Alternatives in the Cloud
Amazon.com, Google, Salesforce.com and others challenge Microsoft with Web-based dev platforms.
When Microsoft launched .NET back in 2001, the effort focused initially on winning back ground lost to Sun Microsystems Inc.'s innovative Java programming language and environment. Now a new competitive threat is emerging in the form of cloud-based computing initiatives. And, once again, Microsoft faces a competitive threat that's changing the way developers work.
That threat includes energetic Web players that are positioning themselves as dev tool providers. Companies like Amazon.com Inc., eBay Inc., Google Inc., Facebook and Salesforce.com Inc. are all tuning development technologies that tap into their established infrastructure and give third-party developers ways to craft their own solutions.
Given the consumerist focus of these vendors, the question is whether corporate development managers should pay attention to these new toolsets. The answer, say experts, is absolutely yes -- if they want to stay relevant regardless of their commitment and ties to Windows.
"Everyone should care. This is a far more interesting, more germane question than anything to do with Microsoft," says Matt Howard, co-founder and CEO of SMBLive, a provider of mail and collaboration services to small businesses.
"The Web has won," Howard says. "The Web is the killer platform. We're in a situation where anyone and everyone in the software world is forced to find a way to leverage interesting and innovative platform extractions." Howard blogged recently about how businesses should take Facebook's entry into dev tools seriously.
Paul Barter, vice president of strategy at T4G Ltd., a Toronto-based software services shop, concurs. "We're moving to a world where Google runs the biggest computer with Microsoft not far behind, and others like IBM and Yahoo! [are] among the few others that have the scale to build these massive data centers."
With all of that compute power up for grabs, in-house developers need to know how to take advantage of it.
"We're in the services business so we have to watch this," Barter notes. "We may not be big by Google standards, but Gartner says that 40 percent of the products and associated services out there today will not exist in three years. So we have to figure that some of our services business will go away and replace them to keep growing," Barter notes.
Dana Gardner, president and principal analyst with Gilford, N.H.-based consultancy Interarbor Solutions LLC, says developers ignore these newcomers at their peril.
"Amazon has a database, it has storage. If you have storage and database [services] why not go the full step and also offer tools and services?" Gardner asks.
The same can be said for eBay, which offers a developer environment and APIs so coders can use its auction capability in other mashups. Salesforce.com also offers a "powerful ecology" for developers, Gardner says.
In fact, Amazon.com today fields development tools, tutorials and other content for developers. The company claims 290,000 registered programmers. Its target audience is any software developer who wants to take advantage of Amazon.com's own infrastructure, which is a world-beater in transaction support, says Amazon.com spokeswoman Kay Kinton.
Amazon.com's infrastructure includes storage services called Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3) and associated tools like C# libraries and tutorials on how to use Ruby in this environment; the Elastic Compute Cloud Web service for providing variable computing capacity; and new database services that were made available for testing in December.
The goal for Amazon.com Web Services is to "expose our technology and other assets to the developer community-developers will be able to innovate on top of our technology in new and interesting ways," Kinton says.
Cloud-king Google isn't standing still. It's recruiting developers to work with the Google Web Toolkit, and the company's dangling the lure of the world's biggest application platform.
Microsoft is reacting in ways to preserve its Visual Studio dominance for developers who see target environments beyond Windows. Witness its Silverlight and Volta toolsets that aim to let .NET developers use .NET-supported languages to write apps that will run outside the Windows world.
"Microsoft wants you to write in Visual Studio, drop it into a .NET container and run it in the cloud," Gardner says. But the advantage for the newer entries to the development sweepstakes is that the companies are attacking from a portal perspective and aren't reliant on the traditional software license sales revenue that incumbents like Microsoft and IBM Corp. have come to depend on, he notes.
Given the new-age tools and environments coming online, Gardner says that the large mobile telecom providers will also get into the act.
