Understanding evolving models used by Independent Software Vendors for cloud-based software delivery, management, and support
As a Consultant, Enterprise Architect, Partner Solutions Architect, and Senior Solutions Architect, I have had the chance to work with many successful Independent Software Vendors (ISVs), from early-stage startups to large established enterprises. Based on my experience, I wrote two AWS Partner Network (APN) Blog posts: Architecting Successful SaaS: Understanding Cloud-Based Software-as-a-Service Models and Architecting Successful SaaS: Interacting with Your SaaS Customer’s Cloud Accounts. Continuing with that series, this post explores several existing and evolving models used by ISV’s to deliver, manage, and support their software product to cloud-based customers.
Independent Software Vendors
An ISV, also known as a software publisher, specializes in making and selling software designed for mass or niche markets. This is in contrast to in-house software, which the organization develops for its internal use, or custom software designed for a single, specific third party. Although end-users consume ISV-provided software, it remains the property of the vendor (source: Wikipedia).
The ISV industry, especially SaaS-based products, has seen huge year-over-year (YOY) growth. VC firms continue to fuel industry growth (and valuations) with an unprecedentedly high level of capital investment throughout 2021. According to SaaS Industry, the total investment for Q1-2021 stood at $9.9B. B2B data industry resource, Datamation, examines prominent ISVs in their article, Top 75 SaaS Companies of 2022. SaaS management company, Cledara, produced a similar piece, The Top SaaS Companies in 2021.
Cloud-based ISV software products are purchased directly from the vendor, or more recently, through marketplaces hosted by major cloud providers. In their Predicts 2022: SaaS Dominates Software Contracting by 2026 — and So Do Risks, Gartner observes, “Online marketplaces have become more prevalent (e.g., Amazon Web Services [AWS], Google, etc.). With easy access to these marketplaces, customers can and are purchasing marketplace products without the need to engage the software vendor directly or interact with sourcing or procurement within their organizations.” Examples of marketplaces include AWS Marketplace, Azure Marketplace, Google Cloud Marketplace, Salesforce AppExchange, and Oracle Cloud Marketplace.
AWS Marketplace, for example, describes itself as “a curated digital catalog that makes it easy for organizations to discover, procure, entitle, provision, and govern third-party software.” Company tackle.io, whose platform facilitates the process of listing, selling, and managing cloud marketplaces for ISVs, produced a report, State of Cloud Marketplaces 2021, detailing the leading cloud software sales and delivery platforms.
Based on my observations, most ISV products can be classified as either purpose-built or general-purpose. Purpose-built ISV products are designed to address a specific customer need. Many are considered enterprise software, also known as Enterprise Application Software (EAS). Enterprise software includes Customer Relationship Management (CRM), Management Information Systems (MIS), Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), Human Resource Management (HRM or HRIS), Content Management Systems (CMS), Learning Management Systems (LMS), Field Service Management (FSM), Knowledge Management Systems (KMS), Talent Management Systems (TMS), and Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS).
General-purpose ISV products often focus on a certain technology, such as security, identity management, databases, analytics, storage, AI/ML, and virtual desktops. These products are frequently used by customers as one part of a larger solution. Many of these products are hosted ‘as-a-Service,’ such as Database as a Service (DBaaS), Data Warehousing as a Service (DWaaS), Monitoring as a Service (MaaS), Analytics as a Service (AaaS), Machine Learning-as-a-Service (MLaaS), Identity-as-a-Service (IaaS), Desktop as a Service (DaaS), and Storage as a Service (STaaS).
Examining the current 19,919 listings in the AWS Marketplace, by general category, we can see a mix of purpose-built (e.g., Business Applications, Industries) and general-purpose ISV products (e.g., DevOps, ML, IoT, Data, Infrastructure).
Below are all the categories of ISV products and services found on the AWS Marketplace.
Similarly, looking at the current 5,008 listings in the Google Cloud Marketplace by category, we can see both purpose-built and general-purpose ISV products.
