I have been watching the earnest attempts with which Ray Wang is trying to “define” the flavors of cloud computing and Phil Wainewright is trying to describe its “unspoken benefits” and James Governor’s simplifications of cloud concepts, and all those efforts make me want to use words that you shouldn’t use on the Internet.

Why? Well, they’re a bit too high-minded and value-free.

Let me explain the problem with the use of an example. Imagine you were a high-minded dictionary writer who was trying to stand above the fray, so you defined “good,” as a ‘set of behaviors and attributes approved of by some,” and “bad” as “a set of behaviors and attributes not approved of by people who approve of the good.” There may be some sad, sorry truth to these definitions. But far from being even-handed or fair-minded, they’re simply serving the interests of the bad guys, who get to turn bad and good into a popularity contest.

Similarly, if you define hosted or SaaS or whatever as if all of these were legitimate choices which you, the high-minded definer are not going to evaluate, you serve….well, all the guys who want to foist a bad choice on you while pretending that it has all the virtues of a good choice.

You can see this most clearly if you look at the history. Ever since people (Marc, you know who you are) started using the term SaaS, applications that are shared and leased have been what the academics call “a site for contested definition.” As soon as the term SaaS was bruited about by some people, other people would say, “Oh, well that’s just a silly new term for ‘hosted,’ and ‘hosted’ is a great thing and it’s what we’ve always done. If you’d like to lease our software, go ahead.” (Larry, you know who you are.) The same things have happened to “on-demand” and “cloud” and all the other terms that the eminent and high-minded analysts are trying to explain.

This contest is exactly why there is the confusion in the market, a confusion that Ray rightly decries. The terms are confused and confusing because people are trying to appropriate them.

They’ve tried to appropriate them for a perfectly obvious, simple reason. They’d like to get the credit and money associated with doing something difficult, but very good, without all the trouble and bother of doing that difficult and good thing. But as a definer (or as an entrant in the marketplace), you will never, repeat never figure out what they’re trying to do if you don’t look squarely at why the difficult design choice really is difficult and what the payoff for that design choice really is.

If you try to define “good,” that is, without deploying some notion of worth, you’ll end up with no practical difference between the two and a whole lot of bad people trying to use your definition to show that they’re really good.

Maybe in one of those hoity-toity academic environments like the one across the street from me, it’s OK to publish even-handed appraisals and fine, nuanced distinctions that clearly lay out all the issues for those five other people who are interested in publishing themselves on the subject. But in the real world, where some people who haven’t done their homework are trying to appropriate the hard work of people who have done their homework, it’s not OK.

That said, let me tell you the real scoop on “cloud,” “multi-tenant,” etc., etc., etc. True SaaS, true multi-tenant, true cloud applications are shiny like silver. Hosted, on-demand, and private cloud are shiny like tinsel. For any purposes that aren’t temporary and don’t have pretense built in, silver is better. Multi-tenant applications have more functionality. They’re more adaptable. They are easier to operate for the vendor. They are cheaper. They are easier to manage. They are more competitive and more likely to last. Unless you’re throwing a party and are planning to take down the decorations the next day while suffering from a hangover, they are better.

Why is true multi-tenant better? It’s very simple. They’re more efficient. More of any dollar spent on a multi-tenant application goes into value delivered to the customer. A programming dollar spent on a multi-tenant application is immediately delivered out to all the users of the product, and, it’s put there to make the product more useful. To get the same effect in an on-premise application, it takes a lot more money. The same dollar for the programming (actually a little more), another dollar (say) for the testing, packaging, and delivery, another dollar (say) to test it at the other end, and another dollar (say) to get users to make it effective. Let me be generous and include the cost of delay in the delivery of value in those last two dollars. I think the cost is really more. But of course, there are no reliable published figures. Analysts, where are you?

