Software as appliance

Next up on the applications scene - enterprise software that can be bought, deployed and managed as easily as a typical network appliance.

What if your next ERP or CRM package was as easy to implement as your firewall? That's the goal of providing software as an appliance, an approach that might make sense for any organization struggling with the complexities of buying, deploying and managing enterprise software.

Enterprise software - think SAP, Oracle, PeopleSoft-has its problems. Namely, it's expensive, complex, and difficult to deploy and manage. In fact, adding new applications into corporate environments usually means embarking on a lengthy integration project that often provides more headaches than functionality.

The industry's previous attempt to address such complexity resulted in the application service provider (ASP) model. With an ASP, deployment requires only an Internet connection and a Web browser, and the software comes as part of a leased, pay-as-you-go model, significantly easing up-front costs. ASP-provided software also is available on a modular basis, enabling organizations to buy and use only the functionality they need rather than integrating a huge feature-bloated software suite to get a few key functions.

Unfortunately, ASPs don't address all of today's business problems, such as data privacy and compliance issues.

"Essentially, an ASP model forces you to take user and customer data that is core to your business - HR, CRM or Web analytics, for example - and put it outside your corporation, under the watch of a much smaller, and oftentimes not-yet-profitable, young ASP," says Peter Relan, CEO of software start-up Business Signatures. "That's simply not tenable for most organizations faced with compliance issues today."

Enter the software appliance, which Relan says provides the best of the ASP and enterprise-site models. Like ASP software, a software appliance is modular, Web-based and available on a leased or pay-as-you-go basis. The self-contained software modules include the core application logic running on top of an open source software stack - operating system, Web server and so forth. They have their own application-specific database and data management tools, and use the standard XML Web services API for all data import and export. Customers simply plop the software appliance on to a bare metal server and it runs. Just like a typical hardware appliance, no care and feeding is required by database administrators or operations personnel.

This technology, which Business Signatures is pioneering, is much like the "soft appliances" available today primarily in the security or storage world from companies such as Permeo Technologies with its Base5 VPN soft appliance and Network Engines with its NS series appliances. These provide software in a similar fashion - designed to run on a user-provided server but with the simplicity and functionality of a typical hardware appliance. The difference, Relan says, is his software is more enterprise in nature, and has its own application-specific database and database management tools that make it completely self-managing and self-healing.

"Simply placing your application logic on a LAMP [Linux, Apache, MySQL, Perl] stack is not sufficient because the customer still needs to deal with the Linux operating system and the management and support of all that," Relan says. "We say, 'Yes, it runs on a LAMP stack, but you do not have to manage anything at all.' "

Pros and cons of software appliances

Software appliances work well in some situations, but might not in others. Here are five considerations:
  • PERFORMANCE. Some applications are extremely performance-driven. In those cases, it might make sense to go with a hardware appliance in which the application and the processor are closely aligned to ensure optimal performance.
  • PURCHASE STRATEGY. For organizations accustomed to purchasing and deploying devices, hardware-based appliances make sense. But for organizations with long-term server contracts looking to repurpose hardware, software appliances fit the bill nicely.
  • UPGRADES. Unless a hardware appliance vendor has thought it through, upgrades might require a new device — hardware and software. Software appliance upgrades can usually be deployed on the current server, with no new hardware required.
  • SECURITY. Software appliances, like their hardware brethren, tend to be more secure than traditional software because the entire operating system and application stack can be hardened more readily.
  • INTEGRATION. Software appliances use standard interfaces, such as Web services XML APIs, to integrate with legacy environments more easily.

The core Business Signatures software, called the Intent Processor, has an embedded relational engine that requires "no archiving, no data management, no table-spacing - no [database administrator]," Relan says. In addition to the application logic, Business Signatures wrote key software designed specifically to manage that application-specific logic. "It's not generic; it's addressing the very application-specific data management problems for that particular logic," he says.

In fact, experts say the overall success of the software appliance strategy hinges on how well the self-healing and self-managing portions work.

"Lots of vendors promise that. IBM has been working toward that promise for a long time, and it's still just that - a promise," says James Kobielus, Network World columnist and senior technical systems analyst with Exostar, a hosted business-to-business trading exchange serving the aerospace and defense industry. "The reality of any complex hardware, firmware or software product is it isn't that easy in practice. So I take any vendor's claim of self-healing and self-managing with a grain of salt." Users say Business Signatures delivers on that promise, at least so far.

