Finishing School

IBM puts ASPs through the paces

You may be ready for software as a service, but is your software vendor? An education and testing program that IBM runs for would-be service providers should make it easier for businesses to gauge the preparedness of their partners. Graduates of the course have the IBM seal of approval on their claims of functionality, security and scalability.

"After the hoops we put them through, they can use our logo as part of their quality and readiness statement," says Ann Reiten, ASP business leader of IBMs Net Generation unit. "They have passed through a rigorous validation that their application is ready for the ASP model."

The Hosting Advantage course, part of IBMs ASP Prime services initiative, has graduated 225 companies since its inception in late 1999. Originally open to software vendors, it recently expanded to include third-party service providers as well.

Available at 10 locations around the world, the program is free, but it is still meant to drive revenue to Big Blue. The hosting school, part of IBMs broad strategy of leveraging its vast assets to become the pre-eminent e-business enabler, is staffed with technical and business development people and is stuffed with test hardware from IBM and other vendors — including Intel, which has invested several million dollars in ASP Prime.

"We ask for a commitment [from participants] to deploy using some combination of IBM infrastructure, hardware, software and services," Reiten says. Thus another aspect of the ASP Prime program: a financial assessment of the participating companies. "We look at funding to see if they are going to be around for us to sell to," she says. "We want to bet on winners." So far, she says, the unit has overachieved on its growth targets for sales of hardware, software, and services.

For Retek, a $115 million vendor of software to big retailers such as Gap and Nordstrom, providing application services looks like a good way to extend its reach in the middle market. "We want to cover retailers who may not be able to hire that extra Oracle database administrator," says Susan Pompei, Reteks director of implementation services. "We were looking to make sure our products were hostable. People are going to be more comfortable with a product that is certified as ASPable." IBM avoids the designation "certified" for legal reasons.

Constantine Photopoulos, president of Eden Communications, a maker of project and support management software in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., says transitioning to services is too complex to do without some outside help. "Its not the type of market that one can just simply jump into without the appropriate understanding and partnerships," he says. Eden had previously partnered with an ASP, but was not seeing much return. "I thought I knew the ASP space," Photopoulos says. "This gave me confidence in our software and confidence to approach the market."

A typical program might run four months from planning to completion, with two weeks spent at the IBM center. "There is a lot of prep work up front, questionnaires before you go. They were willing to work as many hours as we were, and they are careful not to waste your time," says Pompei, who went to Beaverton, Ore., for the course last November. Software gets loaded and tested, and processes are documented and checked for repeatability; classroom sessions cover topics that include business issues, development and service-level agreements.

IBM is working on a new level of services aimed at the end user. "We are building an audit service for customers who want to address the risk factors in using an ASP," Reiten says. "Companies want to know whom they can trust with their data."

In the meantime, participants have some assurance that their software can stand the rigors of service delivery. "Weve been scaling rapidly, and we needed to make sure we wouldnt have an emergency in late summer or fall," says Margaret Olson, vice president of architecture at e-marketing ASP Roving Software, who finished the course in May. "Uptime and service are important to our partners, so we have certainly told them that we modeled usage to check our deployment plan."

Photopoulos hopes that the IBM logo will make a difference to potential customers. "They may not know what ASP Prime means, but they know what IBM means," he says.