Zoho muscles in on hyperscalers with Catalyst serverless functions

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright October 17, 2019
Cloud business applications provider Zoho extends developer access to its platform with Catalyst, a set of serverless functions

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However much functionality a software vendor builds into its applications, some customers will always find something missing. Zoho's cloud-based business suite now offers more than 45 different applications, including several tools that customers can use to design their own functionality. Today it has added a new layer of serverless capabilities, because it was still seeing customers go off-platform to add custom functions. Zoho Chief Evangelist Raju Vagesna explains:

Customers and partners were missing modules or extensions and were using AWS or other platforms. We noticed a gap there. We said we have a comprehensive stack, why not open it up?

The result is Catalyst, which gives developers access to many of the underlying services and frameworks that Zoho already uses to build its own applications — everything from infrastructure services such as databases and file stores, to platform services such as search, messaging and email, through microservices that expose application functions such as optical character recognition (OCR), grammar checking and file previews.

Zoho is positioning Catalyst as an alternative to serverless functions offered by hyperscale cloud providers, such as AWS Lambda, Azure Functions and Google Cloud Functions. But Catalyst has a broader scope, including web and mobile SDKs and APIs, and reaching further into both infrastructure and application functions than any of the hyperscaler functions-as-a-service offerings. At the same time, it stops short of competing on raw compute at the infrastructure-as-a-service layer — this is a platform-as-a-service alternative to what the hyperscalers offer, delivered from Zoho's 10+ global data centers.

Vegesna says that Zoho is simply opening up its underlying stack to developers, emphasizing that the vendor has always stuck to building its own complete stack, rather than choosing the more common route among SaaS application vendors of building on public cloud infrastructure.

The approach we take is a full-stack approach. We are not just a software company, we are a technology company ...

Now for the first time we are opening up our technology stack to developers.

Catalyst is currently available on limited release and with an initial set of functions that Zoho plans to expand significantly over the next eighteen months. Pricing is not public at present but Vegesna says it will be flexible and aggressively competitive. There will also be an SLA.

Adding pro code options

Today's announcement includes the following features:

  • Back-end services including structured and unstructured data storage, along with listeners and schedulers to trigger or schedule tasks.
  • Server-side functions which developers can build in a range of programming languages including Java, Node.js and Python.
  • Microservices providing application-level functionality such as object detection and OCR initially, along with system services such as sign-up and authentication, push notifications, search indexing, and emailing. The range of services is set for rapid expansion to include anomaly detection, predictive analysis, grammar and diction checking and document previews.
  • Developer tools such as web and mobile SDKs and APIs, command-line tools, sandbox environments for testing, and real-time performance monitoring and reporting.

Catalyst adds a pro-code option that will interoperate with Zoho's existing low-code and no-code development tools, including Creator, Flow and Orchestly. That means that developers will be able to drop in to Catalyst to add any functionality they can't achieve using the existing tools, says Vegesna.

If you hit a brick wall while creating your app through Zoho Creator, that's where you switch to Catalyst, write your code, save it as a microservice and then plug that right in ...

It is the interoperability of these apps, if they hit a brick wall, that's where Catalyst will help them plug in those other pieces.

Developers have already used Catalyst to build services and applications, says Zoho. These include a bug-filing bridge application, an app used to import users into a CRM, a microservice for lead distribution, and a data-cleansing microservice.

Zoho will also launch a marketplace where customers and partners will be able to share their custom-built Catalyst services, with the option of billing for usage.

My take

This is a significant move by Zoho in supporting third-party extensions on its platform, as it cements its offering to larger midmarket businesses with significant in-house developer resources. The introduction of Catalyst also gives more scope for partners to build their own IP on the platform. Vegesna gave one example of a local partner in Costa Rica who had built a Python app on AWS to support local tax functionality. Now that partner can build the same functionality in Zoho Catalyst and offer it to others on the platform.

Many SaaS vendors are facing this choice of how to coexist with the likes of AWS, Azure and Google Cloud. Most have thrown in their lot with one or more hyperscale platforms. Zoho is striking out in the other direction, aiming to service almost every conceivable requirement on its own stack. It's a bold move that demonstrates huge confidence in the underlying architecture. The question now is whether it can persuade customers and partners to share that confidence.

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