Top SMB Takeaways: SAP Sapphire 2013

sapphireA couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend Sapphire 2013, SAP’s annual user conference. As is the norm for these events, SAP opened the fire hose to reveal new directions, product and solution announcements, and partner and customer wins through a myriad of meetings and sessions.

Rather than attempt to drench you with the full blast, I’ll focus this post on what I see as most relevant for SAP’s direction in the small and medium business (SMB) space.

HANA for All

SAP HANASAP is betting big on its HANA platform, which began life in 2010 as an in-memory database and has quickly evolved to become SAP’s “development platform for innovation,” for both SAP and third-party developers.

At Sapphire, SAP underscored that HANA isn’t just for big business. The vendor discussed several initiatives to bring the benefits of HANA’s data-crunching power to SMB analytics and online transaction processing (OLTP) requirements. For instance:

  • SAP Business One on HANA. Business One is SAP’s ERP solution for small businesses and for departments in larger companies. The solution integrates core business functions, including financials, sales, customer relationship management, inventory, and operations, and includes embedded analytics and reporting capabilities. SAP offers Business One both as an on-premises offering or via a cloud-based subscription model. In September 2012, SAP announced SAP Business One analytics, powered by SAP HANA. This solution provides a Linux-based HANA analytics appliance for companies running SAP Business One on a Windows server with Microsoft’s SQL database. At Sapphire, SAP introduced a new offering, Business One, version for HANA,  slated for availability later this year. This version runs directly on HANA, enabling both the transactional (ERP) and analytical applications to run on the same Linux-based server. By running both ERP transactions and analytics on a single platform, Business One version for HANA speeds access to information for analytics, reporting and search, without slowing down transactional processing.
  • SAP Startup Focus Program, which enables startups to build solutions for small businesses. SAP has engaged over 430 startups to use HANA as a platform to develop user-friendly real-time analytics and advanced predictive solutions. For instance, Vish Cancron, CEO of Liquid Analytics, talked about his company’s cloud-based, mobile analytics applications for iPhone, iPad, Blackberry and Android users.  As Vish explained to me in this video discussion at a prior event, Liquid Analytics uses gamification and predictive analytics to help make it easier, quicker and more fun for wholesale industry sales reps to place orders and set and meet sales goals.
  • SAP HANA One. SAP has partnered with Amazon’s Web Services Cloud to offer a pay-as-you model for trying and using HANA. SAP claims that users can import data and get up and running with HANA cloud in as few as 5 minutes. HANA One is designed for analytics professionals, SIs and ISVs, supports up to a 30 GB compressed data set, and is priced at one dollar per hour per user. While most SMBs don’t have analytics professionals, HANA One gives SIs and developers an accessible, affordable mechanism to develop and test new HANA apps for SMB customers. SAP has also created an online and community support network to help SMBs get started and navigate their way through a HANA One instance.

Cloud Front and Center

sap cloudSAP’s journey to the cloud has been underway for several years. Though the company has seen a few setbacks, almost all of SAP’s solutions are now available in the cloud, including:

  • Home-brewed SAP ERP solutions such as Business One, Business All-in-One, Business Suite  and of course, cloud-only Business ByDesign.
  • Acquired cloud solutions such SuccessFactors and Ariba.
  • Afaria, SAP’s mobile management platform, which SAP announced at the event is now available as a cloud-based service, branded as Afaria in the Cloud.
  • SAP HANA One Premium, an advanced version of SAP HANA One with the same data compression rate but with greater accessibility to SAP source data, all SAP backend systems, data integrators and full SAP Support.

SAP also offers customers a choice of running some of its ERP solutions in either a public or private cloud environment, and a choice of cloud providers as well. For instance, customers can choose to run Business One in Amazon’s AWS, or in SAP’s HANA cloud center, an SAP partner’s cloud, or in a private on-premises cloud.

Notably, SAP revealed that it’s own HANA Cloud Center has the capacity to accommodate all of its current installed base customers. This gives existing customers a convenient on ramp both to move ERP solutions to the cloud and gain the power of HANA in one fell swoop–and underscores just how important the cloud is to enable SAP’s HANA strategy.

