Truth Denied? The Software Appliance Revisited.

As I mentioned in my last blog entry I’ve had a minor disagreement with Blake Dournaee of Intel over…

…whether spin was used in the naming of the product category in which the folks at Intel have placed their SOA security/acceleration technology. You can read about our failure to find common ground as well as our apparent inability to handle each other’s blog comments correctly here. But whilst I was writing that blog I thought I’d dwell a little and idly speculate at what might lie behind Intel’s naming strategy. And before I do so I have to declare an interest. I am a big fan of the marketing techniques that Intel has used here. It’s a smart guerrilla marketing strategy and it’s been well executed.

So what lies behind the phrase Software Appliance?

<tongue-in-cheek>You see whilst being very well known for making software appliances that promise to help the processing, securing, transformation and management of XML in a SOA environment, Intel is also a manufacturer of computer chips. In fact, you might not know it but there is a high degree of probability that the laptop or desktop system that you might be using to read this blog is powered by an Intel chip. In fact the servers that power the businesses that most of you work for are also likely to be powered by Intel chips. On further investigation in fact it appears that it is not the software appliance part of their business that dominates, it is in fact the computer chip part. By a significant margin.</tongue-in-cheek>

The good news for Intel’s chip business is that as noted in my previous blog entry the trend of implementing service oriented architectures creates mountains of verbose XML that needs to be processed. And this text-heavy processing takes a lot of horsepower.  And as a chip manufacturer that can only be good for Intel, right?

Well yes AND no.

Yes, because immature or evolving SOA architectures tend to process the XML close to where the application needs it, which means on or near the application server environment where the organisation’s other systems are running. Now the processing of large volumes of XML in this way tends to bring down the overall performance of the SOA and the applications it supports. And to solve that problem, the less highly evolved architect simply suggests that they need more horsepower for the application server, more Intel horsepower in all likelihood. Which means more Intel chips. So it’s all good for Intel then.

No, because more highly-evolved architects now believe that the highly-focussed and specialist task of processing, securing and managing XML is best handled centrally, outside of the application server environment by specialist hardware devices, with specialist routines developed in silicon that lack the tardy baggage of the operating system stack and other distractions. These specialist devices are commonly known as appliances, and in the case of those that solve the problem of processing large volumes of  XML – they are known as XML, or SOA Appliances. The downside for the chip business of Intel is that this trend of using specialist appliances means less processing drain on the application server environment which in turn means less horsepower required. Which means less Intel chips.

So if you were Intel, what would you do?

How do you protect the goose that lays the golden egg? The answer is come up with a way of solving the problem of dealing with large volumes of XML and other data and governance issues in a way that still needs an Intel chip in the box. If you can convince the market that this is a valid alternative to the specialist appliances then everyone at Intel sleeps well in their beds. It’s win-win. If architects move the XML overhead from their application server environment to their Intel-powered software appliance, then Intel sells more chips. If the architects leave the XML overhead within their application server environment then Intel sells more chips. It’s a thing of beauty.

But what would you do about the perception that has built up that for performance and security reasons a specialist rack-mounted appliance with ultra-fast, designed-for-one-purpose-only hardware is the way to tackle this problem? The answer is obfuscation, obfuscation, obfuscation. Blur the boundaries of functionality and platform. And start with the product category. Instead of being a piece of software or a software package, be a software appliance. When prospects are looking at ways of managing their SOA XML volumes or implementing governance procedures and they believe they are looking for an appliance, well now there is one more product on the shelf to consider – a software appliance.

But how do you solve the awareness issue – the fact that prospects don’t know about your software-based appliance? Well you select some highly-credible and talented people and point them at social networks and web content in general and you tell them to go comment on blogs, go spread the good word, be controversial, get noticed. But you hopefully remind them to stop short of slander and character defamation. You then pick the market leader and create a stunt to get noticed and to get prospects talking about you and the market leader in the same breath. Perhaps you offer a trade-in programme for the market leader’s technology (offer since expired).