"If you've got the network and the infrastructure and are already charging on a subscription basis, you'll want to be seducing developers to put their stuff in your cloud," he notes.
"This is a 'when' and not an 'if,'" Gardner says. Developers should also keep an eye on the environments and tools from applications players like Salesforce.com and NetSuite Inc. Saleforce.com's Force platform includes the C#-like Apex language and Visualforce user interface development framework announced last year.
Salesforce.com demonstrates the advantage of developing for a Software as a Service (SaaS) model in that the infrastructural heavy-lifting-the server farms, the databases, the storage, the security -- is handled by the vendor itself, so developers and their managers don't have to sweat that stuff.
"When you develop from scratch, you have to build all that stuff and test it and debug it and performance test. Cloud computing really lets you build on existing infrastructure," notes Eric Berridge, co-founder and principal of Bluewolf Inc., a New York-based services and custom development shop and an early Salesforce.com partner.
Steve Johnson, CEO of Explore Consulting in Bellevue, Wash., gives a similar shout out to NetSuite's SuiteFlex environment. NetSuite Inc., which launched its long-awaited IPO in December, pioneered ERP as a service with its suite and is now touting SuiteFlex to developers who might want to partake of their cloud.
SuiteFlex lets Explore integrate the hosted NetSuite apps into legacy applications that may run on-premise.
"We use the Web services-based integration and it lets us do a lot of extensibility. There's a point-and-click interface for a lot of customization, but there's also server- and client-side scripting," Johnson says.
Both NetSuite and Salesforce.com rely heavily on Oracle databases and Linux, although they treat that as a black box. The secret here is in "abstracting" out the base technology while leaving room at the top for customization and verticalization.
"We could replace Oracle with MySQL and no one would know. Or replace our Java application servers with .NET servers," says Steve Fisher, senior vice president of Salesforce.com's Platform Division."We provide a higher-level abstraction," Fisher says, noting that developers do not need to drop down to the Oracle command line to create tables and columns. "You just use point-and-click tools or you can define your schema in XML and we define that into an underlying definition that Oracle and Java understand."
That appliance model is what's new in cloud computing and it represents a threat to Microsoft's traditional "integrated stack" message, which preaches that customers get the most value when the underlying operating system, database and application stack all come from Microsoft.
With the largely Linux-oriented services fielded by Google, Salesforce.com and others, the Windows value proposition is heavily discounted. Microsoft's SaaS view -- the company prefers the term "Software plus Services" (S+S) -- is an admission that the world has changed and the Web is a viable platform. No surprise, the S+S strategy is built around extending packaged Microsoft software into the realm of cloud services.
While Salesforce.com and NetSuite are entrenched in the business world, the wild card is where the consumer-oriented social networking sites will play. All of them are making their case to business customers.
Traditionalists remain unconvinced that there's business value in such hyped properties as Second Life, despite IBM's continuous drumbeat. Still, take a look at the viral nature of Scrabulous, the online Scrabble game clone that took Facebook by storm. SMBLive's Howard says in the year since Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg talked up his company's dev platform, there have been hundreds of apps, many of them developed by businesses. Microsoft must see something there, having invested $240 million for a stake in Facebook in October (see the Nov. 1, 2007, cover story
"Everyone and anyone from the local florist to a frat kid to political organizations are doing Facebook apps," Howard explains. He says that one of SMBLive's customers, a florist, has its own Facebook app that lets users send virtual flowers. The appeal there is that most people send flowers to someone a couple times a year and if that virtual florist is in your mind, you're more likely to use it for your real flower needs.
Of course, many corporate developers will want to continue to use the languages they know, but they're no longer assuming Windows as their target environment.
And that's why everyone from Amazon.com to Google is offering up freebie tools. Notes Howard: "They all want to woo developers to their platform."
Barbara Darrow is Industry Editor for Redmond Developer News, Redmond magazine and Redmond Channel Partner. She has covered technology and business issues for 20 years.