SaaS purists like me ought to worry about a product like SaaSGrid Express, launched this week by .NET platform-as-a-service specialist Apprenda. Surely it's the height of irresponsibility to disseminate a free, downloadable SaaS application platform? This gives the worst imaginable encouragement to hundreds if not thousands of unskilled, poorly resourced developers to set up the worst possible kind of amateur cloud implementations, with predictably calamitous results, both for the customers and for the reputation of the wider industry.
And yet, I can't bring myself to condemn it. These ISVs are going to do their own thing anyway. By making its product a free download, Apprenda is giving them a means of playing around and starting to learn the skills they need without the pressure of having to fund license fees or a monthly subscription. And by downloading what is by all accounts a properly architected SaaS platform, at least they'll be learning from an example of best practice. Perhaps they'll realize more quickly how hopeless it would be to try to engineer all of their own as-a-service infrastructure from scratch. Apprenda has hosting partners, too, so once an ISV is ready to go into production, there's no obligation to build and manage their own infrastructure — there are third-party alternatives available that can provide a robust, ready-made operational instance of the Apprenda platform.
As Apprenda's CEO Sinclair Schiller explained to me last month in a pre-briefing, the overriding aim of the Express product is to galvanize more small to mid-size ISVs into taking the plunge into SaaS. "How can we catalyze more to convert to SaaS?" he asked. "There's an honest-to-goodness need to get the market moving."
It also acknowledges an inherent problem with the vertically integrated develop-and-deploy PaaS offerings from the likes of Salesforce.com, Google AppEngine and others (one that's been partially answered by the introduction of VMware's open PaaS strategy). When Apprenda first launched, it offered its platform as a service but has now changed to a more conventionally licensed platform approach. The change was due to the realization that ISVs varied in their hosting requirements, and it wasn't possible to meet all of those different needs with a single hosted proposition. So Apprenda has now moved to a more horizontally integrated model where it sells its middleware platform separately as software and lets customers choose the underlying hosting platform.
"It was such a huge hurdle" to sell both together, explained Schiller. ISVs were having to compromise performance criteria or operational requirements because the hosting infrastructure had been predetermined. "We saw this natural inclination for people to get skittish when they saw that their engineering decisions were intimately tied to the hosting infrastructure." Allowing ISVs to choose whether to self-host or to select one of a number of third parties gives them more control over how their finished solution performs. "There is more of a best-of-breed approach where they can select the hosting layer independent of the middleware they're using."
This means that Apprenda is helping to achieve two useful results by seeding the market with its free download. First of all, it brings more ISVs into the SaaS ambit, and that's got to be good for the industry as a whole. Secondly, it allows for more experimentation by testing many different combinations of hosting infrastructure and SaaS platform. Some of those experiments will fail, with unfortunate consequences for their operators and customers. But that's the nature of evolution. Darwinian trial and error will ultimately allow for faster development of better SaaS and PaaS options than were possible when just a few mega-providers were competing for custom.