Upgrading the User Experience

sap uiLet’s face it, SAP is not known for user-friendly software or contracts. But the company is on a quest to improve customer experience by making its solutions more accessible and user-friendly. SAP is also expanding its portfolio of rapid deployment solutions (RDS), which offer fixed cost, fixed scope preconfigured software, best practices and implementation services that give customers everything they need to get up and running on midmarket solutions such as Business All-in-One in just a few weeks. SAP currently offers over 900 rapid-deployment solutions across its product lines. In addition to developing more appealing and streamlined user interfaces, SAP is trying to simplify pricing and contracts.

When it comes to new solutions, SAP is aiming to get accessibility and ease of use right from the get go. For instance, SAP’s newly minted Afaria for the Cloud solution for mobile management sports a streamlined user interface and is priced at 1 Euro per user per month. At that price, the solution should be attractive for even very small businesses that need to manage mobile devices get an affordable solution. It also opens the door for SAP to prove its worth, develop a relationship, and sell other solutions to new small business customers.

Shining the Spotlight on Ariba

aribaAttracting new customers, growing revenues, and increasing profitability are perennial challenges for all SMBs. As revealed in SMB Group’s 2012 SMB Routes to Market Study, about one-quarter of SMBs sell goods and services to large enterprises. These B2B SMBs want a bigger share of the billions of dollars that large businesses spend annually on goods and services. SAP is shining the spotlight on its Ariba business commerce network as a means to help them reach this end. SAP provides all of its Business One customers with a free connection into the Ariba network, and any company, whether an SAP customer or not, can enroll as a Supplier on the cloud-based Ariba Network. Once enrolled, SMBs can connect and collaborate customers, partners, peers, and prospects. Ariba gives SMBs another way to provide more value to its existing SMB customers, and an additional entry point to bring non-SAP SMBs into the SAP fold.

Perspective

We’ve all seen how quickly innovative, fast-growth start-ups can become marquee brands. SAP understands that the creation-destruction cycle for businesses in hyper-drive, as underscored by the story of Under Armour, a featured customer and keynote panelist at Sapphire. Kevin Planck, Under Armour CEO, discussed how he founded the company in his basement in 1996 to design T-shirts that would wick moisture to help athletes stay cool and dry. He also talked about how Under Armour has evolved and grown, and how SAP has helped the company achieve twelve consecutive quarters of 20%+ growth.

SAP is betting big on becoming the leading IT solutions provider for these high-growth SMBs, which SMB Group call Progressive SMBs. Progressive SMBs are growth driven, and more likely to invest in and use technology to gain market and competitive advantage than other SMBs. Our data shows that Progressive SMBs are also much more likely to anticipate revenue gains than peers whose tech investments are flat or declining. SAP’s strategy to target  Progressive SMBs with leading edge technologies that provide clear business benefit should help it to tap in more deeply to this segment.

As important, SAP seems to be making an authentic effort to consumerize the SAP experience by reducing friction in choosing, buying and using SAP solutions. In our 2012 SMB Routes to Market Study, 42% of small businesses rate “solution is easy to use” as the top reason to put solutions on their short lists. SAP is addressing this challenge with a commitment to the cloud, tight integration to HANA within business applications, and focus on bringing new, easy to buy and use applications to market.

Although SAP isn’t likely to become the volume leader, the company is charting a leadership course to engage fast-growth SMBs–who also have the potential to become high-value SAP customers–with a differentiated and compelling story.

Dell KACE M300 Appliance Enables Small Businesses to Take a Proactive Approach to IT Asset Management

–by Sanjeev Aggarwal and Laurie McCabe

Dell KACE recently introduced a new series of System Management Appliances targeted at small businesses with 20-200 employees. The Dell KACE M300 Asset Management Appliance is designed to deliver an affordable, plug-and-play IT asset management solution that reduces the repetitive, time-consuming task of managing PC inventory and software licenses. The M300 qualifies as a robust yet easy-to-use asset management solution—saving these businesses time and money, while at the same time addressing their compliance and inventory management issues.

Perspective

Dell acquired KACE, which designs and builds systems management and deployment appliances, in February 2010. KACE solutions are available both as physical appliances (delivered as a pre-packaged hardware and software appliance) and as software-only virtual appliances, which customers can buy and load onto servers they already own. Dell’s KACE appliances are designed to perform processes ranging from initial computer deployment to ongoing management and retirement.

