Saba Software: All about People (Cloud) - Part 3

Part 1 of this series introduced Saba Software, a public provider of the Saba People Cloud, which constitutes a new class of business-critical software that combines enterprise learning management, talent management, and social and real-time collaboration technologies. My post first described the vendor’s slew of industry rewards and accolades at the recent 2011 Enterprise 2.0 conference in Boston and related events.

Then, the post discussed the need for the “People Cloud” that transforms people-driven enterprises and analyzed a number of social software use case scenarios. The blog post ended with a description of Saba’s current state of affairs. Part 2 analyzed the individual modules of the Saba People Cloud Applications.

This final part will analyze the underlying product architecture that enables the rich functionality of the Saba People Cloud Applications described in Part 2.

Saba Architecture

Saba’s versatile product architecture, coupled with the vendor’s product development processes, facilitates the rapid development, deployment, and configuration of enterprise-scale solutions for people management. Saba’s products use the latest industry standards and technologies, including Java Platform, Enterprise Edition (J2EE)Java Platform, Micro Edition (J2ME)AJAXWeb servicesvirtualization, and learning industry standards to deliver configurable features for its on-premises and software as a service (SaaS) customers.

Saba has been providing its software as a service in the cloud for many years now, and it now has six million users in the cloud. Several of Saba’s leading customers have been migrating to cloud-based offerings, and the transition is fairly straightforward since both the private cloud and public cloud offerings are based on the same code base. For customers with complex customizations, the vendor provides its professional services offerings to help with rapid implementations.

Saba recognizes that its move towards cloud is a hefty investment, as cloud technology is new and requires that customer data reside outside of a customer’s “firewall” of protection, and many prospective customers could reject or delay adoption, thereby limiting the potential for this new offering.

In addition, Saba realizes that public cloud infrastructure is still relatively new and could encounter unexpected problems. Saba has enterprise-class data centers and global co-locations placed around the world (including the US, Canada, Europe, Latin America, and Asia-Pacific) for production deployments. The company recognizes that enterprise customers require this global delivery, security and Quality of Service. This represents a major investment by Saba in its Global Cloud operations.

Saba Cloud customers today include some of the largest and most security conscious enterprises in the world, including many of the largest coporations in the following segments:

  • Global banks such as Bank of America, Bupa, Union Bank, Scotia Bank, and others,

  • Life sciences customers such as Allina Healthcare, Nemours, Sanofi-Aventis, Novartis, etc.

  • High-tech customers  including Cisco, IBM, NetApp, Hitachi, and others,

  • Manufacturing including Briggs and Stratton, Honeywell, and Grainger,

  • Retail including McDonalds, Five Guys, Brinker (Chili’s), Media Saturn, Sephora, Guitar Center, and others,

  • Public sector organizations in various countries, and

  • Professional services organizations such as Deloitte and others.

Covering All the (Technology) Bases

Saba’s J2EE-compliant application platform helps accelerate application development by leveraging the transaction management, persistence management, and resource pooling capabilities of standard J2EE application servers so that application developers can focus on building business logic and user interfaces (UI’s). During the course of fiscal year 2010, the vendor fully migrated to the agile (scrum) software development methodology with all programs now being delivered under this framework. Key features of the Saba platform are as follows:

  • Security: Saba solutions offer secure environments through which organizations can manage their people management processes, which are  subject to rigorous validation by a number of customers and third parties. A granular security model supports the complex business structures and processes and can be easily configured to meet their needs.

  • Scalability: Saba also offers a scalable solution able to meet the needs of many thousands of concurrent users both on-premises and in the cloud. Scalability is accomplished through a variety of techniques including clustering, distributed caching, virtualization, session failover management, and off-line processing for asynchronous processes.

  • Configurability and Extensibility: The Saba platform offers a configurable application environment whereby business processes, system features, and user experiences can be easily configured to meet the needs of the vendor’s diverse customer base.

  • Integration Ready: Saba solutions are deployed in complex IT ecosystems where integrations with other systems are commonly required. The vendor provides for such integrations by delivering open and standards-based solutions based on common technologies such as Extensible Markup Language (XML), Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP), and Java Authentication and Authorization Service (JAAS). Saba also supports OpenSocial, a specification for integrations of social applications.  In addition, Saba provides a series of documented Web services and Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to facilitate data and application integration.

  • Compelling User Experiences: The Saba solution provides a variety of user experiences through standard Web browsers via embedded portlets, online and offline clients, and integrations with other business applications such as Microsoft Outlook, IBM Lotus Notes, and the WebSphere Portal infrastructure. This allows users to employ Saba wherever they work. In addition, Saba makes extensive use of rich internet application (RIA) technologies such as AJAX, Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), JavaScript, Adobe Flash, and high quality Voice over IP (VoIP) to deliver engaging and intuitive user experiences.

  • Learning Standards: Saba continues to be an active participant in the main learning standards bodies including Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL), IMS, and AICC. The vendor also continues to ensure that its solutions are compliant with the most current versions of the standards delivered by these organizations.

  • Multiple language support: Saba’s platform is quite international and is independent of any particular language, script, culture, or coded character set. Saba currently provides a number of localized versions of its solutions and support in 30 languages.