There is even an established market for SaaS-as-a-Service (SaaSaaS) — products and platforms designed to enable ISVs and SaaS providers. These products and platforms are designed to help overcome the inherent engineering complexities required to prepare, deliver, manage, bill, and support ISV products. Examples include services such as AWS SaaS Factory Program, AWS SaaS Boost, and Azure SaaS Development Kit (ASDK), as well as vendors, like tackle.io and AppDirect.
Current ISV Models
As the organizations continue to move their IT infrastructure and workloads to cloud providers such as Amazon Web Services (AWS), Google Cloud, and Microsoft Azure, ISVs have had to evolve how they distribute, manage, and support their software products. Today, most ISVs use a variation of one of three models: Customer-deployed (aka self-hosted), Software as a Service (SaaS), and SaaS with Remote Agents.
These methods are evident from looking at the current listings in the AWS Marketplace by delivery method. Of the 14,444 products, 11.3% are categorized as SaaS. Many of the remaining delivery methods could be classified as Customer-deployed products. The most significant percentage of products are delivered as Amazon Machine Images (AMI). Custom-built VM images were traditionally the most common delivery forms. However, newer technologies, such as Container Images, Helm Charts, Data Exchange (Datasets), and SageMaker (ML) Algorithms and Models are quickly growing in popularity. Data Exchange products, for example, have doubled in 18 months.
In a Customer-deployed ISV product model, the customer deploys the ISV’s software product into their own Cloud environment. The ISV’s product is packaged as virtual machine images, such as Amazon Machine Images (AMIs), Docker container images, Helm Charts, licensed datasets, machine learning models, and infrastructure as code (IaC) files, such as Amazon CloudFormation Templates.
With Customer-deployed products, it is not required but also not uncommon for the ISV to have some connection to the customer’s cloud environment for break-the-glass (BTG) support, remote monitoring, or license management purposes.
Software as a Service (SaaS)
According to Wikipedia, SaaS is a software licensing and delivery model in which software is licensed on a subscription basis and is centrally hosted within the ISV’s cloud environment. SaaS is one of the three best-known cloud computing models, along with Platform as a Service (PaaS) and Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS).
With SaaS, the customer’s data can remain in the customer’s cloud environment. A secure connection, such as an Open Database Connectivity (ODBC) or Java Database Connectivity (JDBC) connection, can be made to the customer’s datasources. Alternately, the customer’s data is securely copied in advance or just-in-time (JIT) to dedicated storage within the ISV’s cloud environment. Using caching technologies, such as RubiX, Databricks Delta caching, and Apache Spark caching, data can be cached as needed. Some caching technologies, such as Alluxio, even offer tiered caching based on the frequency it is accessed — hot, warm, or cold.
SaaS with Remote Agents Model
The SaaS with Remote Agents model is a variation of the pure SaaS model. In this scenario, the customer deploys ISV-supplied software agents within their cloud, on-premise, and edge (IoT) environments. Software agents can be language-specific libraries or modules added to an application, sidecar containers, serverless functions, or stand-alone VMs. These agents collect data, pre-optimized payloads, and push data back to the ISV’s cloud environment. The prototypical example of this model is monitoring/observability and Application Performance Monitoring (APM) vendors. They often use agents to collect and aggregate a customer’s telemetry (logs, metrics, events, traces) to the ISV’s external cloud environment. The ISV’s cloud environment acts as a centralized, single pane of glass for the customer to view their aggregated telemetry.
Some cloud providers offer products designed specifically to make a customer’s integration with SaaS products easier. With Amazon EventBridge, for example, you can “easily connect to and stream data from your SaaS applications without having to write any code.” Amazon EventBridge has established integrations with dozens of SaaS partners, including Auth0, DataDog, MongoDB, New Relic, Opsgenie, PagerDuty, Shopify, and Zendesk.
Evolving ISV Models
In addition to the customer-deployed and SaaS models, some ISVs have developed new models for offering their software products. One such model is what I refer to as the Remotely-managed model. This hybrid model combines the best aspects of both the Customer-deployed and SaaS models. They are designed to address common customer concerns, such as security, speed, ease of use, and cost.