That's been the case for online grocer Safeway.com, which has been using several software modules to monitor Web site performance and to ensure optimal customer satisfaction with the site, says Joe Divine, CTO of the Pleasanton, Calif., company. He runs Business Signatures' software on a re-purposed Web server, a 3U box with dual 3-GHz Xeon processors, 2G bytes of memory and eight 36G-byte disk drives. "It was a box we had here anyway," he says.

In six months, the software has required no maintenance on his part. "It scales and manages its own infrastructure and componentry, its disk space and memory, within the application," he says. "Once it's installed and up and running, it makes the best decisions about how to prioritize, distribute, archive and so on. We don't have to worry about that."

On average, the application requires about 2K bytes of storage per week. "We'll all be dead before we run out of disk space," Divine says. "We never touch it."

5 questions to ask concerning software appliances

Many vendors say they sell software appliances, but few actually do. Getting the buzz on these questions will help you determine whether your vendor is delivering a true software appliance.
  • How is it priced? True software appliances are priced flexibly. At the least, they should be offered on a pay-as-you-go leasing basis. At best, they should be offered in both forms, leased and traditional.
  • How modular is it? True software appliances deliver their features in a modularized, optimized way. They aren’t like monolithic software platforms that are all things to all people. Instead, they allow users to pick and choose the functionality they need.
  • How standard is it? True software appliances support well-accepted standards, such as the LAMP stack and XML Web services API. This way, they are non-intrusive and easier to deploy. If the software requires a large integration project, it’s not a software appliance.
  • How easy is it to manage? True software appliances are easily managed, updated and repaired remotely. They also should have some kind of inherent self-management and self-healing tools. If care and feeding from the enterprise staff are required, it isn’t a software appliance.
  • How secure is it? True software appliances tend to be more secure than their traditional software counterparts because they are built upon a hardened operating system and application stack that supports only the features and functions necessary for the appliance. If it runs on a non-hardened, general-purpose operating system and stack, it’s not a software appliance.

Although Divine says he would have bought the Business Signatures software even if it weren't developed and deployed as a software appliance, he does see key advantages to the form factor. "I like that it's appliance-like, but typical hardware appliances are not very upgradeable. If you want to upgrade them, you usually have to purchase a whole new box. With this, I can use the same box and just deploy the upgrade."

It also makes sense from an efficiency standpoint. "If I decided for some reason, which I doubt I will anytime soon, to part ways with Business Signatures, I could take the hardware that I've dedicated to it and I could re-purpose it somewhere else in my enterprise. That's a significant advantage over a typical hardware appliance."

Mike Riley, vice president of marketing and strategy at Network Engines, which also helps application vendors develop appliances - software- and hardware-based - says both are viable but the key is their self-management. "Many of our customers think that turning an application into an appliance is all about the hardware," he says. "But to us, an appliance is more about the software" because it has to be remotely manageable, maintainable and updateable.

"If you lose touch with it and it has a problem, it has to be able to do some self-diagnosis or self-correction," he says. "How do you know you can back up the configuration and then restore it when it comes back online? All of those kind of system-level attributes are software problems."

Riley says he sees enterprise software appliances gaining traction. Security and storage executives buy hardware-based appliances because they are used to purchasing and managing devices. But enterprise and data center managers are accustomed to purchasing hardware in long-term contracts from vendors such as IBM, HP and Dell. They look to purchase software to run on the hardware they have on hand. "The market is good for both approaches," he says.

Where Riley really sees software appliances taking off are in enterprise data centers that use blade servers. "When you're buying a blade server, the last thing you want to do is buy 10 copies of an operating system, 10 different applications and 10 pieces of management software, integrate it and load it all up," he says. "The whole notion of blade server is that you can significantly increase the density of applications and processors in your data center, but in so doing, you're also adding a whole bunch of complexity if you literally pre-load every blade yourself. With a software appliance, you can image a blade rapidly. So not only do you have this self-managing piece of software, but you also have it running on a self-managing piece of hardware. It's pretty compelling."

Cummings is a freelance writer in North Andover, Mass. She can be reached at jocummings@comcast.net.

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