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Provisioning Platforms Show Growing Maturity

Provisioning platforms for ASPs fulfil a broad spectrum of needs as the market begins to gain some definition, but abridean is one example that still has its sights set on continued evolution.
Close to a dozen serious ASP provisioning platforms are now available to providers, a sign of the growing maturity of the industry. A sign too of its breadth and sophistication is that each takes a different slant on the role.

If the role were simply to automate the process of giving customers access to applications, then there would not be sufficient scope for this degree of variation. But provisioning platforms are going further, packaging up the very essence of ASP operations to deliver an off-the-shelf foundation pack to act as the core of an ASP's operational and business support systems (OSS/BSS).

The variations occur on three separate dimensions

One dimension is the provider environment the package is aimed at. Smaller ISPs and IT solution providers, as well as other providers with limited technical resources, look for highly packaged solutions that come practically ready-to-run. Although they still demand sophisticated capabilities - since they will often plan to scale up to more challenging service provision later on - their immediate objective is to bring an initial offering to market.

Other providers expect to do their own custom development and often turn to a packaged platform as an off-the-shelf solution to middleware headaches they've encountered in development. They are looking for a platform that they can easily configure and adapt, so that they can free up in-house resources to focus on the core features of their offering.

A second dimension is the range of applications the platform is designed to support. The most limited restrict themselves to web-enabled, locally hosted applications. Others are designed for client-server applications, typically working alongside a terminal server platform such as Citrix MetaFrame or Tarantella.

High-end platforms support both types of applications, and can also operate in a tiered distribution network, where the provider hosts some applications locally, while others are delivered from third parties elsewhere in the online supply chain.

Extra functions

The final and most important dimension is functionality. Most platforms go well beyond application provisioning and user administration. They offer additional operational and business support functions such as single sign-on, security, metering and billing, delegated administration and monitoring of service levels.

Some platforms extend to more sophisticated functions such as inter-application integration, virtual server management, and syndication of services through a third-party sales channel. Others provide interfaces to a choice of third-party providers for these added-value functions.

Recently-launched abridean is one of a handful of platform vendors with roots going back to the very beginning of the network computing era. CEO Sean Sears managed the operations of IT consulting business Andersen Consulting in eastern Canada for five years in the early nineties and then co-founded Canada's first national ISP, Cycor Communications, of which he was president.

"When I saw broadband, I thought, 'This is going to really change outsourcing.' I got really intrigued with what does broadband mean for what we can deliver from a data centre," he told ASP News Review.

Like others who at the same time began to think ahead to the Internet computing era, Sears realised that provisioning would be a complex and significant issue.

Although abridean was not founded until February this year, several key members of staff have already accumulated several years' experience working on first-generation ASP provisioning platforms, one for a major networking vendor, the other for a large regional telecoms provider. The abridean platform benefits from that experience without being hampered by having to accommodate legacy technologies from the previous generation.

It is aimed at mid- to large-scale providers, supporting Microsoft-compatible applications and with a flexible array of functionality, either built-in or supplied via integration with third-party solutions.

Molecular provisioning

Its architecture meets several of the most important considerations for ASPs who have an eye to the future development of their services.

The most striking is its support for molecular provisioning - the ability to provision sub-components and functions as well as whole applications. "We built it to be able to segregate an application into separate components," said Sears. "You can bill by module, by quality of service, by usage, and other [criteria]."

Although few software vendors are as yet ready for this highly granular method of delivering and billing for their products, ASPs can immediately take advantage of it for their own added-value services and packaged bundles.

Internet-native services in the online world have already adopted an incremental selling model, in which they attract users with a free trial or basic service to start with, and then build up revenues by marketing additional functions and premium services that supplement the initial offering. It is inevitable that online application delivery will move towards the same model, taking advantage of the always-on link with the customer.

The next vital ingredient is an industry-standard directory services platform. A directory-based architecture is essential to support automated, self-service provisioning and management of multiple applications. This permits providers to offer delegated administration to customers and users, which is quickly becoming a default feature of ASP provisioning platforms. In the future, directory services will also provide the foundations for inter-application integration using XML-based standards.

To open up access to a large pool of potential application partners, abridean has chosen to base its architecture on Microsoft's Active Directory. "Every application in the world that's been built for [Windows] NT will be transitioned to Active Directory. Every ISV that transfers its apps for Active Directory is low-hanging fruit for abridean," Sears explained.

Infrastructure partners

The rapid evolution of technology and business models in the Internet computing environment is unlikely to slow down in the near future. Since no single platform provider is likely to keep pace with every development, openness to third-party infrastructure solutions is a further consideration.

Here, abridean is partnering with best-of-breed technology providers such as wireless specialist ThinAirApps, payment and transaction settlement startup Engyro and application deployment vendor Intraware. Creating a partner partners puts the platform at the hub of an array of compatible infrastructure components.

Alongside these technical features, the platform vendor's affinity with the ASP and Internet computing environment is a final consideration. Sears believes abridean must help ASPs move beyond an application-centric model to offer complete business services that are visibly superior to what customers can build in-house.

"You have to move the IT department from [saying] 'We can do that' to 'We should be doing it outside,'" Sears explained. "The service offering to the customer really has to get compelling."

Phil Wainewright
+44 (0)20 7387 7846
Cellphone +44 (0)7967 110136

Founder, Managing Editor
ASPnews.com & ASP News Review
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Founded in October 1998, and part of internet.com Corp since Jan 2000, ASPnews.com is the world's premier source of news and analysis about the application service provider industry.

Republished with permission from ASP News Review, the Internet computing industry newsletter Copyright (c) internet.com Limited 2000