NetSuite quietly strengthens its platform play

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright October 18, 2016
NetSuite's platform ambitions are not as visible as Salesforce's but it has been investing in ecosystem capabilities that could be an undervalued asset

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Custom configuration of cloud applications is becoming a serious business these days. In the early days, just being able to change field names — for example, 'client' or 'patient' instead of 'customer' — was presented as a big deal. With every customer of a multi-tenant cloud application sharing the same underlying platform, vendors had to be sure they could carry forward those customizations with each upgrade to the underlying code.

Roll forward a decade, and what's on offer is far more sophisticated, with everything from dashboards and screen components to datasets and workflows capable of being tailored to the unique needs of a vertical industry or individual enterprise — and still carried forward each time there's a new release of the shared platform.

But while the complexity and sophistication has increased dramatically, the tools for managing all that custom configuration hadn't kept pace. It's only very recently that cloud application vendors have put their tooling on a par with what's available in the on-premise software world.

Earlier this month, Dreamforce saw the launch of Salesforce DX to provide an improved integrated development environment and other functions to aid developer productivity. Meanwhile, NetSuite a week before had chosen the Australian leg of its current SuiteConnect conference tour to unveil its SuiteCloud Development Framework (SDF), delivering tools that had first been promised two years previously.

Enterprise development teams

NetSuite SDF provides the kind of software development lifecycle support that enterprise development teams demand, including functions such as source code control, peer code reviews, team development and integrated debugging. Speaking to diginomica on a visit to London last week, Scott Derksen, senior director, platform marketing and business development, explained that rising enterprise adoption had created a need for tooling that gives more governance over the changes being made by all types of users, including administrators making point-and-click changes.

Increasingly there is concern around risk and compliance. How do I open up the platform for people to be able to make their changes and still know that I am not breaking processes?

With SDF, we can let an administrative team make changes. We can pull that into SDF. We can do code review and make sure we are compliant. We can even now manage that in the normal release cycle.

Before SDF, changes could only be published to the live NetSuite instance, whereas customers can now test them in a sandbox environment before they go into production.

The customer can enable the citizen developer to do work in the sandbox. We can now with SDF pull that in, run through a more comprehensive quality check, make further adjustments and manage the release cycle of that software.

All of this is managed in a development environment that's based on the Eclipse industry standard and provides the team collaboration capabilities that modern enterprise development teams are used to. NetSuite vice president, strategy and corporate development, Jason Maynard explains:

The functionality in SuiteCloud Development Framework is accessed in the SuiteCloud IDE, which is based on the Eclipse IDE.

What that means to our customers is, all the customizations that they have done in the past can be sucked down out of the account into SDF and can be represented as code. So now suddenly developers can develop in code, even on top of something that a citizen developer did [as a point-and-click] customization.

Now we support the software development lifecycle in ways that we haven't before. Integration with the source code depository, peer code reviews, those kind of processes which were very hard to do before, now with SDF we will be able do.

At the same time, NetSuite is modernizing its Javascript-based SuiteScript development language in a new 2.0 version that is more standardized and high-performance.

Building the ecosystem

All of these enhancements are a response to demands for more sophistication from a maturing customer base, says Maynard.

In the last five years, you have seen more of the medium to large size companies moving to the cloud. Then as they get live and their business has complexity, they invariably want to change it. I think that is why in the last, probably three years, it has created more demand to actually provide the capability to change. As we sell to other larger companies. I think it is just sophistication of customers.

The new capabilities will also encourage partners to build out new vertical industry offerings based on NetSuite's platform, Maynard believes. In addition to customers and the ISVs in the 'Built for NetSuite' accreditation program, there are professional services channel partners that extend the NetSuite platform to serve vertical markets, he explains.

We continue to explore how do we work with the channel partners who are part SI, part ISV, who want to build a customized version for a particular industry.

He cites the example of Denver-based Hein & Associates, which has built a vertical application on NetSuite for craft brewers, called Barrel ERP (sometimes shortened to BERP for humorous effect).

There's scope to enable more activity by partners in that kind of activity, he believes. NetSuite actively manages the ecosystem to encourage partners to fill vertical industry gaps in its product roadmap, and is building these third-party offerings into its SuiteSuccess implementation program.

We map out what the product organization is going to solve this year, probably next year, and then what areas that they will rely on partners for. Then we strategically recruit into those gaps. That turns into what you see [in the online partner solutions catalog] at

Then from an internal communication perspective it turns into maps that we provide to the sales organization. It says, OK, for the wholesale distribution vertical, here is the core ERP, here are the sub functions, and out of those sub functions here are the partners that serve each of those areas. The clustering is actually quite strategic.

NetSuite cites three main features of SuiteCloud Development Framework:

  • Collaborative cloud development. Developers can collaborate in a separate dedicated development environment that makes it easier to manage customisations and application code.
  • Direct deployment. Developers can directly deploy applications to development, sandbox or production accounts.
  • Software development lifecycle support. Development teams can manage cloud source code with the same process and rigor they've applied to on-premise projects for quality, compliance and control.

NetSuite says more than 300 SuiteApps have been given ‘Built for NetSuite’ status, which provides customers greater confidence that third-party SuiteApps have been built to meet the vendor’s standards and best practices.

My take

As cloud applications become more mainstream, they need to satisfy mainstream demands for enterprise-class development processes. It's interesting that the likes of Salesforce and NetSuite are only now delivering those capabilities — but also a sign of the increasing maturity of these platforms.

It's also interesting that NetSuite, which is not widely seen as a cloud application platform in the same league as Salesforce, has chosen to make this investment. An ERP platform like NetSuite inevitably has to constrain what partners can build on top of it more narrowly than a CRM system like Salesforce needs to. But there's still a lot of functionality that can be built on top of the business platform NetSuite has to offer, and perhaps it should make more of its platform potential.

The decision to launch SDF on the Australian leg of its tour — away from the scrutiny and attention of the Silicon Valley-centric tech media — suggests that NetSuite is not yet ready to trumpet its platform capabilities at full blast. Perhaps there are some remaining pieces that still need to fall into place before it is ready for prime time.

The impending acquisition by Oracle, which still may or may not happen, is also factor to bear in mind. If I were NetSuite, I would be making a big play of its platform potential as something that could be of significant value to an acquirer like Oracle, since it can provide useful glue to stitch together a portfolio of SaaS and PaaS offerings.

Whatever the outcome of Oracle's machinations, NetSuite's platform play is mature enough to make a significant contribution to its future growth. While its ecosystem may never grow as large as Salesforce's, NetSuite is right to invest in encouraging its partners to build out the platform into a variety of vertical industry segments. It would be foolish to miss out on the potential for this ecosystem to expand its market reach faster than the vendor can alone.

[Updated to correct Jason Maynards' job title.]

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