Higher-end Dell KACE products (K1000 and K2000) have been available for some time. Since Dell acquired the company, sales have spiked considerably year-over-year. However, the existing KACE offerings are designed for companies with 100 to 10,000 employees, and cost more than most small businesses are willing to spend in this area.

With the introduction of the M300, Dell is making a play in the true small business market, targeting customers that want a simple plug-and-play appliance to meet both hardware and software asset management needs. The M300 is designed for smaller businesses that often have a part-time IT manager, typically overloaded with installing software and keeping systems and client devices up and running, and frequently unable to keep up with the detail-oriented task of tracking hardware and software assets.

Many small business IT managers are still trying to manage assets and software licenses manually with spreadsheets. While manual tools provide a point in time snapshot of a network, the information rapidly becomes obsolete as computers are added or additional software is installed on existing systems. IT managers either end up spending too much time trying to keep this up-to-date, or end up with outdated asset inventories. Offloading the labor-intensive minutia involved in this job can free them up to focus on more important things.

Although there are some free and small business oriented solutions available, Dell’s strong market footprint and direct relationships with existing small business customers provide it with a significant go-to-market advantage, and the opportunity to educate small businesses about the benefits of investing in IT asset management (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Benefits of IT Asset Management

In line with small business requirements to keep it simple, the M300 features easy set up. The IT manager plugs the M300 into the network, and the device automatically scans and discovers all the attached devices, obtaining information like system names, IP addresses, vendor, models numbers, memory and disk space, etc. In addition to the hardware configuration, the M300 keeps track of all the software licenses, on what systems the software is installed, versions of the software and level of patch updates, etc.

The M300 continuously tracks computers and software, and can report accurate information in real-time and for compliance purposes at a specific point-in-time. The appliance’s web-based intuitive user interface shows real-time information on all of the monitored parameters. It can match the installed software with the number of software licenses purchased and authorized users. It provides online or sends out reports and/or alerts on any monitored parameters. For example, an alert will be issued if an unapproved application is downloaded and installed on a monitored PC or whenever a new PC is connected to the network.

Priced at $2,498, the M300 includes a one year warranty and supports a maximum of 200 nodes. Assuming the useful life of the M300 to be 3 years, we estimate the cost to monitor each node (desktops and servers) on the network at approximately $0.49 per month per node in a company with 200 nodes. Figure 2 shows the estimated cost per node in companies of various sizes (according to the number of nodes deployed). Given the cost of a employing an IT admin to manage systems full-time (approximately $75,000 per year), the M300 will pay for itself in about one month. In addition, the M300 can relieve the pressure and any additional costs related to non-compliance in terms of number of software licenses, etc.

Figure 2: Tracking Cost Per Node, Per Month with the M300
Source: SMB Group

The M300 is compact–measuring just 1.52 x 5.79 x 5.79 inches, connects to the network via a single gigabit Ethernet port, and is currently available in the U.S. only, both direct from Dell and via Dell partners.  KACE has added about 100 new certified partners since Dell acquired it and currently has 143 channel partners in North America.  KACE is aggressively recruiting new partners to help it expand its footprint and reach Dell’s large customer base in the small business segment.

Dell’s future plans for KACE small business solutions include additional appliances that can be stacked on top of the M300 and will address time consuming IT management functions like OS installs, remote management, mobile devices, service desk, etc. As the systems management needs of these small businesses expand, Dell intends to help them manage this growth without the need to rip and replace their current solutions and investments.

Quick Take

Cost-efficiency, productivity benefits, ease of installation and peace of mind benefits—aided by Dell’s strong clout in the market—should enable the company to make significant inroads with KACE in the lower end of the SMB space. And, the company’s plans to incrementally build on the current M300 offerings with additional appliances for other repetitive tasks make sense.  However, Dell can significantly strengthen its story–and sales–by:

  • Offering small businesses options to add at least some new functionality via M300 software upgrades. Although the small business KACE appliances have a small form factor, some companies will balk at buying additional boxes (not to mention that Dell wants to move away from its “box-provider” image!)
  • Incorporating capabilities to manage non Windows-based systems, clients and networked storage devices.
  • Enabling remote management features to allow channel partners to offer incremental value-added IT infrastructure management services. This would not only have appeal for customers, who like to have a one-stop shop, but for partners, that can build higher margin services on top of the M300.