I say again, as my colleague Steve Craggs found out when he looked at this category, Intel has a pretty decent offering. Intel’s marketing approach is a text book, case study of how to re-position your own offering, de-position the offerings of the competition and force your competition to defend themselves on your terms to their prospects and customers. But please Blake Dournaee don’t get on that high horse when someone suggests that you’ve added some spin to your product category. I mean, only three weeks ago Intel’s Andy Good appears to be off-message here where he describes Intel SOA Expressway as, well I’ll not put words in Andy’s mouth…

Intel’s SOA Expressway is a software package that allows for the many different options in controlling the flow and security of web services throughout an organization or even those published to external consumers through a DMZ…

Andy Good – Intel.

OK, I added the emboldened highlight but I think this shows that any organisation is only as strong as the consistency of message it can bring to bear on the market. It shows the great power of the language we use to describe the products and services we sell. You add a word here or there to the way you describe your products and you’ve changed the entire focus of your organisation and also the perception of prospects that may never have considered using you before. You take those words away and, well….

Personally I think an appliance is something that you should be able to touch or hold. It’s a physical thing. Does Microsoft Word transform my laptop into a word processing appliance once it’s been installed. Perhaps it does. I can understand that it’s beneficial to allow a software package to bask in the implied characteristics and benefits of a physical appliance. I also know that language changes and that as others claim the appliance moniker for their own software offerings, so the commonly held definition will blur and evolve and perhaps one day the commonly held definition for an appliance will change. But I personally don’t believe we are quite there yet.

All of this just goes to show that one man’s Software Appliance is another man’s Software Package and one man’s dog is another man’s barking appliance.

Danny Goodall

Posted in All Blog Categories, Competition and Competitive Intelligence, marketing, Marketing Strategy, Marketing Tactics, positioning, product category, product name, SOA and Integration and tagged , , , , , , , .


  1. Allow me to disagrre.
    At a customer, we have used Datapower for years to process XML (BTW, it is XML in and XML out, so it does nothing to reduce the XML processing burden in the endpoint).
    Anyway,as we move to the cloud (not very original) we need exactly what you call spin. A SW appliance that does the same thing than Datapower. Not a SW package to install, an appliance in VMware format, with JeOS tuned by the producer. L7Tech does this; Intel does this. IBM does not want to do this (for obvious reasons, and until they change their decision :-).
    Remember that the cheap latest greatest Xeon is not much worse on XML than the XML-specialized 5-years old chip in your favorite expensive HW appliance.

  2. I hope you could tell that I was being more than a little flippant here Jacques. Perhaps I should have moved my tag a little lower in the piece. I’ve certainly not got any preference in terms of software or dedicated hardware to handle the job of dealing with XML in a SOA environment – I personally don’t know enough about the relative strengths or weaknesses. I could certainly believe that the solution that you sold your customer isn’t up to the task and that Intel in the cloud could be better. I’m certainly not qualified to comment on that.

    But I need to correct what I feel might be a misunderstanding on your part. The entire thrust of my post is whether spin is involved in the MARKETING PROCESS of creating product categories such as “software appliance”. Let me be clear here Jacques, I’m not suggesting that Intel’s software package is just spin. Far from it, from what I understand, Intel’s product is very good and it’s form factor and software-nature make it an excellent solution for many of the problems you describe. And I also understand that custom configured standard hardware can also be a perfect environment – especially if that hardware is also already available and idle.

    My question is whether the use of the term ‘software appliance’ is oxymoronic. To my ear it translates as ‘software hardware’. So to me the adoption of the term is stretching the commonly held definition of appliance. I’m absolutely OK with that, but let’s not pretend that in using the term, the ORIGINATOR was not trying to confer some of the benefits of a dedicated appliance on to what is, as the chap from Intel described above, just a “software package”.

    As I said in the entry above, language evolves. Language that is used to promote technology evolves quickly. The term appliance will one day come to COMMONLY mean both specialist dedicated hardware as well as software installed on tuned standard hardware (or virtually as you describe above). As evidence of this I was at a vendor briefing the other day and they also used the term ‘software appliance’ – this time to describe a set of applications and integration solutions that work together in a coordinated way. Now that architecture used to be known as a software stack, or an application stack, or a set of application modules. But now that vendor believes that by using the term appliance it confers some other benefit in the form of hardware resilience, security or dedicated performance. None of which their software possesses. And that’s spin – and more power to them.

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