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True SaaS: any box so long as it's black

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright December 2, 2013
It seems's Marc Benioff shares Henry Ford's perspective on customer choice after all

Antique Car
When Henry Ford curtly restricted customer choice to the single color black, he wasn't being gratuitously difficult. His manufacturing process required it, as BBC correspondent Peter Day explains in this fascinating article about the radically different future of 21st-century manufacturing:

Henry Ford memorably said about his Model T car: "Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants, so long as it is black". But why particularly black? It is not a matter of style or taste, it is just that black paint dries fastest, so the cars came off the production line faster. A hugely practical man, Henry Ford.

Giving customers a choice would have meant a different, more expensive production process. The cheap, mass-produced Model T wouldn't have been viable. Thus denying customers a choice of color was a way of opening up to a much wider market the choice of having a car at all.

Many SaaS vendors have rightly taken a similar line with their customers. They have built their applications using an architecture that imposes a degree of conformity on all their customers. In doing so they have dramatically cut the cost and time taken to deliver functionality, making it available far more widely than ever before.

Key principle

In taking this approach they have also remained true to one of the key principles of what is known in technology circles as 'service-oriented architecture.' SOA doesn't get talked about much these days because it earned itself a bad name a few years ago after certain vendors prematurely defined a cohort of unnecessarily elaborate standards. But in its more refined, simpler incarnations (such as REST), SOA is still how the Web, and therefore cloud computing, works today.

The key principle of SOA is the 'black box'. The output you get from a service is defined in the service contract (which can be as simple as 'GET x' or far more complex). How the service works internally is its own affair: to you and everyone else, it's just a black box that receives input and generates the contracted results.

The black box concept is what makes the architecture so powerful. For the service consumer, defining everything in terms of simple input-output contracts makes it so much easier to reconfigure arrangements (a characteristic known as loose coupling). If a service fails or stops performing, you can just substitute another service that does the same operation. If you want to add some new functionality, you just define a new contract and find a service to fulfil it.

For the service provider, the black box model gives you complete freedom to decide how best to fulfil your contract obligations. This provides a framework in which service optimization and innovation thrives. You can even completely overhaul the underlying technology without your service consumers noticing anything at all, as Workday did when it refactored its database model earlier this year:

Such fundamental changes, implemented in pursuit of ever-faster performance and agility, are all the more remarkable in that they are carried out on a shared production infrastructure that all of Workday’s customers rely on to run their businesses. As [CTO Stan] Swete told me last week:

"We completely restructured our database and cut its size by 40 percent and customers didn’t notice."


Cardinal rule

This is the cardinal rule that seemed to have broken when it announced its SuperPod offering at Dreamforce last month, when Marc Benioff invited HP's CEO Meg Whitman onto the stage during his keynote.

Suddenly, Salesforce was no longer a black box.

Instead, customers would have the option of deciding what was inside the box — specifically, to choose between:

The announcement made me wonder whether in the future would team up with other vendors, such as Dell and IBM, to offer other SuperPod options. Perhaps one day there would be an Open Compute SuperPod or even one running on Amazon Web Services.

Putting it straight

Last week, Marc Benioff appeared to put the record straight on that question. It looks like he took some moments over the holiday break to catch up on his Dreamforce reading, resulting in a flurry of tweets to analysts and journalists last Thursday and Friday.

In one exchange, Benioff directly addressed my critique of the Superpod tie-up with HP:

I responded with my specific gripe that customers should not be able to choose the hardware platform. Benioff came back straight away with what looks like a definitive answer:


Stating clearly that "customers aren't involved" is a clear indication that still does espouse the black-box model of SaaS. The comment about "constantly evaluating and choosing new HW for pods" implies that the choice of HP for the Superpod (and indeed of Exadata for the rest of the infrastructure) is part of an ongoing process of optimization and innovation within the walls of the 'black box' of's application service.

The comment also implies — though Benioff will avoid saying this openly in the early stages of the alliance with HP — that further evaluation could easily arrive at a different choice of hardware (or multiple choices). But it appears that decision will be taken in the context of what's best for the service and its ability to offer value to customers rather than any relationship with particular vendors.

In that sense, Salesforce clearly remains a black box in the true SOA sense of the phrase. The vendor has simply added a new policy option to the service contract it offers customers: SuperPod.

But black box or not, that leaves unanswered the question whether a separate, customer-dedicated instance operating within a multi-tenant infrastructure still counts as true SaaS. That analysis will have to wait for a separate post all of its own — watch this space.

Disclosure: and Workday are diginomica premium partners. paid most of the author's travel and expenses to attend Dreamforce last month.

Image credit: Model T © Rob Byron -; Marc Benioff with Meg Whitman courtesy of

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