Going Global

Incidentally, Saba boasts sales, support, and partner presence in 195 countries on 6 continents. The targeted nature of the vendor’s partner program enables it to help its partners better capture the momentum of the growing people cloud marketplace. Saba has strategic alliance agreements with key global and regional value-added resellers (VARs) representing its solutions around the world, including IBM, HP, and CAE Solutions.

Saba also partners with global and regional consulting firms who act as advisors, systems integrators (SI’s), and implementation partners for its solutions. These alliances and the associated training of qualified personnel in these organizations greatly increase the number of sales representatives and consulting professionals trained to implement Saba solutions. There are also relationships with packaged content providers, custom content developers, and content authoring and learning delivery tool providers who increase the range of content offerings available to Saba customers.

The Saba Content Alliance Program helps content partners create and deliver learning content for use in conjunction with Saba solutions through the support of industry standards, which are applicable to a broad variety of media formats, including Web-based training (WBT), computer-based training (CBT), video, and asynchronous and synchronous delivery, as well as through traditional forms of learning such as instructor-led classes, seminars, and workshops. In support of this program, Saba operates a content developers’ resource center and testing lab that provides its content partners with direct access to its systems for standards compliance testing.

Recapping the Saba Difference

Saba’s approach has always been to create a fully integrated and standards-based platform. Thus, the social core and real-time engine (mentioned in Part 1) are fully integrated as a single platform. As mentioned in Part 2, this platform uniquely offers both a dynamic people profile (that includes the formal certification, skills, job roles) and a social profile (that includes activities, tags, contributions, etc.).

When one combines these profiles with the influence, reputation intelligence, and analytics on the entire value network, one has a social platform that is differentiated from just social software players such as a Jive, Yammer, or SocialText. Along similar lines, Saba People Cloud is differentiated from simple human capital management (HCM) players such as SuccessFactors and Taleo, and from just web conferencing providers such as WebEx (Cisco), GoToMeeting, Microsoft, or Adobe.

Saba People Cloud is a suite of cloud applications whereby users can use one of the modules for a point solution or multiple modules for an integrated system. The difference is that when one uses many or all of the modules, the sum of the parts can be greater than the whole. This is because Saba’s platform has been largely developed organically rather than being glued together. Simply adding, say, an acquired video solution and an acquired social solution does not make an integrated solution – it might even make for an integration nightmare for customers.

In addition, Saba Social is best-of-breed award winning social software (see Part 1). Functionally, the platform is more complete than, say, Jive. Saba Social has a real-time engine integrated into social tools, and its social features are every bit as complete and arguably more secure than Jive, including a full ideation engine and secure domain creation, so that one can have customer, partner, and employee communities all in the same instance.

Saba’s aforementioned People Cloud offering is delivered from data centers around the globe that are SAS70 Type II and EU Safe Harbour certified, and is available in nearly 30 languages. All of these traits differentiate Saba from Jive, and because of its scale, Saba can be about half the cost of Jive.

On the other hand, Saba’s talent management competitors such as Successfactors, Taleo, and Cornerstone OnDemand have lightweight social offerings, which have simple groups, wikis, and activity functionality. None of the other talent management vendors, with the exception SuccessFactors is even considered by leading analysts as social software players (SuccessFactors is only arguably included due to its Cubetree and Jambok acquisitions). For its part, Saba is a notable player in the following four markets: social software, web conferencing, enterprise learning, and talent management.

Competitive Landscape Remains Tough

Still, the market for Saba’s products and services is intensely competitive, dynamic, and subject to rapid change. The intensity of competition and the pace of change are expected to increase in the future. Logically, competitors vary in size and in the scope and breadth of the products and services they offer. Saba encounters competition with respect to different aspects of its solutions from a variety of sources including:

  • Companies that offer solutions that provide one or more applications within the people management market, such as leaning management, performance management, talent management, compensation, and recruiting, including SumTotal, Taleo, Kenexa, Cornerstone OnDemand, Peoplefluent, and Success Factors, to name only a few.

  • Companies that offer collaboration solutions, such as Microsoft, Adobe, Cisco, GoToMeeting, and Citrix.

  • Enterprise software vendors that offer human resources (HR) information systems and employee relationship management systems with training and performance modules, such as SAP, Lawson (now Infor), Workday, and Oracle.

  • Potential customers’ internal development efforts.

  • Companies that operate internet-based marketplaces for the sale of online learning, e.g., Training JumpStart.

Look for additional competition from other established and emerging companies as the market for people management solutions continues to evolve. Increased competition is likely to result in price reductions, reduced gross margins, and loss of market share, any one of which could seriously harm Saba’s business.

In spite of its competitive advantages, only time will tell whether Saba will be able to maintain its competitive position against current and potential competitors, especially those with significantly greater financial, technical, service, support, marketing, and other resources. Saba is not currently offering a native recruitment offering, which limits its ability to penetrate some potential accounts that way.

Dear readers, your comments, thoughts, suggestions, or individual experiences with Saba and other learning management, talent management, and social tools are more than welcome. What do you think about the vendor’s people management approach and how it compares to other competitive solutions?
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