There's been some useful discussion recently about using the app store model for distributing enterprise software and services within organizations. Up until now, most IT needs in the majority of businesses have been met through one-size-fits-all delivery of solutions that are either hand-crafted or purchased and then imposed on all. It's been this way for at least three decades, but now this aging and inadequate process is beginning to improve.
The premise of an app store model for enterprises is simple: By removing the middleman, the famous bottleneck between the business and IT demand can be reduced in many cases. Application backlogs can shrink, consumption of internal and external IT resources will increase, and fierce competition to provide the best solutions to niches can greatly improve overall quality (the long tail of IT argument), all while reducing costs. At least, that's what is possible if we look at what's happening to the non-enterprise software market today.
Fellow Enterprise Irregular Jevon MacDonald posits this as a likely outcome of the emerging Personal Enterprise. Current trends involving the mass personalization of services and the consumeration of enterprise IT have come together and resulted in ready-to-use catalogs of IT solutions that are much easier to discover and consume today than from traditional channels. Jevon cites Force.com, Intuit Marketplace and Get App as current examples of app stores for enterprises and SMBs, to which I'd definitely add IBM's Smart Market. Google is even rumored to be ready to release an enterprise app store of its own soon.
Even the Web itself has become a sort of ad hoc app store writ large in the cloud with thousands of SaaS applications available today that most enterprise users can acquire and use with little or no provisioning or support from IT.
In this view, monolithic enterprise deployments become rarer and IT solutions begin to look more like their counterparts online: smaller, more specific apps that fit the local conditions better (and are usually cheaper too). That this might actually happen is evidenced not only by the already existing enterprise app stores today but by the work currently going into rethinking of IT in terms of emergent enterprise architecture (intentionally) and the growing use of shadow applications in the cloud (grassroots).
App Stores: Not Just For Apps
ebizQ's own Joe McKendrick recently explored the app store's applicability to service-oriented architecture (SOA) this week, quoting George Ravich, who promulgates the SOA-as-a-store approach to enterprise users in the same way that iTunes is available online to get whatever one needs at the time: "The SOA service catalog promises to have the same impact on enterprise computing as the iTunes playlist has had on listening to music."
SOA has always been an approach that promotes reuse and interoperability between existing IT systems. Those who have adhered to SOA principles have been able to project their services and data into widely distributed and far-flung IT solutions, both within and between organizations. But successfully driving SOA consumption has been hard, and the focus is too often on opening up services instead of focusing on increasing usage. But the SOA industry quickly hit upon a potential solution. Proving that what is old is new again with the app store model, there have been commercial service directories for a long time now that have have helped organizations maintain open inventories of services, such as StrikeIron or IBM Mashup Center.
But because of security concerns, not-invented-here syndrome, narrow views of what constitutes a shared service, and packaging and distribution that doesn't spark the imagination the way app stores have, they haven't taken off. I've argued for years about broadening our conception of services and distributing them in more effective ways, but it hasn't been until now that we have an vehicle that resonates with end-users as clearly as app stores have.
App stores, as they've manifested themselves lately, also help with the critical social aspect of SOA adoption, by providing a way to understand which apps and services are the best for a given situation and why. Users can share experiences and lessons learned via user contributions of ratings and reviews as well as usage statistics.
Related: Open APIs have become a leading new model for service distribution, but have been poorly aggregated until now.
However, as promising as the approach is, there remain a few critical challenges before enterprises will be able to unleash IT choice and allow both internal external providers to compete at will on features, cost, and quality using the app store model.
- Security, compliance, and governance hurdles. One of the biggest objections to app stores right out of the gate is that creating a hole in the firewall for new software to flow in automatically is a major security and control issue. Never mind that this hole already exists for most Web-based SaaS, but with it will increase with app stores, at least ones that bring in apps and data from outside the firewall. Smart app store providers will ensure these issues are carefully addressed but many app stores may start out as internal only efforts until a comfort level is reached. Data portability, safety, and disaster recovery will also be front line issues that providers will need to solve proactively before most enterprises will embrace app stores for business solutions.
- Lack of standards for app and service packaging. Like cloud computing, there have been few standards for on-demand apps outside of the standards of the open Web. With the recent advent of the Enterprise Mashup Markup Language however, there are now viable enterprise-class open standards for defining, operating, and managing 3rd party apps that are explicitly designed to integrate with existing enterprise services. As for data services, there is a related problem: Good standards do exist, either as enterprise-class or lightweight Web services, but making them discoverable and consumable by end-users is still a major obstacle. On the Web this has been solved by providing "widgets" or "badges" that have an default visual user experience (think Google Maps and its location data). But this model hasn't flourished in the enterprise yet and users are trapped by an accessibility chasm between themselves and the data they need. It's at this interaction of data and software that IT departments can demonstrate leadership by creating and sharing application mashups for business users using data services from both inside and outside the organization and then seeing which ones succeed. Again, the app store model is an ideal gallery and internal marketplace to make mashups accessible to the business.
- Limited choice and capabilities of enterprise app stores. While some enterprise app stores exist, as noted above, there is nothing approaching the level of sophistication and usability needed by most organizations. And up until now good app stores probably wouldn't have been fully appreciated by users. But tens of millions of people are now being trained to look to app stores to find solutions to their problems ("Have a problem? There an app for that"), and consequently they'll soon be ready for an enterprise app store. Expect major new solutions to emerge shortly and existing offerings to improve considerably when it comes to usability and feature set.
Of course, enterprise app stores won't completely replace large enterprise projects, but it can meet widespread, unmet departmental demand while relegating big-bang IT to the times when it absolutely the best approach (and given their high failure rate, it's usually not).
So the writing is on the wall: Centralized and secure sharing of software and data that drives choice, competition, adoption, and consumption will almost certainly be a key element of the future success of SOA, SaaS, cloud computing, and mashups. How it will manifest itself and whether it will be standards-driven -- or as it's happening in the consumer world, vendor-driven -- is still up in the air. Whatever happens though, how enterprises acquire and use IT is about to change in a big way.