Delivering software as an appliance

In this post, Rod Boothby mentions the growing use of Appliances to deliver software – a physical server with the software pre-installed which the customer just plugs into their network.

We have been doing this PatentSafe product for a while, particularly for Pilot projects. With the appliance approach, everyone wins – the customer has near-zero setup costs, we get to deploy onto a standard platform (removing a zillion potential issues), and we can literally have the customer up and running within minutes. We had to write a little web UI so the customer can manage the server from their web browser (shutdown, backup, etc.) but overall it has been pretty easy to put in place.

Most of our customers use the Amphora-supplied server for the Pilot and then move to their own server for production – which can be Windows, Linux or MacOS based. Fortunately the migration from the pilot server is just a matter of copying some files, so the switch is pretty transparent.

We started out using Linux boxes for the appliance but when Apple came out with the Mac Mini we’ve moved to those:

  • They’re really small so our installation engineer can bring it with them rather than have it shipped (costing money and hassle).
  • We can easily clone/image a disk in MacOS X, most often we end up doing it in a hotel room.
  • New machines are readily available – we’ve bought a number in Apple Stores near the client (I dread to think how much we spend with the Apple Store in CambridgeSide).
  • MacOS X has all the power and convenience of Unix, with a friendly face – so on the rare occasion that the customer does need to interact with the system directly, it isn’t too scary.
  • Because PatentSafe is a web app, the customer never knows they are using a Mac server – there are no compatibility issues, even if they are wall-to-wall Windows.

This is working well for us and our customers – so well in fact that a number have kept their Mac Minis to use as production servers, and one has even switched to Macs! :-).

With VMWare’s recent re-alignment of their product line we’re also starting to offer VMWare machines as “appliances”. So where a customer doesn’t want to have a Mac Mini we will ship them a VMWare image which is a Linux-based PatentSafe server. This has pretty much the same effect as shipping a physical server (in terms of ease of setup), but obviously the customer needs to supply their own hardware.

The use of appliances – particularly for pilots – and a carefully tailored commercial proposition – has made a massive difference in Amphora’s business. We’re now acquiring as many customers in a month as we used to do in a year with an “old style” approach, because the barriers to entry are so much lower. I can heartily recommend it to anyone except our competitors!

P.S. whilst the Mac Mini does exactly what we need, we don’t need the little remote control that comes with the newer ones. I’d welcome suggestions about what to do with the little collection of remotes that are gathering in a corner of our machine room.

Playing well with others: Amphora and Rescentris

For those of you paying attention (OK, I know there’s nothing on the Amphora web site yet – if we were that good at puff marketing I’d be writing this from the beach) we’ve successfully integrated our PatentSafe product with CERF from Rescentris.

From my perspective, there’s three interesting aspects to this:

  1. This is a good example of two companies focusing on their strengths and by cooperating delivering an excellent solution to the customer. Specifically, Amphora’s strength is in “Broad” systems, especially the long-term records and Patent Evidence Creation & Preservation parts of the problem. Rescentris are basically really good at making biologists happy. Together, we do more.
  2. The technical integration was pretty quick (they just do an http submit with a PDF to PatentSafe, we take the resulting document and do our thing, returning status codes to CERF. Total programmer time, a few hours at most – and all testing etc. done over the Internet. Such is the power of simple, lightweight tools.
  3. In this case, we actually worked together to deliver the solution to the customer. Specifically CERF is installed on an Amphora-provided server (we had one off the shelf, the customer only wanted one server not two), and we scheduled our installation visits to happen at the same time. In addition, we’re coordinating upgrades and ongoing support.

Overall, a good example of what can happen if you’ve got well-architected products and willing vendors. Customer gets “best of breed” solution at a low price. Fun project too!

Can’t help but contrast this to the somewhat mercenary approach we’ve seen with some vendors – they’ll promise/do anything to get whatever business there is available, regardless of their capability to do it. Then the customer ends up with a train wreck – sure there’s “one throat to choke” but the vendor’s sales guy just promised a bunch of stuff just to get the business, and then left their implementation team deep in trouble. The customer can choke all the throats they want, it isn’t going to help them get a solution – and they’ve got a vendor who can’t/won’t work with any of their other vendors.

Given the reality of ELN systems (where you always have to integrate with other systems) better to work with companies who acknowledge that partnering is a crucial part of the vendor value proposition, and are able to focus on delivering their part, and work with others to deliver the whole solution.