As mentioned in my previous post, I recently spoke with Apprenda CEO Sinclair Schuller ahead of this week’s announcement of SaaSGrid.

The formal release is perhaps deliberately ironic;

“In an industry flooded with buzzwords and numerous companies jumping on the platform bandwagon, Apprenda cuts through the SaaS platform clutter and draws a bold line with SaaSGrid. SaaSGrid is a powerful cloud operating system that abstract SaaS intricacies into the SaaSGrid software layer and provides ISVs with the necessary online tools to manage their SaaS business and application offerings. SaaSGrid drastically slashes time to market for ISVs by automatically weaving a SaaS architecture into their non-SaaS web applications while providing significant long term value via web-based application management capabilities.”

Sinclair’s blog post is more straight-talking;

“For anyone unfamiliar with SaaSGrid, it’s a cloud operating system (literally) that makes writing and commercializing SaaS offerings with Microsoft .NET very easy. It removes quite a few headaches from the architecture and engineering perspective, and provides a tightly woven business services layer for managing operational and customer facing aspects of your business. So, if you’re building a SaaS offering and are planning (or looking for a reason to) to use a .NET based language and stack, look no further!”

Bob Warfield is also amongst those covering the news, over on SmoothSpan. Bob gets right down to it, commenting that;

“Apprenda calls SaaSGrid a ‘Cloud Operating System.’  I don’t know if I would call it that or not, but at the very least it is a SaaS platform that offers a lot of benefits not unlike from Salesforce, but with some key differences.  First and foremost in my mind, is that there isn’t much of anything proprietary about SaaSGrid.  It’s a framework that makes it easy for .NET developers to move their applications to a SaaS Cloud-based delivery vehicle.  Looking at the services provided by the framework, it isn’t hard to see that Schuller & Co. have had experience building SaaS applications before (in fact quite a few of them), because it solves many of the SaaS-specific problems I’ve seen in my career as well.”

He continues, echoing my own initial impression that the most important piece of this might not be the technical infrastructure at all;

“SaaSGrid covers two bases.  First, it offers plumbing and delivery infrastructure services.  In my mind that’s the “Cloud Operating System” piece.  But, at least as interesting is their Business Engine, that helps simplify a lot of the operational aspects of SaaS.”
(my emphasis)

Talking to Sinclair, it is clear that the rationale behind SaaSGrid comes from experience. He talks about work in the financial sector, higher education and elsewhere, in which the same basic pieces were necessarily duplicated. Each project, each deployment, required his team to almost start from scratch and to concern themselves with a plethora of background operations before they were able to concentrate on the actual task at hand.

As in other industries, the framework – the Platform – that Apprenda have developed is intended to remove some of that background complexity and to enable developers working on a given project to get on and develop the actual applications that need to be written. Sinclair said that SaaSGrid

“provides a new layer of abstraction that takes the burden of creating SaaS specific technology, architecture and business components off of ISVs shoulders”

Back in his blog post, Sinclair describes the proposition for a developer;

“Apprenda does not host applications for software companies. Instead, we enable existing hosters to offer independent cloud instances of SaaSGrid. This means that you can write an app and leverage SaaSGrid, but get to choose which Cloud Provider to publish your application to. You basically write code in Visual Studio in a single-tenant fashion, use our API for certain SaaS related duties, upload your app (UI, web services, database schema) to a SaaSGrid cloud of your choice, click a couple of buttons through a control panel and you’re up and running with a true multi-tenant, ready to accept money SaaS offering!”

A community portal provides documentation, support, and access to the basic building blocks such as an SDK that developers can download in order to develop their own applications.

Online tools that Sinclair walked through with me do a good job of tracking multiple versions of an evolving product, managing customers, etc. The Business Engine that interested Bob Warfield comes into play here, offering a remarkably straightforward process by which application developers can manage availability and pricing of ‘features’ and ‘securables’ within each application they release.

SaaSGrid has been in beta for the past six months, with around 30 companies involved in building network monitoring, CRM, HR and other applications. As might be expected, around 40% of beta customers originated in the US… but the beta programme extended as far as Namibia!

The first of these applications are expected to go live early in 2009, and Sinclair was also open to the idea of Apprenda-branded applications appearing as well in order to showcase SaaSGrid and (presumably) secure other revenue streams for the company.

The SaaSGrid user interface is currently only available in English, although currency information for pricing within applications is fully customisable.

Given Apprenda’s reliance upon Microsoft components such as .Net, Azure might be considered a threat. Sinclair appeared unconcerned, though, arguing that Microsoft’s Cloud offering is more concerned with technology even further down the stack. Azure, he said

“could be a resource to use, rather than competition.”

We shall see!

SaaSGrid, though, represents an interesting step forward for those application developers already comfortable with developing atop the Microsoft stack. Just as Talis has recognised with their Platform in the Semantic Web space, there is clear value in ‘doing the heavy lifting’ and enabling developers to get on with building their applications as quickly and painlessly as possible.

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