Looking at the larger picture, the KACE M300 provides further evidence of Dell’s deepening commitment to small businesses. The company continues to invest in and build innovative yet practical solutions that address real small business pain points without breaking the bank. Small businesses increasingly rely on technology to run their businesses, and Dell’s focus on supplying them with easy-to-use solutions such as the KACE M300 to help manage this technology is on the mark.

The New Dell and What it Means for SMBs: Takeaways from Dell’s 2011 Solutions for a Virtual Era Event

Twenty-seven years ago, Michael Dell launched Dell with $1,000 and a streamlined sales and manufacturing model that revolutionized the PC industry. Sticking with this playbook, Dell achieved similar success in the server market, once again disrupting the status quo.

However, times changed, and Dell started to look like a one-trick pony. As Michael Dell himself acknowledged at last week’s Dell’s 2011 Virtual Era Analyst Event, which I’m paraphrasing here, “Dell had a winning formula that worked for a long time…but then it didn’t work so well anymore. Technology changed, as did customers’ expectation of technology, and Dell had to reinvent itself.” After re-taking the helm in 2007, Michael Dell began charting a new  course for Dell–one designed to help it capitalize on market demand for better, more cost-effective and easier to use IT solutions.

At last week’s event, Dell provided us with an update on its strategy to help companies in the anytime, anywhere virtual era by providing customers with “open, capable, affordable solutions.” For Dell, this means building solutions on open, industry standards; providing customers with choice; virtually (instead of vertically) integrated solutions; and ensuring that solutions can scale as required.

By leveraging cloud computing and remote services, and delivering the right blend of hardware, service and software offerings as more complete solutions–instead of as commodity piece parts–Dell’s aim is to solve customers’ IT problems instead of creating new ones.

How Dell’s Strategy Plays in the SMB Market

At this year’s event, Dell put SMBs in the spotlight. Steve Felice, president of Dell’s Consumer, Small and Medium Business unit, took center stage in the line-up of keynote presentations, mapping out Dell’s SMB vision. Dell’s other executive presenters and panelists–up to and including Michael Dell–underscored Dell’s commitment to delivering products, services and solutions tailored to the needs of SMB customers as well. (This contrasted with last year’s event, at which Dell mentioned that it would use mid-market businesses as its design point, but then quickly veered into large enterprise territory for the bulk of the event).

More importantly, Dell is putting meat on the messaging bones at both ends of the SMB spectrum. For example:

  • Dell’s focal point for the Virtual Era is the mid-market. Dell defines the mid-market as companies with 500 to a few thousand employees. It believes that by starting with mid-market requirements, Dell believes it can more readily scale up or down and make the economics of IT work better for businesses of all sizes, because mid-market companies have complex IT needs, but scarce IT resources–and can’t afford a lot of expensive labor or IT tools. They need more complete, automated, fixed price IT solutions and services. Recent Dell acquisitions such as KACE, which helps simplify systems management and deployment with appliance and cloud-based solutions, and Boomi, which supplies cloud integration services to help companies affordably integrate cloud and on-premise applications,  focus on mid-market problems. Dell’s results to date illustrate how this approach is shaping up: KACE sales are up 400%, and Boomi (see Dell and Boomi: Doubling Down on Integration) sales are on track to double by year-end.  At Dell’s Take Your Own Path SMB event in December 2010, I met several Dell SMB customers, (see SMB Group video interviews with Chitale Dairy and Pixomondo) that are using these and other Dell solutions to help move their businesses ahead of the competition. 
  • Capitalizing on the consumerization trend. IT innovation used to move mostly downstream, from large enterprises to the consumer. These days, the direction has reversed. Consumers are buying brighter, shinier and often more capable devices than they get at work–and bringing them into the office. Entrepreneurs are starting their own businesses, and don’t want to sacrifice the looks, power, capability and ease of use of consumer devices for stodgy and unwieldy business products. In a nutshell, consumer IT is raising the bar for business IT. Dell is taking advantage of its position as one of only two major vendors with an end-to-end portfolio that spans client devices from consumers through large business. Dell’s consumer products provide it with a great access point to small businesses. Since the introduction of its small business Vostro line in 2007, Dell has continued to make refine and expand its offerings to help small businesses bridge the gap from consumer to prosumer and up with a portfolio of PCs, notebooks, tablets and smartphones geared to different needs across this spectrum, along with services to help with device manageability, security and control. In particular, Dell has been aggressively expanding its mobile offerings with a comprehensive line-up of Android and Windows 7 devices to capitalize on the transformational shift to mobile computing.
  • Taking a more channel-friendly but not a channel-only approach. Dell has moved from being a poster child for the direct model to a company that recognizes the value of the channel and the role it plays in the SMB market. Several of its recent acquisitions, including Compellent, EquaLogic and KACE brought strong reseller channels that Dell is building on. However, Dell also recognizes that while many SMBs continue to rely on the channel, SMBs are increasingly purchasing at least some of their IT solutions directly, as indicated in SMB Group’s 2010 SMB Routes to Market Study.  Unlike its major competitors, Dell’s first priority is to bring greater IT efficiency to the market–not on maintaining an IT channel that doesn’t add value. This should increase the odds that the channel partners that work with Dell are actually adding value instead of just serving as middlemen.
  • Becoming a bona fide software and services provider.  Dell and others have talked about “productizing” services and automating technology solutions to make them more affordable and provide better business value. Dell’s recent string of software acquisitions and its purchase of Perot Systems indicate Dell’s intent to become a serious force in this realm. Dell’s investments to date to build cloud infrastructure and services foreshadow its future intent to offer an expanded range of public, private and hybrid cloud solutions for SMBs. In addition, Dell’s Managed Services footprint is growing, with 9000 team members in 39 countries who provide an array of services, from application services to break/fix. Dell’s focus on using cloud and other technologies to help provide remote, automated services should make these services more affordable for SMBs.

