UNIT4 and Multitenancy

Among the interesting developments at the recent Grape Escape event in Boston was the announcement of UNIT4’s multitenant model for its Agresso ERP offering, which generated a great deal of discussion, if not some controversy.

So, UNIT4 boasts five key deployment capabilities for Agresso ERP:

  1. A virtual machine (VM) environment option

  2. A private cloud environment option

  3. An Intel-Agent data privacy protection

  4. A redundant Web backbone and data storage component

  5. A shared service option for industry partners and associates

VITA Cloud Angel, UNIT4’s Agresso offering for ERP in the cloud, has a multitenant architecture, with each customer sharing the same application (multitenant application), but having its dataset in a separate database (singletenant database), thereby conferring the following benefits to its customers:

  •  Improved Data Security—minimizing risk for data exposure (inadvertent or otherwise), particularly for a singletenant database.

  • Improved Portability—facilitating data migration across repositories by maintaining an independent schema and avoiding data “lock in.”

Some of the chatter undoubtedly concerned whether UNIT4’s Agresso ERP offering can truly be regarded as a software as a service (SaaS), and whether UNIT4 customers will be satisfied with the security, scalability, and service provided by the vendor.

Before we can begin to address this issue, let’s take a step back and look at the definition of a multitenant model (resource pooling) according to the National Institute of Standards and Technology of the US Department of Commerce:
Resource pooling. The provider’s computing resources are pooled to serve multiple consumers using a multi-tenant model, with different physical and virtual resources dynamically assigned and reassigned according to consumer demand. There is a sense of location independence in that the customer generally has no control or knowledge over the exact location of the provided resources but may be able to specify location at a higher level of abstraction (e.g., country, state, or datacenter). Examples of resources include storage, processing, memory, and network bandwidth.

This definition implies that there are no restraints on the resources to be shared and, alternatively, there is no need to share all the available resources. So, there appear to be different degrees or forms of multitenancy, as described by Phil Wainewright in one of his posts.

UNIT4’s cloud offering falls under the SaaS type of product delivery. This means that the application will be used in the cloud and, of course, the transactional data generated with this application will be stored in the cloud.

Pure SaaS offerings offer both the application and data storage within a multitenant architecture, which means that customers use both a shared application and database, but each customer’s data has been configured separately from that of other customers—i.e., it’s as if each customer is using an independent platform.

As with any other type of computing technology, a multitenant architecture is associated with both advantages and disadvantages. The main advantages of using a multitenant architecture are as follows:

  • Easier implementation and maintenance. While several customers share a single computing resource, the provider needs to maintain and/or configure this single resource so that it is up-to-date for all customers.

  • Cost savings. Direct cost savings in nearly every aspect of the cloud implementation: deployment, maintenance, updates, etc.

The main disadvantages of using multitenant resources are as follows:

  • Security. The use of a shared resource increases the potential risk of intended or unintended exposure of the customer’s data.

  • Configuration/Customization. Options may be limited for specific configurations and customizations, depending on the type of cloud service provided.

With cloud computing technologies, user adoption and requirements have a strong influence over the form and type of technology developed and offered. A fierce competition is forcing companies to be not just creative, but also diligent in maintaining viable offerings that can balance price, level of service, and functional robustness. As a result, many customers are not too concerned about the infrastructure itself, but rather about the service and other benefits that ensue.

A Final Word

So UNIT4’s offering, even if it’s not considered a pure SaaS ERP system, represents an interesting ERP cloud option. Having a hybrid technology that combines a multitenant application architecture and an independent database for each user may confer benefits of improved (if done properly) security and data portability.

On the other hand, an offering of a separate database for each customer may lead to increased vendor efforts and resources from scaling and maintaining the infrastructure in incorporating new customers, which may translate to increased costs for the customer.

What do you think? Let me know your thoughts below—I’ll respond as soon as I can.
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