With the Remotely-managed model, the ISV’s product is administered by the customer through a user interface (UI) hosted in the ISV’s cloud environment. The administrative actions of the customer are translated into commands, which are executed in the customer’s cloud environment. These remote commands are communicated using API calls or bi-directional message queues such as EventBridge. Often, the customer grants the ISV programmatic access to their environment. The ISVs access is limited to a fine-grain set of permissions, based on the principle of least privilege (PoLP), to deploy and manage their product, usually isolated within a separate customer account or Virtual Private Cloud (VPC).
Deploying the ISV’s product to the customer’s environment adjacent to the data maximizes security by eliminating data movement external to the customer’s cloud environment. Instead, computations are done adjacent to data within the customer’s environment.
SaaS Façade Model
Recently, I have been developing some architectural thinking around a newer model that I call the SaaS Façade model. A façade or facade is generally the front part or exterior of a building. In software design, a facade is an object that serves as a front-facing interface masking more complex underlying or structural code (source: Wikipedia).
The SaaS Façade model is a variation of the Remotely-managed model. Although architecturally more complex than the Remotely-managed model, the SaaS Façade model is simpler from a customer perspective. Both the customer’s administrators and end-users access the software product through the ISV’s cloud environment, but there is little to no data movement from the customer’s environment.
Separating Front-end from Back-end
The ISV’s product architecture is the most significant difference between the SaaS Façade model and the Remotely-managed model. Most modern software products are composed of multiple, decoupled components or tiers, including front-end/UI/presentation layer, back-end/services, and data. In the SaaS Façade model, the customer’s end-users access the ISV’s product through the ISV’s cloud environment, similar to SaaS. The ISV’s front-end is deployed to the ISV’s cloud environment. The ISV’s product’s back-end is deployed to the customer’s cloud environment, adjacent to the customer’s data. The ISV product’s data tier is deployed to either the ISV’s or customer’s cloud environment, depending on the product’s exact architectural requirements. This model requires a highly decoupled architecture and tolerance for moderate latency.
Decoupled User Management
A frequent request from customers of ISV software concerns user management. Customers want to allow approved external users to access read-only data, such as a sales report, without adding them to the customer’s cloud environment’s Identity and Access Management (IAM) system. Additionally, end-users do not need to access the software by first logging in through the customer’s cloud provider’s console and having an established IAM identity. The SaaS Façade model enables this capability.
Another potential use case for the SaaS Façade model is implementing a multi-cloud customer architecture. Imagine an ISV’s cloud environment hosted on a single public cloud provider’s platform, while the customer has workloads and data housed on multiple cloud provider’s platforms. The ISV’s product’s back-end would be deployed to multiple cloud provider’s platforms using a common compute construct such as a Linux-based VM (e.g., Amazon EC2, Azure VM, or Google Cloud Compute Engine) or on Kubernetes (e.g., AWS’s EKS, Google Cloud’s GKE, or Azure’ AKS). The ISV product’s data-tier would also be built on a database engine common to most major cloud providers, such as MySQL or PostgreSQL. Similar to the SaaS with Remote Agents model, the ISV’s environment act as a single portal to the customer’s multiple environments and decentralized data sources.
In this scenario, the ISV product’s front-end and back-end are common and independent of the cloud provider’s platform. The customer-managed administration interface is also common. Potentially, only the ISV’s deployment, configuration, and monitoring elements may need to have aspects specific to each cloud provider’s platform. For example, Kubernetes is common to AWS, Google Cloud, and Azure. However, the authentication methods, IaC, and API commands to provision a Kubernetes cluster or deploy a containerized application differ between EKS, GKE, and AKS.
In this post, we briefly explored several models used by ISV’s to deliver, manage, and support their software product for cloud-native customers. As cloud adoption continues to grow and the complexity of cloud-based application platforms continues to evolve, ISVs will continue to develop new models for distributing their software products in the cloud.
This blog represents my own viewpoints and not of my employer, Amazon Web Services (AWS). All product names, logos, and brands are the property of their respective owners. Introduction image – Copyright: melpomen (123rf.com).