New SaaS platform embraces ISVs

Savvis announced Monday its new SaaS Hosting Platform initiative directed at attracting independent software vendors moving to the SaaS model. While the Savvis announcement isn't entirely new territory, it is one of the first pure-play hosting companies to make a major move to wrap a complete program around SaaS ISVs' needs. Bryan Doerr, Savvis CTO, described the offering as a "hybrid" when I talked with him, something between what traditional enterprise and Internet B2C customers need. Enterprises tend to have tighter service-level agreements and more change-control constraints, whereas Internet sites and e-commerce apps see a lot more software and content changes but haven't always had much of an SLA backing them up. The real news in the Savvis announcement, though, is who Savvis has in its sights: OpSource. Opsource has long been the darling of venture-capital-funded SaaS software start-ups, offering a "turn over ops to us" approach to ISVs that may not want the burden of running a 24/7 online SaaS operation. Savvis is also trying to lay claim to the SaaS platform business over other hosters, like Rackspace, that would like the same customers. So, is the Savvis announcement just warmed-over hosting, or is there more to the story?

First, what Savvis announced: Its announcement falls into three areas: core infrastructure, life-cycle services and marketplace services. Picture a global hosting company adding OpSource services plus partner services for development, and a Salesforce.com or Jamcracker partner ecosystem with better network connections and traffic management. OpSource is landlocked in just a few Equinix data centers, whereas Savvis has a large global footprint of hosting centers and runs its own technology: servers, network and security devices. The infrastructure piece is pretty straightforward, with Savvis now partnering with virtualization and data-center-automation leader Parallels. The Parallels Container technology is used frequently to mask the lack of multitenant capabilities in software apps moving into SaaS implementations, buying ISVs time to transition those apps to a more robust SaaS architecture.

One big difference, however, between Savvis and, say, a Red Hat, Amazon EC2, Force.com or Google App Engine is that Savvis isn't dictating the software technology substrate. Customers use whatever they want, rather than building to a platform software layer that Savvis provides. There's obviously lots of flexibility and fewer lock-in issues, but still more software "erector set" work required that the ISVs and their development partners have to do from scratch. It's a differentiator for Savvis from these other platforms but less IP to keep customers from switching to the next hosting provider.

The meatiest part of the announcement is the life-cycle services. Savvis describes this as its Virtual Labs offering and hints at an unannounced partner that will help provide the integration, quality assurance and testing services. I would picture partners that can help ISVs develop multitenant SaaS applications, and architect and load-test high-volume apps, monitoring, help desk, customer service and billing services, etc. Not much is said about the marketplace services, but I imaging what Savvis is going for is something akin to the Salesforce App Exchange but better networked through Savvis' 29 hosting centers, segregated through access-controlled virtual LANs and security gear.

Savvis appears to be borrowing good ideas from all over the SaaS services market, with its own hosting footprint and expertise thrown in. My own experience working with ISV clients moving to SaaS is that they don't always know what they need or want to move from on-premises software to SaaS software. It's new territory to some degree. Help with architecting and designing a SaaS app to scale is often the first big aha! But if they have any experience with online apps or e-commerce sites, they know pretty well the need to load-test and QA their app so the first big spike doesn't shut the business down. Some ISVs just want to turn the whole headache over to someone else, or are attracted by the prospect of selling back into the provider's ecosystem of customers and partners. Salesforce.com with its large portfolio of App Exchange participants, and OpSource with its Silicon Valley pedigree, clearly have some advantages here over Savvis. OpSource's success-based pricing model is attractive to start-ups, and I'm guessing Savvis will want to come out with its own take on that kind of pricing model. But don't discount Savvis' existing customer base and footprint as key advantages in being a player in the SaaS services market. The key question is whether Savvis can pull off the services of its Virtual Labs, crafting high-value offerings that satisfy the key needs of ISVs and really accelerate their learning curve.

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