Quick Take

Dell’s strategy for the Virtual Era and mid-market design point bode well for SMBs. Unlike the many technology vendors that speak in jargon-riddled tongues that can make your head spin, Dell execs are also able to tell the story in a way that mere mortals can understand. As important, Dell has found the silver lining in the Dell Hell support crisis of a few years back, building extensive social media capabilities so that it can listen to what customers want, and map to these requirements. Finally, Dell is walking the walk–investing in and building the software and services capabilities it will need to deliver its vision to SMB customers.

Dell contrasts its perspective with that of its traditional major competitors–HP and IBM, which it contends skew towards a large enterprise design point. While I think Dell may be overstating this, Dell’s SMB strategy and solutions seem to be more deeply entwined with the fabric of the corporate vision as a whole.

Of course, I’d like to see Dell go even further with its SMB agenda. Some top of mind ideas:

  • Provide a less expensive but just as inviting alternative to the Mac. Many entrepreneurs and small business owners are defecting from Windows PCs to Macs not because of hardware issues but because they’ve had too many experiences where the Windows slows down and gets funky. I’d love to see Dell put more focus into raising the profile of its non-Windows PC and desktop alternatives.
  • Offer a turnkey social media service for SMBs. Dell really gets social media, and in my opinion, is ahead of the field in understanding how to use it effectively. It would be great if Dell created a streamlined, turnkey offering to help SMBs use, monitor and manage social media. As we learned in the SMB Group’s 2011 SMB Social Business Study, and as highlighted in this post, Is There a Method to Social Media Madness, only about a quarter of SMBs are using social media in a strategic way, and few are using tools to manage and ensure that they’re getting return on their social media investments.
  • Solve the SMB dilemma of having to buy and pay for multiple mobile service contracts for different devices. How about using a little muscle with AT&T (Dell also needs to offer its mobile devices through Verizon) to enable–instead of prohibiting–SMBs to tether their notebooks with their smartphones (instead of banning this) via a bundled service package. The SMB Group’s 2010 SMB Mobile Solutions Study showed that expensive data plans for mobile services are the biggest inhibitor to SMBs adopting mobile solutions, as discussed here.

Dell’s commitment to the SMB market is coming through loud and clear. If it can stay focused and be bold, it has the opportunity to do some big things for SMBs that should really pay off for both Dell and for its SMB customers.

Dell KACE Secure Browser–A Free Tool to Help Firefox Users Stop Malware Invasions

Dell KACE Secure Browser–A Free Tool to Help Firefox Users Stop Malware Invasions

Anyone that’s ever unwittingly downloaded malware from the Internet knows that it can bring your PC to a virtual stand still. This horrible stuff can infect your computer by exploiting vulnerabilities in your browser, or by opening and taking advantage of security holes in a PC application. Even if you think you are confining your surfing to secure sites, these evil-doers can get in to your PC via banner ads on those sites. Getting rid of this malware can require hours of times and sometimes expensive support calls–and can make you tear your hair out.

