynamic, elastic, self-defining, and self-directing business-services environment that wells up around the needs of a business group or niche, and then subsides when lack of demand dictates. Here's an early example of how it works, in this case for food recall.
The concept of this business commerce cloud was solidified for me just a few weeks ago, when I spoke to Tim Minahan, chief marketing officer at Ariba. I've invited Tim to join us to delve into the concept, and the possible attractions, of business commerce clouds. We're also joined by this episode's IT industry analyst guests: Tony Baer, senior analyst at Ovum; Brad Shimmin, principal analyst at Current Analysis; Jason Bloomberg, managing partner at ZapThink; JP Morgenthal, independent analyst and IT consultant, and Sandy Kemsley, independent IT analyst and architect. The discussion is moderated by me, Dana Gardner, principal analyst at Interarbor Solutions.
This periodic discussion and dissection of IT infrastructure related news and events, with a panel of industry analysts and guests, comes to you with the help of our charter sponsor, Active Endpoints, maker of the ActiveVOS, visual orchestration system, and through the support of TIBCO Software.
Here are some excerpts:
Minahan: When we talk about business commerce clouds, what we're talking about is leveraging the cloud architecture to go to the next level. When folks traditionally think of the cloud or technology, they think of managing their own business processes. But, as we know, if we are going to buy, sell, or manage cash, you need to do that with at least one, if not more, third parties.
The business commerce cloud leverages cloud computing to deliver three things. It delivers the business process application itself as a cloud-based or a software-as-a-service (SaaS)-based service. It delivers a community of enabled trading partners that can quickly be discovered, connected to, and enable collaboration with them.
And, the third part is around capabilities --the ability to dial up or dial down, whether it be expertise, resources, or other predefined best practice business processes -- all through the cloud.
... Along the way, what we [at Ariba] found was that we were connecting all these parties through a shared network that we call the Ariba Supplier Network. We realized we weren't just creating value for the buyers, but we were creating value for the sellers.
They were pushing us to develop new ways for them to create new business processes on the shared infrastructure -- things like supply chain financing, working capital management, and a simple way to discover each other and assess who their next trading partners may be.
... In the past year, companies have processed $120 billion worth of purchased transactions and invoices over this network. Now, they're looking at new ways to find new trading partners -- particularly as the incidence of business bankruptcies are up -- as well as extend to new collaborations, whether it be sharing inventory or helping to manage their cash flow.
Baer: I think there are some very interesting possibilities, and in certain ways this is very much an evolutionary development that began with the introduction of EDI 40 or 45 years ago.
Actually, if you take a took at supply-chain practices among some of the more innovative sectors, especially consumer electronics, where you deal with an industry that's very volatile both by technology and consumer taste, this whole idea of virtualizing the supply chain, where different partners take on greater and greater roles in enabling each other, is very much a direct follow on to all that.
Roughly 10 years ago, when we were going though the Internet 1.0 or the dot-com revolution, we started getting into these B2B online trading hubs with the idea that we could use the Internet to dynamically connect with business partners and discover them. Part of this really seemed to go against the trend of supply-chain practice over the previous 20 years, which was really more to consolidate on a known group of partners as opposed to spontaneously connecting with them.
Shimmin: ... I look at this as an enabler, in a positive way. What the cloud does is allow what Tim was hinting at -- with more spontaneity, self-assembly, and visibility into supply chains in particular -- that you didn't really get before with the kind of locked down approach we had with EDI.
That's why I think you see so many of those pure-play EDI vendors like GXS, Sterling, SEEBURGER, Inovis, etc. not just opening up to the Internet, but opening up to some of the more cloudy standards like cXML and the like, and really doing a better job of behaving like we in the 2009-2010 realm expect a supply chain to behave, which is something that is much more open and much more visible.
Kemsley: ... I think it has huge potential, but one of the issues that I see is that so many companies are afraid to start to open up, to use external services as part of their mission-critical businesses, even though there is no evidence that a cloud-based service is any less reliable than their internal services. It's just that the failures that happen in the cloud are so much more publicized than their internal failures that there is this illusion that things in the cloud are not as stable.
There are also security concerns as well. I have been at a number of business process management (BPM) conferences in the last month, since this is conference season, and that is a recurring theme. Some of the BPM vendors are putting their products in the cloud so that you can run your external business processes purely in the cloud, and obviously connect to cloud-based services from those.
A lot of companies still have many, many problems with that from a security standpoint, even though there is no evidence that that's any less secure than what they have internally. So, although I think there is a lot of potential there, there are still some significant cultural barriers to adopting this.
Minahan: ... The cloud provider, because of the economies of scale they have, oftentimes provides better security and can invest more in security -- partitioning, and the like -- than many enterprises can deliver themselves. It's not just security. It's the other aspects of your architectural performance.
