A services-based model for software

February 23, 2007 at 9:01 am | Posted in Technical | Leave a comment

Among the many ways computer science is changing, I think the most important shift is a philosophical one.

For example, in the old days, technicians would design a network with a “File Server” box, an “Email Server”, an Applications Server” box, a “Web Server”  box, and so on. A technician’s job was to install and maintain various boxes that did various things.

Now, with virtualized servers, a technician is providing file storage, applications, and hosting services. It’s no longer about managing boxes, but managing system resources and scale, to provide optimal and sustainable performance for all the services required. It’s a service-based philosophy.

Yesterday Google made the news by announcing their upcoming launch of a professional version of GoogleApps. For $50 per person per year, they will be entering direct competition with the much more expensive MS Office, with a word processor, spreadsheet program, and incorporating versions of Gmail and the google calendar program.

This is a truly service-based launch, and I think it’s a step forward. No one wants to buy a cellophane-wrapped box and then spend an hour installing software, and then another hour waiting for security patches and updates. Furthermore, in order to keep traditional boxware* secure,  users need to keep updating it with patches. Don’t even get me started on the headache involved in entering a 25-digit key code to get the software working, and then keeping it around for reinstallations. Also, with boxware the software license is tied to the computer. If I buy another computer, I must buy another box of software, with another 25-digit key code. This is not fun, and it’s not productive. It’s wasting time spinning a CD and then consuming lots of local computer resources to run.

Opponents of Google’s software delivery model argue that users will be dependent on their Internet connection for performance, and also on Google’s ability to maintain their promised 99.9% uptime on the system. I would argue that the potential of a hardware outage, software glitch, or MS Office security hack in the boxware model causing a loss of productivity is about the same as the risk of a Google App outage, if not slightly more risky. This is especially true for mom & pop shops who are running their own systems. I’d trust Google to keep my apps up and running a lot more readily than I would trust my Uncle Joe. (No offense, Uncle Joe, but your one class in computer science in the age of punchcards does not make you superior to Google’s tech team.)

Time will tell what will come of this, and I’m sure many companies will be reluctant to shift from the pay-once boxware method and the software they know, to a subscription-method to use less familiar apps. I think, though, that I will be recommending this to the struggling local bookseller, and my retiree parents who were having some trouble running the older versions of office on their ancient computer. The great thing about online applications is that they don’t require much from the local machine, which will be good for my folks, who think a computer should last 10 years before retirement.  /sigh.

*I think I may have just coined the term “boxware”. I intend it to mean software that comes on a CD, is packaged in a box, and is rendered obsolete by update patches before you buy it.

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