Announcement Highlights

Which brings me to the Dell KACE announcement last week. Dell KACE is offering Secure Browser as a free download to help Firefox users proactively decrease the risk of installing malicious software via the Firefox browser. The Secure Browser does this by creating a virtual instance of the Firefox browser application, which isolates any activities run in the browser from the user’s computer and operating system. The tool also gives users the ability to clear any changes made with the browser with a single click.

Is There Something Valuable in this Free Offer for Me?

If you’ve ever been hit by on of these insidious malware attacks, or watched someone else suffer through one, you’ll immediately recognize the relevance of this offering. As more of the computing we do shifts from PCs to the Web, Secure Browser can give Firefox users another hedge against the headaches and lost productivity that come with these types of attacks.

Of course, this is of value to you today on the one in three chance that you use Firefox as your browser. Firefox is currently the number 2 browser, with about 1/3 market share. Secure Browser doesn’t run on the number one browser, Internet Explorer (IE) or on Opera, Chrome or Safari–although Dell says it is considering introducing a Secure Browser for IE in the future.

Why is Dell Offering Secure Browser for Free?

Dell acquired KACE, which designs and builds systems management and deployment appliances, in February of this year. Dell KACE aims to serve a very wide swath of organizations–from 100 to 10,000 employees–which it loosely labels “medium business” by helping them to more easily attend to the chores associated with deploying applications and managing their IT environment.

KACE solutions are available both as physical appliances (delivered as a pre-packaged hardware and software appliance) and as software-only virtual appliances, which customers can buy and load onto servers they already own.

By providing users with a snippet of valuable functionality via the Secure Browser, Dell hopes to create awareness and spark interest in its KACE appliances. When the free Secure Browser is used in conjunction with the KACE 1000 Management appliance, IT administrators can centrally deploy and manage it.

Quick Take

With this announcement, Dell has already achieved one of its goals–generating some good media coverage with its Secure Browser announcement. However, Dell will need to supplement this initial spurt of energy with ongoing education to get more people to try it. After all, most people don’t worry about the fallout from this type of breach until they experience it.

On the tactical level, Dell needs to get IE support out the door as soon as possible expand the potential market footprint and impact of Secure Browser as a lure for KACE. Strategically, Dell also needs to effectively monitor and segment users of the free Secure Browser solution. With such a broad target market for KACE (organizations with 100 to 10,000 employees) Dell must effectively differentiate between these different segments, both in terms of their existing IT management environments and requirements, to make the most out of its free offer.

Will the Appliance Approach Gain Traction in the Wake of Recent Cloud Outages?

This week’s service outage at Intuit is fueling a new round of speculation about the dark side of cloud computing–and whether businesses can depend on cloud-based services to run their businesses. Intuit’s problems come on the heels of other service outages this month at WordPress and Sage, and as well as service outages earlier this year at Salesforce.com and NetSuite, among others.

Clearly, Intuit is not alone, and cloud vendors across the board will need to redouble their efforts to harden, backup, continuity and disaster recovery services.  Customers will also demand more transparent, accessible visibility into ongoing performance, downtime and problem resolution, and compensation when downtime exceeds guarantees in vendor service level agreements. And, as stated so well in a Hubspot blog, cloud vendors must put a a proactive social media strategy in place to lessen the fallout when a problem does occur.

That said, I don’t think that customers should leap to the conclusion that the sky–or the cloud–is falling. Smaller companies, in particular, are likely to have much more trouble keeping their systems up, running and productive than a cloud provider.

However, it does seem to me that now is good time for vendors and customers to consider a hybrid appliance-cloud approach–which has had a difficulty getting air time amidst the cloud hype and exuberance. As I discussed in What is a Business Applications Appliance and Why Should You Care?, business application 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. The appliance vendor pre-integrates the hardware, databases, security, storage, virtualization and other technologies with the business application to provide a complete solution.

This means that 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. And the appliance vendor (or a business partner) can deliver remote system management, monitoring, updates, patches, support and backup over the Internet, and deliver additional Web-based services, and/or download new applications as needed.

