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Phil Wainewright

Using PaaS for Rapid Enterprise App Development

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Listen to my interview with Ian Smith, CEO of Xceliant, which helps developers build and market applications on the Force.com cloud platform.

In this podcast, learn how enterprises are adopting platform-as-a-service as a means of quickly developing situational applications to meet tactical or unexpected requirements, and find out why web analytics allow a more iterative approach to testing user acceptance of on-demand applications.

Listen to or download the 8:20 minute podcast below:



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---Transcript---

PW: Ian, first of all, perhaps you can tell me why you've chosen Force.com as a platform. Because this is the platform-as-a-service that Salesforce.com has put online, that enables people to develop applications for delivery using Salesforce's infrastructure — and that's a very different approach from conventional development platforms. Why did you feel the conventional development platforms weren't going to suit your needs?

IS: Yeah, good question. I think, Phil, from our background we had lots of experience — like many people — of working through the world of Microsoft .NET applications and Java and LAMP. And the reason we came to Force — and why we think it's key and different to convention — is a couple of fairly simple and very powerful things.

The first thing is speed. So when we talk about things that we would call a situational app — when frankly there's a compelling need to get something done very fast — we see this platform as having real ways of accelerating development in a way you just can't do with a D-I-Y [do-it-yourself] platform, whether it's .NET, Java or LAMP.

And the other thing that I think is very obvious for this platform — and our experience has been — the sheer cost savings we're making, because we're using so much of the infrastructure that's there in Force.com that isn't there if you're building a D-I-Y platform.

Okay. Now, you mentioned situational applications. So is it, very much, tactical short-term applications that people are building on Force.com?

I think that is the early adoption. I think we can talk about longer-term where this goes, in terms of the enterprise as a whole. But certainly we're seeing that situational applications, where there is a time-critical need to get something fixed that you simply can't do in the traditional way — and we can talk about examples that illustrate that — and I think that makes it a very simple clear choice. And it's a great way to start, absolutely.

Right. Okay, so you mentioned examples. Have you got some good examples of the sort of issue that an enterprise might be tackling with a situational app on Force.com?

Yes, I could talk about a current application that we're delivering — and it's very topical as a subject — of property sales in the banking world. We all know that globally many properties have been repossessed after the credit crunch and the recession we've experienced — and banks have inherited a business that they didn't expect to inherit, which is actually selling property.

And when they looked at the idea of creating processes and systems to deal with selling properties through agents, they simply didn't have the systems or processes to do it. And frankly, given the time pressure of that, the cloud computing software-as-service model was the only way to go — because of the timelines involved. So I think that's a great example of where time-critical needs in a situational app just drove us naturally to a place where platform-as-a-service on Force.com was the answer.

Right. So what you're talking about here is a business coming to a point where it suddenly discovers it has a need — there's this phrase, a black swan event, isn't there?

Yes.

— of something popping up that you didn't realize that you were going to confront, and you have to change tack. And of course, changing tack with a conventional development process probably means a couple of years before you've got the automated process up and running. Whereas with Force.com, what you're saying is that you've got a much faster time-to-live.

Yes indeed. We typically measure that scenario — and others — you measure these, as we say, in days and weeks. And it's not an exaggeration to say that we can take the business problem and go live in less than 90 days. So that's absolutely right, it's about speed-to-market, yeah.

And I think it's interesting, you cited an example there where you're talking about banks, you're talking about them handling property sales. So this is not a chicken-feed application; this is a very important business-critical application. And what's their response to doing it on a hosted platform? Do you get any pushback from that?

I think there is a natural concern about it of course. The corporate IT folks are not inherently used to using external platforms. It's been traditionally behind the firewall — to use the phrase — and they worry about trust, and security and all those things. And I think again, with Force.com what we're able to point to is a platform that's literally used by one-and-a-half million users; very large corporations like Dell and Cisco have bet very large amounts of their business on it. So I think from a trust and security point of view, we had something there that met those understandable concerns from enterprise IT folks.

And the other thing that I've heard people say about this type of development process is that it requires a different developer mindset because it's a more iterative process — you can do much more prototyping, you tend to be able to show the business users what the application is starting to look like and take feedback from them. Does that [development style] take a lot of adjustment?

It does indeed and I think it's — the way I would describe that difference, between traditional application build and situational application build on a cloud platform, is — from a developer's perspective — it's thinking more like a web designer, in the sense that user experience is having to drive the application. So when you're in design, you've got to break it down into a more agile approach. So from a methodology point of view then things like Scrum, I think, are extremely useful.

But with that mindset comes the ability to measure user experience against actual behaviors — just like you do with an e-commerce or an e-tailer environment. We talk about analytics to measure user behavior and make the changes in a very agile flexible way — just as you would with a website if you were driving up a browse-to-buy ratio for an e-commerce site — you're doing the same, but you're measuring it by user adoption.

Right. Okay. And there we're talking about using disciplines of the Web but applying it —

Yes.

— in a more traditional enterprise application environment.

Yes indeed. I mean, for example, we've brought tools to our platform where some of the design is actually done by business users. So for the pieces of the application where you've got the visual front end, we've actually got tools where business users, then creative users, and then right back to the software developers, can genuinely collaborate more. You get a better balance of those things. And what that means in a very pragmatic way is, things get done faster with fewer people. So, of course, that's the underlying challenge, to get things done faster.

And, for example, one of the things that we bring to that is what we call design, build, measure, analyze. So imagine this closed loop. At the one end, you're designing and building the app, the front end as you would in a web design scenario, and at the back end you're measuring and analyzing the responses and that's informing the continuous process of design. So just like we would use analytics in web to understand consumer behavior, we're using analytics to understand business user behavior and changing the design of the application in real-time.

Don't miss Phil Wainewright's Cloud QCamp webinar on How the Cloud Changes the Way Applications are Developed, taking place June 3, 2009 at 12 PM EDT.

Phil Wainewright blogs about how businesses are using the Web to get better plugged into today's fast-moving, digital economy.

Phil Wainewright

Phil Wainewright specializes in on-demand services View more

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