Posts Tagged ‘SaaS’

Underdoing The Competition

September 6, 2010

Hosted, low-cost, internet-based services for software developers have been in existence since the formative years of the web itself. In their earliest incarnation, such services would usually involve obtaining some real estate on an Apache web server, accessible via FTP, with the ability to upload a web application and invoke some server-side technology (Perl/CGI hacking anyone?) to create the latest and greatest dot-com experimental idea for a business. Or maybe just a simple website.

Zoom forward a few years and these services start to encompass functionality that provides a platform for the activity of development itself. For example, hosted version control, issue tracking and task management applications. Now smaller web-based development shops, who are already used to renting infrastructure for their production environments from a hosting company, start to use these complimentary services – particularly when team members are not co-located. In fact, developers soon discover that these tools promote a model that supports geographically dispersed teams, and these ideas really begin to take root, like much technology these days, amongst the open source software community. The likes of Sourceforge for example, begin to acquire many thousands of projects, both large and small, due in part to providing accessible, web-based collaboration services for development. For private projects, pay-for services such as those provided by CvsDude (now Codesion) and Collabnet start to combine the power of the ideas taking root in the open source world with the industrial strength security and data protection required by larger IT businesses.

And here we are today, with a proliferation of Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) companies that offer a full range of services along the application lifecycle management continuum. Certain types of services lend themselves well to the SaaS model – the barrier to entry is relatively low, especially when the tool or service is already web-enabled. An example is hosted bug tracking solutions. These are implicitly suited to the multi-tenant application model used by most SaaS businesses. They have a very predictable resource consumption profile and a security model that easily supports multiple users. Data protection and recovery can be usually handled using industry standard practices for RDBMS management. There are a lot of businesses that offer these types of services.


When we look to other services along the ALM continuum, hosted SaaS offerings are few and far between, an example being services that support Continuous Integration. Hopefully, by now, all thinking software engineers believe that CI is integral to the practice of modern software development. In fact, I’d go further, anyone who thinks otherwise is not fit to call themselves a (thinking) software engineer. You’ve no excuse, really, and if you don’t embrace its benefits then CI is likely to be imposed on you anyway.

So, it’s 2009, you have your hosted low-cost SCM system, you’ve got your cheap web based bug tracker and your rented deployment environment (still Apache, or maybe Google App Engine?). You search for “hosted continuous integration” and hmmm…no dice. “Why does nobody do this stuff?” you ask, “Didn’t I read somewhere that its ‘integral to the practice of modern software development’ ?”. I know the answer – a simple reason really – a hosted CI service is damn hard thing to deliver.

For a hosted solution to be low-cost and truly multi-tenant it needs to be very efficient with resources. This usually involves sharing of such resources amongst many users, a model which does not easily lend itself to CI. Secondly, a hosted solution must be secure, especially with respect to user data. User data in the world of CI includes source code, build metrics and the built artefact’s themselves. Reconciling resource optimization with data security is the biggest challenge here. To illustrate this point, if such a solution provided every user with a dedicated, isolated, physical environment for their builds it would need to incorporate the associated costs into the offering. This would quickly place the service into the realms of ‘expensive luxury’ for our small agile team example. As a comparison, consider Codesions ‘Team Edition’ for hosted Subversion which starts at $6.99/month. To be competitive, the CI provider has to get very clever with shared resource optimization while still ensuring data protection and security for its users.

In addition to data protection and resource management, there are additional security concerns relating to what a build can be permitted to do in such an environment. This is usually never a concern for an on-premise CI server. Want to scan for available ports, open particular sockets or start and stop certain daemon processes? No problemo. However, I’m afraid that in the shared real-estate scenario there are some necessary limitations on what build tools might be able to do. This is something of a compromise that a user has to take on the chin if they wish to use a low-cost hosted solution. If their build process requires a bunch of ‘non-orthodox’ things to happen, they need to understand that these types of advanced builds will never play well in a shared environment. But…if your project conforms to the standard life-cycle of ‘prepare-compile-test-package’ then this model fits much better and probably covers the majority of day-to-day software builds. This is just simple pareto principle logic really – a low-cost, shared hosted solution can only realistically cover the 80% well and assume that its not the right choice anyway for the remaining 20%.

So we’ve articulated some of the challenges of establishing a hosted CI offering, but what are the potential benefits that such a solution might provide to end-users? These may seem obvious, but are worth stating:

  • Zero cost initial implementation for CI infrastructure.
  • Lowers the barrier to entry for CI, simply login, configure project(s) and use it.
  • Significantly reduced software and hardware maintenance costs. Less software hosted internally means less hardware
 required, which also translates into a reduced burden of patches and patch support complexity.
  • Reduced staffing (sorry guys/gals).
  • Better use of skills/ resources.
  • Pay for what you use and no more. Subscription models for SaaS typically allow for cancellation given a months notice. Try-before-buy is very common too.

One final consideration is the range of features that hosted solutions offer when compared with the wide variety of open source and proprietary CI servers available today. There are some very slick options out there that you can download, install, configure and use. At the moment, the available low-cost multi-tenant hosted CI solutions will not win in a feature beauty contest against these tools. However, in my humble opinion this new breed of services offer something quite different, something that sets them apart. To bend a phrase from Bill Clinton: “Its because they are hosted, stupid!”. Personally, I’m a firm believer in the idea that you should (to borrow a concept from 37signals), ‘under-do the competition’. Hosted CI should solve the simple problems and leave the hairy, difficult, nasty problems to everyone else. Instead of one-upping, it should one-down. Instead of outdoing, it should under-do. Hosted CI should stick to what’s truly essential.

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