Developing Interoperable SaaS

Image by Hans Peter Gauster via Unsplash

Software development teams face deep and complex needs for interoperability between an exponentially increasing number of third party products. Technical interoperability issues, combined with policy and compliance requirements, are difficult to resolve for a single application — let alone an entire customer segment. Solving these problems will require cooperation between multiple internal and external teams, and each new entrant into the marketplace adds a stakeholder in the outcome.

As my colleague Dan Shaw noted in an earlier post, the growth of SaaS has come with benefits as well as drawbacks: on the plus side, development teams are spending less time on essential application systems that are not core to the value of the application, e.g. identity management, logging, etc. These tools make it easier to take an application from prototype to v1, and can make all the difference when growing and scaling a product.

On the other hand, the proliferation of these services means that third-party SaaS increasingly dominates tech stacks, abstracting away an increasing amount of software and making decisions on behalf of products — decisions that were not intended to be delegated, and can’t be appealed. Integrations that were meant to be temporary become entrenched: handing over more responsibility can be an afterthought once a vendored service is brought in. Unless you take an active role, it can be quite easy to end up in vendor-lock due to the consequences of the decision-making overhead.

Deep integration with a third-party partner is not inherently bad, but that choice must be balanced with other concerns, such as interoperability, long-term maintainability, fair market practices, and responsibility to customers and their users. Interoperability is the opposite of vendor lock, and it’s one of the most-requested features of any software or technology.

“In addition to facilitating sophisticated supply chains and product use cases, interoperability… results in positive network externalities that are likely impossible to measure in the aggregate but undoubtedly immense in effect.”
- C. Bradford Biddle, Linux Foundation is Eating the World, JOLTS Vol. 11. Iss. 1

Thanks to the proliferation of open source software, and the economic research done on open technologies, we don’t have to work as hard to make the case for interoperability as we once did. Yet technical interoperability is lacking in many third-party API marketplaces — you can’t just drag and drop a new service in where an old one existed. That’s because providers in these markets are still evolving, changing and maturing in isolation. Interoperability requires working together to form agreements or standards.

In order to “level up” marketplaces for application system components, third-party vendors must level up their cooperation. Private-sector led collaborative technology developments have revolutionized computing, industries and economies. Standards-developing organizations (SDOs) such as the W3C, WHATWG, and TC39 use accredited processes to move specifications through review, consensus and approval. This system of collaboration does not currently extend to the SaaS APIs that connect digital products and increasingly comprise more of our digital products. While these processes are effective for SDOs whose work ultimately becomes policy, they are too cumbersome and slow for newer markets where the tech and policy changes rapidly.

Luckily there is a fairly straightforward path for developing this cooperation in the marketplace, and further, the timing is right for taking the next steps down that path. There is a history and pattern of Pre- and Early-consortia ICT collaborations being captured via multi-party contractual agreements. These arrangements serve somewhat as a proxy for market competition, helping to define what benefits are and are not being competed on. In some cases, such as the USB Promoters Group & Implementers Forum, these agreements become the basis for a highly effective industry group.

Interoperability opens up more opportunities for innovation and integrations, which make SaaS products more valuable overall. Third-party SaaS competition is not about who can better implement an API on the web, it’s who can provide a more consistent, interoperable & reliable experience for end users, and provide features that enhance their experience. Regardless of industry or customer segment:

  • Digital product companies want to not be locked in to a third-party provider, and no surprises;
  • Developers want clean code, maintainable integrations, and no surprises; and
  • End-users want safe secure experiences, and no surprises.

Cor, a new venture launching soon from Ahmad Nassri, Dan Shaw and myself, will seek to enable and empower this collaboration for SaaS providers. We’re looking to work with a broad group of stakeholders to create interoperability agreements for application system components that are essential, but not core, to our businesses. If finding or creating more interoperable solutions for these needs is something you are also struggling with, we’d love to keep in touch. And if you happen to represent a SaaS provider and are thinking about the same issues, we’d love to hear from you, too:

Working to improve Open Source & Open Standards one day at a time.