Aghast? Don’t believe me? Well, let me use an example where there are published figures. A couple of years ago, a senior executive at a major application company gave some lectures at local universities where he claimed that single-tenant (hosted or on-demand) applications cost 10 times more to run than multi-tenant. Let’s say he’s right. The benchmark in this area is the (highish) per-user cost of a major SaaS provider, which is about $3.50/month (not published, but widely known). His company, at the time, offered a single-tenant application that it leased out for a hundred and change each month. Let’s assume that the major SaaS provider was a direct competitor and was charging the same. Are these companies really offering the market good alternatives, both of which need to be respected. Remember, one is putting $31.50/month/user (roughly 1/4 of your subscription) into paying for extra servers, extra electricity, extra licenses for virtual machines, extra complexity in their provisioning systems, extra management of load balancing, etc., etc., etc., all of which (from your point of view) add exactly zero value?

Imagine you’re buying one of these two choices. One vendor has made a bad, inefficient, and expensive design choice in the way it delivers the software. The other vendor has made a good, efficient, and inexpensive design choice. Which should you buy? Wouldn’t you feel really annoyed at any analyst who said, evenhandedly, that there’s much both good and bad to be said about both choices?

“But…but…but…” I hear you saying, “I just read Ray, and Ray says that you can customize single-instance products, whereas you can’t customize multi-tenant apps, and you can have more confidence that your installation is secure if it’s not sharing resources with some other application.”

Ray is perfectly right in his facts and perfectly wrong in his emphasis. What he isn’t saying is that in this context, customization and security are impossibly expensive, ridiculous luxuries, the moral equivalent of the rear-view mirrors in the Rolls-Royce that used hand-blown glass. Imagine the following conversation with your CFO. to see what I mean. “To get customization and security, we have to pay ten times as much for the software to be delivered by a company whose gross margins are 1/10 of industry best practice? Excuse me? We’re paying for a limousine when everybody else is paying for a bicycle messenger? Hello. Do we really need customization? Is the security really all that much better?” To which, the only rational answers are “No” and “No.”

The real question in this era of contested definitions is not what the definitions are, but how we can tell when we’re getting the real goods. This is a very, very difficult question, not at all easily answerable through the use of a single label. “Multi-tenancy”–essentially sharing computing resources among users of applications in a way that valorizes efficiency and accessibility–is a difficult and complex engineering problem involving numerous, complex tradeoffs. There is good multi-tenancy and bad multi-tenancy, and bad multi-tenancy can be so bad that it is virtually indistinguishable from single-tenancy. (That’s why, Naomi, I sometimes only give two cheers to your own really laudable insistence on multi-tenancy from HR vendors; it isn’t just multi-tenancy, but how you do multi-tenancy.)

Over the years, we’ve seen many attempts to isolate the truly distinguishing feature of multi-tenancy: that it runs on a single database or a single machine, that everyone gets upgraded at the same time, etc., etc. It’s just as silly and fruitless to do this as to find the single, isolating characteristic of “chair.” (Four legs? No, there can be chairs with any number of legs or none. People sit on it? People sit on lots of things besides chairs.) The only real way you can tell is to look at the engineering.

Not surprisingly, many vendors, even ones claiming to be “true multi-tenant,” don’t pass muster. A month or so ago, my old colleague, Brian Sommer spent a good deal of time calling around to companies that claimed to be multi-tenant. “You would be astonished, ASTONISHED,” he told me in his inimitable way, “at how few there actually were.”

If we hadn’t wasted time wrangling about definitions and propounding definitions that simply missed the real point, maybe a healthy discussion of the engineering issues surrounding multi-tenancy would have grown up by now. The plain fact is that the way Salesforce.com does it is really different from the way NetSuite does it, each company making quite different tradeoffs and pushing quite different levers. But today, whenever you get one of these obligatory “due diligence” site visits from companies fearfully dipping their toe into the cloud waters, the only “engineering” questions anybody asks have to do with SAS-70 Type II.


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