by Ronald Ashri
Back in early 2010, when I first heard the term Open SaaS I was enthusiastic about the possibilities. As a technologist and an open-source proponent I saw OpenSaaS as a great solution for users. The power and ease of SaaS with the freedom of open-source. Five years later, however, where exactly are we? How many OpenSaaS products are there and where are the clients demanding that their SaaS services be open?
At Roomify we are working on OpenSaaS products for booking solutions (for the travel market and others) and are trying to figure out how best to talk about the benefits. As such, we thought it would be useful to take a step back, make sure we were all on the same page about what OpenSaaS means, figure out what is the state of OpenSaaS right now and what are the challenges in getting clients to share that vision.
What is OpenSaaS
The term has been around since 2009 but arguably first made its appearance in a significant way in a post by Dries Buytaert on Acquia’s vision of the future. He used it to describe the Drupal Gardens cloud-based platform for Drupal sites. Drupal Gardens allows users to build complete Drupal sites and, if they choose, then take data, code and theme and move somewhere else. This is a fundamental shift from closed SaaS services where, at most, you can export (and often only at the higher payment levels) your own data.
That bold stance by the founder of Drupal inspired many and provided a term that others could use to describe what they were already working on. The term, however, and vision lacked a more structured set of guidelines. Andrew Hoppin, co-founder of NuCivic laid out a more detailed definition with a set of requirements of what he views true OpenSaaS to be. The checklist spans the spectrum from the license used, the easy availability of the code + data as well as the ease of deployment of that application in an environment that a client can realistically be expected to recreate.
The OpenSaaS vision for technically-oriented people is clear. It gives us the best of both worlds: access to an easy to use, cloud-based service with minimal on-boarding time and reliability guarantees, coupled with the freedom of choice to take over not just the data but the code that manipulates that data and do whatever we please with it. Sounds like a win-win situation. If that is so, OpenSaaS services should be ruling the clouds by now, right? Well, not quite.
The State of OpenSaaS
It is not exactly easy to find an OpenSaaS service. Sometimes Wordpress is mentioned but while Wordpress.com allows you to export data it will not allow you to export the code (that you can of course download from Wordpress.org). In the Drupal world, Drupal Gardens is still there, but judging from the lack of emphasis Acquia is placing on the product one has to assume that it was not a runaway success. There is actually no mention of Drupal Gardens anywhere on the front-page of acquia.com.
Companies like NuCivic are offering OpenSaaS solutions for government but the government environment is quite different from general enterprise environments. There directives such as making open-source a requirement can motivate a government organization to use OpenSaaS. OpenSaaS gives the ease of use of a proprietary service while meeting the open-source requirement.
Hosts, such as Pantheon or Platform.sh will allow you to launch Drupal Distros, as an extra service at no cost and its not quite a SaaS service as such - just the ability to fire up a Drupal site with a one-click operation.
So - what happened? Has the excitement fizzled? Was OpenSaaS a solution looking for a problem?
I think the answer is a bit more complex. In particular, the infrastructure required was simply not there in 2010. Furthermore, the normal business rules still apply. You have to solve a user problem, clearly and efficiently and better than the competition.
What next for Open SaaS
Running a SaaS service is hard. You need to ensure uptime levels that only very high-quality hosting can provide. You need to be able to scale quickly. Most of all, you need to actually build a product and iterate quickly. Managing a SaaS service where clients are not sharing the same database and same resources is even harder. In short, single-tenant (no shared DB) Drupal-based OpenSaaS services are particularly hard. However, we are finally getting PaaS services like Pantheon and Platform.sh that can allow product developers to focus on their products. Acquia, has found that they can sell the Drupal Gardens-style solution to vendors to run what essentially amounts to in-house OpenSaaS services. Even though these are not SaaS services in the traditional sense, for large organization they solve a key problem of launching hundreds of similar sites efficiently and being able to customize them.
Here at Roomify we partnered with Platform.sh to deliver our OpenSaaS service and that has been a game changer. We can focus purely at the Drupal/Product level and depend on Platform.sh to deliver a reliable environment on which to launch our products. Furthermore, through the Platform.sh API we can manage and automate code deployment. Through Drupal Commerce we are managing recurring payments, invoicing and dunning (yeah - we had never heard of it either) management. This is all available through the fantastic work CommerceGuys did for their own platform. Robert Douglass and Karen Borchert describe the benefits and challenges of single-tenant Drupal SaaS here.
The next challenge an OpenSaaS company has is to actually talk about the benefits to users. Two of the key benefits are no vendor lock-in (harder to motivate for lower price points) and customization. We talk about both but focus on the latter.
A key effort for us is to explain to our customers (hotels, vacation rentals and generally companies that book stuff through their websites) that they can actually be brave and come up with booking offers that are simply not possible with standard off-the-shelf booking solutions. Whether it is combining room booking with local tours, special offers, sophisticated discount schemes or translating complex business rules we can customize Roomify solutions to their needs . They can intelligently manage their resources in ways that could not be possible before. Because each client is a single-tenant (virtual) server they quickly start off with our products but can then customize based on their needs. They don’t need to wait for a new feature to roll-out to the entire platform. They can define what they need based on their business plan and we can deliver it using the capabilities of Drupal.
This is where we see OpenSaaS going. Single-tenant OpenSaaS based on Drupal distributions as starting points. Automated payment and deployment like proprietary SaaS services. True freedom for the client and flexibility and scalability in deployment through PaaS platforms. The next five years might just be very exciting for OpenSaaS.