With cloud mania in full swing, what is mobile's role?

stephen drake idcThe emergence of cloud-based infrastructure offerings, and the myriad "as a service" intersection points emerging for delivering service-enabled software to business users, provides numerous strategic and tactical benefits for user firms, including IT de-capitalization, easy access to applications, business agility, and scalability. But with SaaS (software as a service)--the most mature and prominent of these IT cloud services are finding that because the compute resources, application logic, and data all live in the cloud, along with other structured data sources (e.g., GPS data), they can serve their customers' need to get mobile access to this data; extend the mobile platform as a driver for enhanced partner growth, new revenue streams, and more service time; and drive an overall better experience for customers. IDC believes that the mobile device clients, cloud-based mobility platforms, and services now emerging from SaaS applications vendors provides a template for what customers will, in a growing number of cases, choose when it comes to building, consuming, and paying for mobility applications.

Recent IDC demand-side research conducted in the U.S. and the U.K. suggests that mobile SaaS based offerings are key future deliverables for organizations seeking to role out solutions to its mobile worker base. Almost 40 percent of organizations plan to deploy a SaaS-based solution in the next 12-18 months. This is in addition to another 19.7 percent that have already done a pilot and plan to roll out a larger deployment in the next 12-18 months. This is in stark contrast to current deployments for mobile SaaS in the enterprise, as today only 9.1 percent of organizations have already embarked on a large-scale deployment of mobile SaaS-based solutions. Of course, this does not mean that all on-premise solutions will be displaced, as many organizations will likely run on-premise solutions for certain applications and on-demand, hosted solutions for others. Furthermore, 15.5 percent of organizations have no plans to roll out any aspect of mobile SaaS-based solutions in the next 12-18 months, with another 8.4 percent that did run a pilot but have no plans to roll out the solution to other employees.

At the same time, many organizations see mobile operators as trusted providers for providing mobile solutions. The largest percentage of respondents from the same survey said that 38 percent selected the mobile operator as their prime supplier for mobile solutions. Although, this is somewhat unexpected as mobile operators have not had the greatest track record for selling mobile software designed to meet the unique requirements of enterprises environments mobile operators are uniquely positioned to offer up mobile SaaS-based solutions.

Beyond operators there are also a number of services-enabled application companies and those that provide key platform offerings that deliver mobile-SaaS based solutions providing customers not only access to data but to a growing number of new services that may be based on location, availability and other requirements based on a workers' situation. A multitenant, SaaS-delivered mobile platform, for example is designed for access to and consumption of software and application functionality built specifically for network delivery, and which is hosted, provisioned, and accessed by users over the Internet, and as such provides significant architectural advantages over premises-installed packaged software applications.

So when does the mobile SaaS model make sense for business customers? When the vendor business model is already a SaaS-based model the mobile client would naturally be SaaS based. Key advantages of SaaS-based models are the ability to quickly scale up or scale down users and the ability to rely on the vendor for management and timely updates and address multiple mobile OS environments.

The downsides of the SaaS-based model are the potential for a significantly higher total cost of ownership, security and compliance concerns related to having sensitive corporate data stored with a third-party provider, and limitations pertaining to customization and integration with back-end solutions. SaaS-based vendors do address security with federated data, encryption, antimalware and monitoring tools. Regardless, there are certain types of applications and data that enterprises prefer to have on premise, behind the corporate firewall. Such downsides do not make an overarching black-and-white case in favor of one model or the other, but rather validate the case for the existence of both SaaS-based mobile applications in some instances and on premise in others.

There is a tendency to equate mobile SaaS-based offerings with browser-based clients, or with thin mobile clients that do not store data locally and cannot be referenced or updated by the user when wireless service is not available. No direct correlation exists. Antenna's AMP platform, Concur Mobile, and salesforce.com Mobile are all examples of SaaS-based mobile platforms that have native clients that store data locally and allow the user to interact with that data in isolation. In other cases, a hybrid client is the best approach, as is the case with the Cisco WebEx Meeting Center client and LogMeIn Rescue+Mobile.

The promise of cloud computing to deliver additional value to its customers and offer cost savings and viable application development environments also holds true for the mobile environment. As customers evaluate mobile cloud offerings, it's important to consider mobile workers' roles and needs within the organization, mobile platform capabilities and key security requirements to weigh the decision of on-premise vs. SaaS-based solutions.

For further information on mobile cloud computing please see IDC's study "Enterprise Mobility in the Cloud" (IDC # 220192, Oct 2009). Stephen Drake is the program vice president for Mobility & Telecom research at IDC. In this position, he has responsibility for the Mobile Enterprise, Mobile SMB, Mobile Device coverage, IP Communication Services and also contributes to IDC's Unified Communication research. Visit IDC.com.