As a result, the appliance approach can bridge the gap 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 many respects, this model could offer the best of both worlds to companies that want something easy to use and maintain, but are still uncomfortable with complete reliance on the cloud.

Let me know what you think–will recent cloud vendor outages shed new light on the appliance model?

Recent Vendor Briefing Highlights: IBM’s Cast Iron Acquisition

We are publishing recent vendor highlights on the SMB Group web site. As time permits, we discuss our key take-aways from more interesting briefings. I will try to remember to post them here as well. Here is the most recent one.

Highlights:

In May of this year, IBM acquired Cast Iron Systems (for an undisclosed sum) to help customers more effectively tackle the challenges of integrating cloud and on-premise solutions. Cast Iron, which was founded in 2001 and has 75 employees, provides hundreds of pre-built templates and a “configuration, not coding” approach to help streamline and shorten the time application integration. Cast Iron’s OmniConnect portfolio includes three deployment options, which all share the same interface, and deliver user interface mashups, process integration and data migration capabilities:

• Cast Iron Cloud2, a multi-tenant Integration-as-a-Service cloud offering
• Cast Iron Physical Appliance
• Cast Iron Virtual Appliance

Cast Iron has positioned itself as the “The #1 SaaS and Cloud Integration Company,” with more than 450 mid-market customers and an unspecified number of large enterprise accounts. Traditionally, Cast Iron has competed against rivals such as Boomi, Informatica and Pervasive in the integration market.

IBM will make Cast Iron’s solutions available worldwide as part of the WebSphere integration portfolio.

Quick Take:
IBM’s acquisition of Cast Iron was driven by a few fundamental market trends. First, cloud computing growth is exploding. IBM is forecasting global market CAGR for cloud computing is expanding by 28%, from $47BB in 2008 to $126B in 2012. In addition, data volumes are rising exponentially. IDC forecasts that data stores are growing an average of 60% annually, fueled by factors including the social media explosion, and the increasing trend to aggregate, mine and monetize data. More and more of this data will be stored in the cloud.

These forces ratchet up the need for simpler, cheaper integration alternatives. In the cloud, data and data control are widely distributed. And most companies will continue to operate in a blended or hybrid computing approach for the foreseeable future. Connectivity scenarios between cloud applications and data sources, cloud to on-premise, and between public and provide clouds are spiraling the number of possible integration scenarios. Developers, integrators and customers must deal with a staggering number APIs and technologies to accomplish these integrations.

While IBM’s WebSphere already includes a wealth of integration capabilities, Cast Iron enables IBM to provide more turnkey integration, which reduces cost and complexity, and removes significant barriers to cloud computing adoption. By leveraging this streamlined approach, IBM can strengthen its role as a integration hub for its existing enterprise customers, and more readily extend its integration footprint into the mid-market.

Of course, IBM had other acquisition options, most notably Pervasive, which is a significantly bigger company than Cast Iron, boasting more than 1,000 SaaS integration customers and dozens of integrations; and Boomi, which focuses exclusively on a cloud-based integration platform, and offers dozens of integrations. (Interestingly, Boomi, Cast Iron and Pervasive–all provide integrations for several of the leading SaaS vendors.)

So why Cast Iron? My take is that IBM took this route for a couple of reasons. First, I think IBM likes the fact that Cast Iron’s line-up features software, cloud and appliance options. IBM has been putting a lot of focus on appliances, in particular, as bridge between on-premise and cloud solutions. Cast Iron provides an appliance option, and also provides integration in a uniform way across all three delivery models. In addition, IBM likely viewed Pervasive’s PSQL database business, which still accounts for a majority of Pervasive’s revenues, as an asset it didn’t want or need.

For these and other reasons, the Cast Iron acquisition makes sense for IBM. But will IBM be able to successfully surface and leverage Cast Iron’s automated, simplified approach within the context of an increasingly complex and crowded WebSphere and Software Group portfolio–which, I’m told, is now comprised of more than 30,000 different offerings? IBM already has two disparate integration stacks, WebSphere for application integration, and InfoSphere for data integration. Smaller acquisitions have tended to get lost in the IBM shuffle in the past, and IBM Software has made additional, bigger acquisitions (such as Sterling Commerce and Coremetrics) since it acquired Cast Iron.