Bloomberg: ... I am coming at it from a skeptic's perspective. It doesn’t sound like there's anything new here. ... We're using the word "cloud" now, and we were talking about "business webs." I remember business webs were all the rage back when Ariba had their first generation of offerings, as well as Commerce One and some of the other players in that space.
The challenges then are still the challenges now. Companies don't necessarily like doing business with other organizations that they don't have established relationships with. The value proposition of the central marketplaces has been hammered out now. If you want to use one, they're already out there and they're already matured. If you don't want to use one, putting the word "cloud" on it is not going to make it any more appealing.
Morgenthal: ... Putting additional information in the cloud and making value out of that add some overall value to the cost of the information or the cost of running the system, so you can derive a few things. But, ultimately, the same problems that are needed to drive a community working together, doing business together, exchanging product through an exchange are still there.
... What's being done through these environments is the exchange of money and goods. And, it's the overhead related to doing that, that makes this complex. RollStream is another startup in the area that's trying to make waves by simplifying the complexities around exchanging the partner agreements and doing the trading partner management using collaborative capabilities. Again, the real complexity is the business itself. It's not even the business processes. The data is there.
... Technology is a means to an end. The end that's got to get fixed here isn't an app fix. It's a community fix. It's a "how business gets done" fix. Those processes are not automated. Those are human tasks.
Minahan: ... As it applies to the cloud and the commerce cloud, what's interesting here is the new services that can be available. It's different. It's not just about discovering new trading partners. It's about creating efficiencies and more effective commerce processes with those trading partners.
I'll give you a good example. I mentioned before about the Ariba Network with $111 billion worth of transactions and invoices being transferred over this every year for the past 10 years. That gives us a lot of intelligence that new companies are coming on board.
An example would be The Receivables Exchange. Traditionally sellers, if they wanted to get their cash fast, could factor the receivables at $0.25 on the dollar. This organization recognized the value of the information that was being transacted over this network and was able to create an entirely new service.
They were able to mitigate the risk, and provide supply chain financing at a much lower basis -- somewhere between two to four percent by using the historical information on those trading relationships, as well as understanding the stability of the buyer.
Because folks are in a shared infrastructure here that can be continually introduced, new services can be dialed up and dialed down. It's a lot different than a rigid EDI environment or just a discovery marketplace. ... What we're seeing with our customers is that the real benefits of the cloud come in three areas: productivity, agility, and innovation.
... When folks talk about cloud, they really think about the infrastructure, and what we are talking about here is a business service cloud.
Gartner calls it the business process utility, which ultimately is a form of technology-enabled business process outsourcing. It's not just the technology. The technology or the workflow is delivered in the cloud or as a web-based service, so there is no software, hardware, etc. for the trading partners to integrate, to deploy or maintain. That was the bane of EDI private VANs.
The second component is the community. Already having an established community of trading partners who are actually conducting business and transactions is key. I agree with the statement that it comes down to the humans and the companies having established agreements. But the point is that it can be built upon a large trading network that already exists.
The last part, which I think is missing here, and that's so interesting about the business commerce cloud, are the capabilities. It's the ability for either the solution provider or other third parties to deliver skills, expertise, and resources into the cloud as well as a web-based service.
It's also the information that can be garnered off the community to create new web-based services and capabilities that folks either don't have within their organization or don't have the ability or wherewithal to go out and develop and hire on their own. There is a big difference between cloud computing and these business service clouds that are growing.
Shimmin: ... The fuller picture is to look at this as a combination of [Apple App Store] and the Amazon marketplace. That's where I think you will see the most success with these commerce clouds -- a very specific community of like-minded suppliers and purchasers that want to get together and open their businesses up to one another.
... A community of companies wants to be able to come together affordably, so that the SMB can on-board an exchange at an affordable rate. That's really been the problem with most of these large-scale EDI solutions in the past. It's so expensive to bring on the smaller players that they can't play.
... When you have that sort of like-mindedness, you have the wherewithal to collaborate. But, the problem has always been finding the right people, getting to that knowledge that people have, and getting them to open it up. That's where the social networking side of this comes in. That's where I see the big EDI guns I was talking about and the more modernized renditions opening up to this whole Google Wave notion of what collaboration means in a social networking context.
Minahan: ... We're seeing that already through the exchange that we have amongst our customers or around our solutions. We're also seeing that in a lot of the social networking communities that we participate in around the exchange of best practices. The ability to instantiate that into reusable workflows is something that's certainly coming.
Folks are always asking these days, "We hear a lot about this cloud. What business processes or technologies should we put in the cloud?" When you talk about that, the most likely ones are inter-enterprise, whether they be around commerce, talent management, or customer management, it's what happens between enterprises where a shared infrastructure makes the most sense.