One of the biggest challenges application service providers (ASP) face is proving they can manage and maintain enterprise applications with flexible, high-quality services. Presuming this is a huge leap of faith for many business customers, ASPs are striving to win the trust of users with new management systems that promise easier service provisioning, a variety of billing options and more detailed service-level agreements (SLA).
Businesses can expect ASPs that offer enterprise application hosting services to introduce features such as better SLAs and service options in an effort to differentiate themselves, says Chris Christensen, an analyst at IDC, a Framingham, Massachusetts, consulting firm. "Service providers know users are willing to pay more for better services," he says.
Futurelink, Corio Inc. and USinternetworking Inc. (USi) are ahead of the curve, already deploying management tools that will lead to enhanced service offerings.
Futurelink, in Irvine, California, is gearing up to offer application-hosting users more flexibility with a new management system from Xevo called ASP Workbench. Futurelink is deploying ASP Workbench to offer customers simplified application hosting service provisioning and new billing options for those services, says Tony Hill, director of product management.
The management platform lets an ASP synchronize application configurations and user application parameters on a centralized database, says Rick Hronicek, president and CEO at Xevo Corp. This means when a customer signs up, Futurelink will gather the customer's application and user parameters that apply to a firm's entire employee base. So when a new hire comes on board, it only takes seconds to get that user into the system.
Futurelink is adding ASP Workbench metering agents to all application servers.
The agents will allow the ASP to bill users based on parameters set by the ASP.
Today, most ASPs charge customers by the number of users accessing a set of applications, but ASP Workbench will let Futurelink charge customers based on usage, transactions or length of time on the network.
There are a few things to keep in mind if an ASP starts offering what may seem to be a better per-transaction billing structure, as compared with a per-user billing structure, Christensen says. Be sure that you have an idea of how many employees are using an application before you choose a per-transaction model, he says, or you may miss out on promised discounts for high-volume usage.
While Futurelink is installing Xevo's ASP Workbench, Corio is fine-tuning its automated provisioning system.
A big selling point for ASPs is that they can get business users up and running quickly, which is why Corio is automating its provisioning process, says Hasan Rizvo, vice president of engineering at the Redwood City, California, ASP.
Corio is using software from Chainlink Networking Solutions that has been customized to easily bring customers online. Chainlink works off a list of processes Corio has defined, such as software feature preferences and how application patches and upgrades should be distributed for Corio customers, Rizvo says.
By automating the service setup and maintenance process, Corio would only have to deploy a software patch once for all customers who subscribe to Corio's PeopleSoft application hosting services, for example. And bringing users online from a single company would mean only entering in each user's ID and password instead of each user's application preferences.
Like most ASPs, Corio from the beginning was focused on automating provisioning and management systems to scale from its few early customers to the hundreds it now supports. Corio has 10 to 15 engineers working to update and automate its systems at any given time, Rizvo says.
Corio is using an Integrity product, SiteMinder, to integrate different applications such as those from Siebel Systems Inc. into a Citrix-based environment, Rizvo says. "We have a central repository that stores all of our customer accounts so they can use a single sign-on and reach all of the applications they subscribe to," he says. Without SiteMinder, customers would have to log on each time they wanted to access a different application.
USi, an ASP in Annapolis, Maryland, is also emphasizing its management and monitoring systems. USi has an extensive Tivoli Systems Inc. network management system, which it customized to monitor network outages and bottlenecks. The ASP is also developing SLAs that will be based on a new transaction monitoring system and offer business users more detailed service guarantees.
Most service providers send ping traffic to determine if a server or router is available on a network. USi has taken that one step further by using a tool kit that measures the responsiveness of its application servers, says David Goldschlag, chief technology officer.
"We are using Topaz to do synthetic transaction monitoring," he says. The software agent visits USi customer sites and attempts to perform transactions that a specific application server is supposed to provide. If it fails, engineers are notified. "This allows us to characterize outages from an end-user perspective," he says.
"What's most interesting is this monitoring capability gives us the ability to monitor transaction speeds and response time," he says. Toward the end of the year, USi will offer SLAs that guarantee application performance. Goldschlag says the synthetic transaction monitoring is up and running but that is a first step. Now USi has to be sure that its servers are performing at satisfactory levels. "We want to see performance trends over time, and then we may need to build systems to support the desired guarantees," he says.
Christensen says in the next five to 10 months, several enterprise ASP will start offering more detailed SLAs, compared with the "flimsy ones that currently exist and don't provide any legal recourse for users."
ASP customers are generally guaranteed network and server availability, which is not enough for most businesses to even consider transferring sensitive financial or human resources data to a third-party provider.