Software as a Service (SaaS) is the primary way retailers buy software today. Business agility should be significantly improved through adoption of SaaS over traditional on-premise software.
Like with on-premise there are times when SaaS applications do not provide retailers with all the capabilities needed to extend the software to fit the unique requirements of the business. This is the age-old problem of ‘vendor lock-in’. The business complains that the application can’t be extended to keep up with how the business evolves. In today’s climate of high velocity digital transformation this can create significant issues.
It is in these situations where retailers start to think about decomposition and a microservices strategy. My argument is that this strategy in many circumstances plays out to be counter-productive in the long-term.
Swinging the Pendulun too far creates too much complexity
With the advantage of Infrastructure and Platform as a Service (IaaS/PaaS), it is now cheaper to build, integrate and run business applications. Many more retailers in the past 5 years have been chosing to build applications from the ground up and iterate the development of these functions in agile delivery squads. They are building and hosting them on a variety of different cloud technology stacks both IaaS and PaaS.
The approach to build still comes at a cost vs an off-the-shelf SaaS application mostly because more complexity has to be managed by IT. It is nevertheless still a worthwhile strategy if competitive advantage is achieved. However it is still too common for retailers to go too far and build bespoke for no competitive advantage.
I’ve seen numerous retailers running agile delivery with Product Teams filled with engineers who often would prefer greater control and even when it does not create a commercial advantage. They strive for architecture purity and interesting problems to solve and will still have an implicit bias towards building if not governed by strong technical and commercially minded technology leadership. Without strong Technical Product Management retailers can soon find their technology has gotten too complex and is slowing down the delivery of business value - the very thing the business thought it would speed up.
But when building is the right approach, is there a better way to build without overhead?
The Rise of Application Platform as a Service (aPaaS)
aPaaS is an emerging term to describe a cloud platform that provides a development framework to build and deliver business applications more rapidly and with less highly skilled people. It is a single platform that enables developers & business super users to design, build, test, and deploy their applications on one platform. It improves speed, cooperation, and control over the entire lifecycle.
aPaaS applications will have simple access to a common dataset that all applications can use. By taking away all the sharp kitchen instruments and reducing the amount of code to be written through configuration vs code, aPaaS lowers the technical skill requirement to build business applications.
Above you will see a diagram which shows what services you are buying when you deploy IaaS vs PaaS.
Salesforce is the fastest growing software business in the world and I would argue that in large part this is because of the pioneering Salesforce Platform which is in essence what we refer to as aPaaS today. The Salesforce Platform was born long before the analysts coined the term aPaaS. Co-founders Parker Harris and Marc Benioff had the genius idea to build a multi-tenant aPaaS technology stack many years ahead of the curve. It powers the CRM applications that made them famous and so many more applications they’e since released.
The other genius idea Parker and Marc had was the idea of the app ecosystem - an idea credited by Marc Benioff to Steve Jobs. The AppExchange enables an entire economy of technology providers to build applications that extend the Salesforce platform with a variety of new business applications. It is today by far the largest enterprise app economy - the B2B equivalent of Steve Jobs’ iOS AppStore. The benefits to a business of a managed ecosystem save these businesses millions of pounds and drive productivity in a similar impactful way that Apple AppStore does to users of Apple iPhones.
Salesforce Platform and AppExchange have inspired a generation of new aPaaS vendors. After the huge success of IaaS and PaaS - it’s the next big thing and forecasted by analysts to grow exponentially over the next decade.
Retailers trying to gain every advantage over your competitors take note. Agile development does not always mean build everything from the ground up.