It's time to reconsider going on-prem
Oct 12, 2016 by
There is no doubt that going "on-prem" is a big decision for a SaaS company. The prevailing wisdom is to avoid going on-prem or at least wait as long as possible. However, the siren song of the enterprise buyer with untold wealth to spend on on-prem deployments can be hard to resist.
The adoption of containers and container orchestration tools makes this journey more feasible and gives SaaS companies a chance to reap that wealth without crashing onto the rocks. There can also be a significant first mover advantage in doing so.
There are hardcore camps of "serverless nomads" and "server huggers" out there but the majority of us, as usual, lie somewhere in the middle. Some software is best delivered via a browser or an API endpoint but this does not universally make sense. For example:
- Common sense: monitoring systems, and most middleware services do not make sense outside of the customer environment (which does not stop some folks from trying).
- Large data volumes: when your software needs to access pre-existing datasets that are too large to be conveniently uploaded/downloaded to the cloud.
- Latency: delivering database as-a-service only makes sense in sub-5ms range which means you need a point of presence in every major cloud region and datacenter your customers may be, which is almost the same as "going on-prem", except it's your own "prem" you'll be going to.
- Security and compliance: when your code needs to exist and operate in regulated environments that only your customers can provide.
- Economies of scale: some customers have the capacity and ability to acquire and operate compute resources at much cheaper rates than cloud providers offer.
However, the "service" part of SaaS does offer a lot of value, regardless. Keeping software up, secure and healthy is difficult (and with the ever increasing complexity of software stacks, it continues to get harder). With SaaS, the IT department no longer has to do all that work. That burden has shifted to folks that now call themselves "Devops". It is pretty clear there is demand for this arrangement to continue but it would be great if that level of service could also be delivered on the customer's infrastructure when the situations listed above apply.
There is no denying the mass adoption of "the cloud" and that the traditional role of the corporate datacenter is diminishing. However, in that transition the lines between "the cloud" and "on-premises" are getting blurred with private cloud deployments and hybrid cloud infrastructure.
There's a lot of jargon that gets thrown around so let's try to define some of the terminology. In the SaaS context, "on-premises" historically meant deploying a separate instance of your SaaS application to your customer's server room or data center, behind their firewall. More recently, this term may also include deploying to the customer's private cloud at a cloud provider like Amazon Web Services or Azure. It may even include a separate, single tenant version of the application that is still hosted and managed by the SaaS provider. So for the purpose of this post let's give these offerings their own names:
- On-premises: Customer's servers, behind Firewall
- Private cloud: Customer's private cloud environment on a cloud provider
- Public SaaS: Traditional multi-tenant SaaS.
Easy vs Hard
These different types of offerings above were listed in the order of difficulty for a SaaS provider to maintain and, generally, in the amount of money a buyer is willing to pay for them. So it probably makes sense for a SaaS provider to move from the bottom up, gradually taking on the increased level of difficulty. However, our initial customers hired us mainly to solve traditional on-premises, so we needed to think about how to provide a solution that serves all of these deployment strategies.
Not mentioned in the list above is an additional step in the typical SaaS company's lifecycle: when a Public SaaS application has to go "multi-DC" or "multi-region". This is generally done to reduce latency or make the application more highly available. Going multi-DC is a challenge in itself and bring many of the same concerns mentioned below.
There's one way to make the problem of going on-premises a lot easier for the SaaS company and that is to just throw the code over the wall and let the customer operate it. Historically, this is how the problem has traditionally been solved, usually using VMs.
While this gets the application "over the fence", it suffers from the following, in many cases fatal, problems:
- You are not providing the "it-just-works" experience that enterprise customers have grown so accustomed to when using SaaS products.
- It often requires forking your code into SaaS and on-prem branches, costing you a fortune in maintenance over the long run.
- This puts additional strain on the support team at the SaaS vendor.
- This also requires additional IT resources from the customer.
Our view is that copying the application code on-premises is not the hard part.
The hard part about delivering your application into a private infrastructure is not merely deploying it, but keeping it up, healthy and updated.
In our view "Going on-prem" successfully means operating the application (providing the "service") so that, from the customer's perspective, it just works. Given that hard problems are the ones worth solving, we tasked ourselves with enabling an on-premises offering that can still be operated by the SaaS provider similarly to their public SaaS.
We call this concept "Private SaaS".
Challenges to offering Private SaaS
With some of those definitions out of the way, let's discuss some of common problems and how we address them. I'll summarize some the major issues below. Many of these issues were raised in a great blog post by John E. Vincent, "So You Wanna Go On-Prem Do Ya".
The quotes below are concerns he raised in the post. I recommend reading it in its entirety.
Concern number one:
When you move to the on-prem world, depending on which type of model you go with - you move from being a SaaS provider into either an ops organization or a helpdesk organization or both. Either you’re spending all your time operating the environments or you’re spending all your time supporting those environments.
