Thursday, March 24, 2011

Who says you can't have custom apps in the cloud?

IBM Cloud ComputingImage by Ivan Walsh via Flickr
When I first started down the path of building out a software as a service (SaaS) platform for business applications, a common criticism I heard about SaaS was that they were really limiting in what you can do with them. You either take the application the way it is, or you go somewhere else. Beyond a few simple configurations and changing the odd color-scheme here and there, prepackaged applications running in the cloud were limited. 

Now enterprise applications on the other hand were apparently not limited. You could spend tens or hundreds of thousands on professional services to customize the app of your dreams. So that made them better. Hmm, no wonder I often heard the 'build vs. buy' discussion during lengthy sales cycles. 

These seemed to be limited options if you needed an application that fitted your businesses:
  • build from the ground up
  • invest in an enterprise software application and professional services
  • build your app on the Salesforce platform and still write loads of code

Now I'm not saying that the argument about finding an application online to run a common business process, such as travel expense reports, doesn't mean that you are going to get whatever the vendor believes is the right way of working. And for the cost, there needs to be a general, reusable approach. You don't get a lot of options when you're paying $5 a month or less. But this is a feature of the business model (shifting high volumes of cookie-cutter product). 

If the platform has been built right, as Salesforce has shown, it is not the technology behind the scenes that prevents a vendor from offering far more configuration and customization. Salesforce has gone to an extreme it seems.  But it does show that without just building a completely new solution from the ground up there is the possibility to get software specific to your requirements in the cloud. At the same time, just like building off any platform, there are constraints that you must adhere to.

These thoughts come to mind as I'm just finishing off the testing phase of a help desk and equipment management application for a TV station "out west". I'm enjoying that I have a great platform to be building on (yes, Consected does really do some great stuff!) and can put together process and information management solutions like this really quickly with 98% configuration. I'm even happier that the platform can be extended. Not just with an API and a whole bunch of new software following the Salesforce model. But with some simple tweaks of the software itself, allowing an improvement for every client, or a completely new chunk of functionality specific to just the one client. This is the joy of owning the platform itself.

So if you ever need a custom solution that does not need the full expense and hassle of those other options, do look a little further than the closed SaaS applications that meet the needs of many, just not you. And don't assume that custom applications always require teams of software developers, for enterprise application customization or Salesforce. There is a middle ground, and some smaller vendors like Consected can provide the flexibility that the "box-pushers" can not.

A post from the Improving It blog
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