I spend a lot of time talking to investment houses and the like and advising them on what I perceive to be the big opportunities going forwards. I keep coming back to a central thesis of mine which is that as enterprise IT becomes ever more complex and distributed, the big opportunities seem to lie with overlay fabrics that span a number of different vertical offerings. That all sounds like buzzword bingo so what are a couple of examples of these opportunities?
Cloud and/or infrastructure Management is one – with enterprises using ever higher numbers of different cloud services, broad fabrics that overlay all these different vendors, and do so in a neutral way, are big opportunities. There are a few different takes on this – you have the automation vendors like Chef and Puppet that automate the provisioning of this infrastructure. Then there are the management players like title="Enstratius">enStratius and Cliqr that manage the different workloads sitting on the various bits of infrastructure an organization might use. Other examples might include broad infrastructure monitoring etc.
Another horizontal area is that of Enterprise Social Networks (known by the requisite acronym of ESNs). I came back to thinking about the various approaches to ESNs recently when eXo, one of the players in the space, announced the new version of its product, Cloud Premium. The idea of eXo is to combine a centralized portal-like framework with social functionality. Essentially eXo is a standalone social product that can be “overlaid” across enterprise workflows.
The other approach to ESNs is one of embedded networks – Salesforce1 (formerly Chatter) being probably the best known example but Oracle and SAP also play in the space. Since its acquisition by Microsoft, and subsequent integration with Sharepoint and Office365, Yamme also sits in this space.
I had the perception that embedded ESNs had benefits over standalone offerings, mainly due to the fact that while in theory they can be utilized over all applications, standalone offerings have to rely on the application vendors breadth and depth of API functionality. Embedded ESNs, on the other hand, enjoy as much depth of integration as the platform they sit upon chooses to expose – and obviously a platform that includes its own ESN is likely to offer end users deep social functionality.
Of course all of this is my own perception developed from watching the industry, to really get a handle on the status quo I turned to one of the most respected ESN industry analysts, Vanessa Thompson, the Research Manager for Enterprise Social Networks and Collaborative Technologies at IDC. In response to my questions around standalone versus embedded ESNs Thompson told me about a move that she’s seen this year to embedded ESN platforms that, over and above the solutions that facilitate social workflow across other applications, also offer the ability for firms and other vendors to build their own applications on top of the existing ESN. Essentially what it seems Thompson is describing is an ESN as a development platform – in this way ESNs can both enjoy the breadth and depth of an embedded ESN, but also act as a quasi standalone ESNs and can be used by others for a specific use case.
Standalone ESN’s are fully open and extensible that can integrate with many applications but the integrations are only as deep as the API’s of the app you are integrating with. This can limit functionality that can be performed inside the ESN, especially in some heavy process based transaction applications. Embedded ESN’s have the ability to parse deeper detail and aid in specific business processes (and decisions) because they are surfaced from within an application. The ability to thread social workflow into very specific business processes like opportunity management in the CRM mean that a greater level of engagement can be built from within the context of the application. With such a heavy process focus some of the core ESN functionality has to be given up and users that need to escalate conversations outside of the app they are working in need a seamless transition to the home ESN or to another app.
With the proviso that this sounds very much like inside-baseball, it does speak to the big opportunities that exist in the space. Can a standalone ESN (and there are many, apart from eXo we also have VMware via its Socialcast acquisition, Jive, Socialtext, BlueKiwi and others) really hope to compete against a double whammy that takes the form of embedded ESNs on the one hand (with their deep functionality within the applications they sit within) and the ESN platforms on the other (with the opportunities they enable around building an ecosystem of third party products built on top of the platform). Even more worrying for those independent ESN vendors must be the ESNs that are both platforms, and deeply embedded with an application stack – Salesforce1, Oracle and SAP being examples of this “uber ESN”.