Meanwhile, what moves will Pervasive, Boomi and Informatica make to meet the challenges of a new integration gorilla in the mist? As important, what plays will IBM’s traditional competitors, such as Oracle and SAP, as well as cloud leaders such as Google, Amazon, Salesforce, etc. come up with as they pursue similar goals? Are other integration acquisitions in the works?

I don’t have a crystal ball–or inside information–to know how the details of new developments will unfold. But as the drivers for more streamlined cloud integration continue to intensify, this promises to be a very interesting space and one I’ll be watching closely.

What is Unified Communications, and Why Should You Care?

(Originally published in Small Business Computing, July 27, 2009)

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 Unified Communications.

What is Unified Communications?

Most of us use several different tools and devices to communicate. At a minimum, you probably use a cell phone, a landline phone, fax and e-mail. Many of us also other tools as well, such as instant messaging, texting and Web conferencing.  Unified communications (UC) solutions incorporate these different modes of communications into one system.

Unified communication solutions take advantage of new technologies to integrate and streamline messages from many sources. For instance, a unified messaging system lets you access multiple phone lines, e-mail, fax and instant messaging from one place. These solutions break down communications barriers so that it’s easier and faster for you to find, reach and communicate with other people, and vice versa

It’s important to remember that UC isn’t one tool, but a solution that pulls together all of the communication and collaboration tools that you’re already using (plus some new ones you may want to add) so you can communicate through a consistent interface and experience. For instance, with a UC solution, you give your customers just your office phone number, and calls to that number will also ring simultaneously on your cell phone.

UC solutions can integrate both non-real-time communications tools, such as traditional phone lines, e-mail, fax and voice-mail, with real-time communications tools such as instant messaging (IM) and Web conferencing. They can also incorporate many other communication tools, too, such as and voice over IP (VoIP) telephony solutions, text messaging, screen sharing and video conferencing—just to name a few. Many use presence awareness technology that locates where people to see if they’re available, (think IM buddy list).

Why Should You Care?

Whether you’re a sales person, a construction worker or an attorney, you’re likely to be on the go, or working from different locations throughout the week. UC solutions can help you get more done more quickly. They help you and stay connected to your co-workers and customers, whether you’re on the road, in the office or working from home.

Depending on where you are and what the situation requires, your preference for the device you use (cell phone, PDA, notebook desktop computer, fax machine) is likely to change, as is the mode of communicating (traditional phone service, IP telephony, cell phone, text message, IM, etc.).  Everyone else is in the same boat. So, while it’s nice to have all these handy tools, it’s a chore to remember different numbers, and to constantly check different services for messages.

UC can help you be more productive and save you time by letting you move seamlessly from one device and mode of communication to another. For example, using a UC solution, you could:

    * Have your calls follow you. For instance, say you dial into a conference call from your home phone at 6:00 a.m. When you walk out the door, the call transfers automatically to your cell phone—without interruption. When you get to the office, the call transfers to your office phone, which has the capability to also initiate a Web conference.

    * Find people you need more quickly. Let’s say you and your sales manager both have busy schedules. You will both be in and out of the office in between sales calls. You’re in the last throes of negotiating a deal, and you need to get his buy-in on a discount—but you have no idea where he is.  A UC solutions tracks down your boss for you. It knows the phone number where your boss is located, and automatically forward the call to the phone line he can access.

UC can also help you operate more flexibly and save money.  Say, for instance, you hire five more employees; the solution will easily accommodate remote workers. With a UC solution that includes IP telephony, it’s easy and fast to add new phone lines for new workers, wherever they’re located. Instead of having to move to a bigger office and pay higher rent, the new employees can work from home with just an Internet connection.

What to Consider

UC can be a confusing area to evaluate because different vendors design and build their solutions with different assortments of communications and collaboration tools. If you’re considering UC, start by putting together a list of communication pain points and problems that your company faces. Depending on the nature of your business, its size, and how people work, you may want very different capabilities than the business next door. You’ll also want to look for a solution that is flexible enough to let you add new capabilities as you need them.

The other area you’ll want to consider is how you want to deploy the solution. Companies such as Avaya, Cisco and many others sell UC solutions — designed specifically for small businesses — that package up systems, software and phones. IBM just announced that it will add a real-time communication version to its Lotus Foundations line, which is designed for small businesses that want one appliance to support communications and collaboration. Finally, vendors such as PanTerra provide software-as-a-service (SaaS) UC solutions through its partner channel. 

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