(Originally published June 18, 2009 in Small Business Computing)
Technology insiders tend to throw around technical terms and business jargon, assuming people outside the industry understand what it all means. By its nature, technology vocabulary is often confusing and complicated, and insiders often add to the confusion by over-complicating things. To help add a sense of clarity to the confusion, each month, Laurie McCabe, a partner at Hurwitz & Associates (a business consulting firm), will pick a technology term, explain what it means in plain English, and then discuss why it may be important to you. This month Laurie looks at Business Application Appliances.
What’s a Business App Appliance, and Why Should You Care?
As with other types of computing appliances, business-application appliances are “purpose-built” to address a specific type of computing requirement. Akin to a household appliance, the aim is to plug them in and use them, without spending a lot of time getting them up and running or taking care of them. Business application server appliances come pre-configured with all of the hardware and software components required to run a specific business application, such as accounting or CRM packaged together in one box.
Most vendors build their appliances with industry standard hardware and operating systems, such as Linux or Microsoft Windows, and they integrate databases, security, storage, virtualization and other technologies as necessary to provide a complete solution. As a result, users can set up an appliance in a matter of minutes, instead of the hours or days it would normally take to source, install, integrate and tune all of these component parts on a general purpose server.
As important, the appliance vendor (or a business partner) provides remote system management, monitoring, updates, patches, support and backup over the Internet. However, in contrast to earlier appliances, which were often limited to one solution, and one-size-fits-all, today’s business application appliances often feature open APIs, and use virtualization and other technologies to make them more flexible and scalable. This lets you add more users, tailor the solution, and add more applications to the appliance.
Some examples of new business application appliances designed for small and medium businesses include:
- IBM-Intuit Smart Cube appliance, which features Intuit’s QuickBooks Enterprise accounting software, and is designed for companies with up to 250 employees. It can scale from five to 30 people, and users can integrate optional collaboration and database and solutions. This solution is one of many available in IBM’s Smart Market appliance community.
- Sage’s Applianz solutions, which offer Sage MAS 90, 200, 500 and Sage SalesLogix as business application appliances. These solutions feature CompleteAssurance, which combines Applianz remote access, hardware maintenance and automated nightly backup service into one product.
- IBM Lotus Foundations Start, which bundles Lotus Notes/Domino collaboration solutions and Lotus Symphony and integrated backup into a plug-and-play appliance. Optionally, customers can also run Microsoft Windows and Windows-based solutions on the appliance using integrated virtual machine technology.
Why Should You Care?
Business application appliances are analogous to consumer computing appliances, such as an iPod, Xbox or TiVo. The basic concept is the same; the vendor automates and integrates all of the necessary solution components into one simple-to-use system. This ensures that everything works together out-of-the-box, with little or no IT support. Appliances can also provide peace of mind for businesses with limited or no IT staff, as vendors and/or their business partners provide day-to-day systems support, maintenance and backups over the Web. Many take advantage of terminal services, so you can connect remote workers easily, and don’t need to worry about upgrading PCs.
Because appliances are purpose-built, they make more efficient use of technology and can minimize both acquisition and ongoing support costs. The appliance approach crosses the chasm between traditional, customer-premise deployments and cloud computing or software-as-a-service (SaaS) model, integrating on-premise, integrated appliance systems with cloud services. In some respects, this hybrid model provides the best of both worlds for companies that want something easy to use and maintain, but are still uncomfortable with putting their data and processing power in the cloud.
What to Consider
Business application appliances can provide a more affordable, efficient means to deploy and use business solutions than traditional customer premise solutions. But, as with any type of business software selection, you’ll want to read the fine print. What’s included in the purchase price of the business application appliance? For instance, what maintenance is included in the initial purchase price, and how much are ongoing maintenance fees? Does the vendor automatically backup the system, and if so, how frequently? How easy—or difficult—is it to add new users?
You’ll also want to evaluate flexibility. While it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to customize the solution at the source code level, it should let you tailor things such as templates and reports to your requirements. Also, consider whether you need to integrate the business application appliance with other applications that you’re currently running, or may need to add in the future, and how the vendor can help you to do this. Finally, what happens if your appliance breaks? How does the vendor provide service, and what is the replacement policy? The appliance vendor should be able to provide a roll back to a pre-failure image and quickly restore operation on a new appliance if necessary.
Companies looking for simplicity, ease-of-use and reduced cost will also want to evaluate the trade-offs between appliances and the SaaS model. For instance, you purchase and own an appliance. In a SaaS model, you pay for a monthly or annual subscription service, which lowers upfront costs and financial risks, making it easier to switch to another solution if you’re not satisfied.
Over time, as technologies such as virtualization and cloud computing mature, I expect more and more blurring between cloud computing and business application appliances—just like we see in the consumer space. Sooner rather than later, business application appliances should also be available in a subscription service, where you may purchase the box for a nominal fee, and subscribe to an application service that runs on the box. Until then, do your research, weigh the trade-offs and select the option that best fits your needs.
Did this help you understand business application appliances? Let me know, and send me any additional questions you have on the topic. Also, please send your suggestions for other technology terms and areas that you’d like explained in upcoming columns.