May 13, 2006
The cloud vs the LANPosted 3242 days ago on May 13, 2006
Yesterday I spent some time with a small business evaluating software options in a particular niche market (which one is not significant). They use Small Business Server and put Outlook to its limits, using shared calendar, contacts, tasks and of course email to manage customers. The business has grown to the point where this approach no longer works. They need too many custom fields and actions specific to their line of business. They also want to publish some of their internal data on a public web site. So they spent a day looking at software from four different vendors.
The four shortlisted options intrigued me as a kind of snapshot of current development trends.
The first was an old-style Windows client-server application. Good integration with Outlook and Office; poor for remote working and web site integration.
The next was a JBoss/Tomcat application, with an option for installing on the LAN or subscribing to a hosted service. The UI was horrible and the software appears to be over-complex, as evidenced by the lengthy system administration course offered by the vendor.
Next up was a PHP/MySQL application, hosted service only. It ran sweetly and seemed more responsive than its JBoss competitor. Web site integration first class, but it's never heard of Outlook or Exchange and there's no offline story. The vendor suggested that the business should simply stop using Exchange and use its system instead.
Finally there was a Microsoft ASP application, again hosted service only. Another decent product. Synch with Outlook for things like calendar and tasks is on the agenda but not yet done.
Exchange and storing data once
Personally I like Exchange. It has plenty of quirks (especially in the Outlook client), but it solves many problems, such as synch between laptop and desktop and PDA, options for remote working including Outlook Web Access, and integration with Active Directory allowing centralised user management.
A key tenet of database normalization is that each piece of data is stored only once. Exchange does that for email, calendar, contacts and tasks, and it's a huge benefit. Synch means that the data appears to be in multiple locations, but in reality the offline stores simply cache data from the central repository.
But now this small business is encountering a problem that Exchange is ill-equipped to solve. It wants to run specialist software that also deals in email, calendar, contacts and tasks. Unless the specialist software integrates tightly with Exchange, the principle of storing data once will be broken. The same contact will need to be stored both in Exchange and in the custom database; appointments made in one system will need to be copied to the other. Now all hell breaks loose. If there is any failure in the manual process, conflicting appointments are made. Rooms are double-booked. Contacts have one address on Exchange, another in the custom system, and nobody can remember which is right.
Cloud vs LAN
Now let's look at cloud vs LAN. The cloud has some big advantages. First, there's no need to synch anything (leaving aside Exchange for a moment), because you always connect to the online database. Second, it's inherently easy to hook up to a web site. Just link to it. Third, it's great for remote working. The link to the LAN has been broken, so you can work from anywhere. Fourth, it shifts a large part of the administrative and backup burden to the service provider.
Of course the LAN has its advantages too. These are mostly to do with synchronization, offline working, and integration with Microsoft Office. Let's mention that it's nice to able to continue working if your internet connection fails.
The thing that does not work so well is the hybrid solution. I think vendor 3 is right. It's better to dump Exchange than to wrestle with manual synchronization.
Drifting into the cloud
My guess is that this particular business will dump exchange. The pull of the cloud is too strong to resist. I think this same story is going to be played out time and again, with obvious consequences for Microsoft's SME user base.
This isn't just cloud vs LAN. The problem of synching with or hooking into Exchange applies also to LAN-based solutions. However, once you go for a web-hosted solution, integration with Exchange becomes more difficult.
The answer for Microsoft would be to build an online, hosted platform that is as attractive to SME's today, as a cloud solution, as Small Business Server has been for the LAN over the last decade. Office live? I've already blogged about this here and here.
In the light of yesterday's briefings I'll add that a strong web API into Office Live would also be a huge asset. It will make the difference between a strong platform for applications, and a data silo that will be marginalised.
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