I would argue that this is true of any successful public SaaS application, as well. As you get larger and scale your user base, most of your engineering resources shift to just keeping the application running. As you go from a single master-slave DB to sharded, and then to multi-region, the need for ops resources increases further.
However, it is certainly true that private installations can compound these issues exponentially, especially if they are substantially different than the public SaaS architecture. In order to achieve operational scale, you need to abstract away as much "uniqueness" as possible. More on that in a bit.
Concern number two:
You have to have almost zero touch administration of your stack...You MUST be able to reach a greater operational density.
If you have zero access to the stack, you obviously can not manage the application. If your customers insist on this, you need to be very careful on the SLA you provide to them.
However, not every customer that wants on-premises is a government agency with air gapped servers. In fact, most frequently hire third party contractors and have security models in place to develop trust. Some may just want a single tenant version deployed on their AWS account versus yours. The key is to use tools that fit within their security models. This is the reason that we built and open sourced Teleport, our SSH based access layer.
Teleport was built to provide fast, secure access and also comply with enterprise security practices, including:
- Avoiding key distribution and trust on first use by using auto-expiring keys signed by a cluster certificate authority (CA)
- A single entry point through a bastion
- Enforcement of 2nd factor authentication
- Full auditing of all sessions and actions
It also integrates with existing enterprise identity providers and works with OpenSSH so that it can be easily used with existing infrastructure.
Getting access to the infrastructure is a pre-requisite to effectively offering Private SaaS. Without access, you will need to push a good deal of operational work back to the customer and your application will need to be uniquely valuable for that to work out in the long term.
Loss of Flexibility
Once you decide to go to supporting on-prem...Everyone is overworked trying to keep that snowflake up and running.
Loss of flexibility is a concern we hear about a lot. Bifurcating your product and having multiple installations in different environments will kill your operations team and slow down your development. We agree...which is why we advocate for creating what we call "bubbles of consistency" around your application.
We create this consistency by using containers and Kubernetes for container orchestration. The first step of every engagement we do is to port the application to containers and run it using Kubernetes. This way the application environment is similar for every installation.
In addition, we validate the infrastructure resources so that the SaaS vendor's requirements are met before declaring a successful install to the customer. This prevents the end customer from trying to shove everything onto minimal resources and then complaining about performance.
Taking this a step further, we advise our customers to use Kubernetes for their public SaaS environment, as well. This discipline is necessary to reduce the special snowflakes.
Creating this "clean room" environment with Kubernetes also serves to separate your application from your customer's other applications. Ideally, they don't touch it all. If your customer is messing around with your application's dependencies, there is no way to know its state when you push updates and/or patches. This greatly increases the odds of them breaking something or you breaking something when you release updates.
Some may argue this approach limits server density but this argument may be penny wise and pound foolish. We believe it's worth it to sacrifice server density in order to improve human operational efficiency. Humans are more expensive than machines.
Databases are where we see the biggest obstacle to scaling on-premises installations.
True. There are a few complications here:
- Persistent data with containers is hard. There are a few people that are working on it, like ClusterHQ and CoreOS but those are still in the early stages and not widely adopted, which leads to the next point.
- Each customer will likely have their own preferred methodology and tools to deal with persisting data. Some may use NAS devices to do snapshots and backups, some may be using S3, some may be open to using a distributed data store but don't have the expertise to operate it.
You can either force your methodology on the end customer or you can try be flexible and accommodate all these different use cases.
You will also see how frequently the end customer will want to use that data appliance they just paid a lot of money for - so until there is more consensus, this is an area where we believe flexibility is important.
Our secret weapon to tackle this problem for our customers is Kubernetes (k8s) It provides the necessary abstraction layers for:
- Database services.
- Storage volumes.
Additionally, we have found that Kubernetes abstractions largely work and are easy to reason about.
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Forking your Codebase
Another commonly stated concern:
Our AWS-hosted application is way too "cloudy", we would need to have different code paths for how we deal with provisioning, storage and configuration.
This concern is listed at the bottom, but not because it's a less important one. I kept it for later because now, with the proper context set above, it's easier to see how we tackle this problem.
By standardizing your development and your operations on Kubernetes building blocks and by adopting a private cloud friendly Kubernetes distribution you're reducing the need for code forking to a minimum and making your ops procedures uniform and scalable across dozens, if not thousands, of deployment regions.
In the end, successfully going "on-prem" comes down to trying to create as much conformity as possible across deployments (including your Public SaaS). It is a significant endeavor and one that should not be taken lightly but the increase to you top line revenue can be well worth it.
That is why we are so excited to be a part of the "Private SaaS" movement. We
believe that the SaaS business model is not completely dependent on the SaaS
vendor having to rent infrastructure (and sharing their revenue with IaaS
providers). The adoption of containers and cluster-sized operating systems like
Kubernetes are powerful enablers to help expand SaaS offerings beyond
This was a long post but there is so much more to discuss. Feel free to reach out to discuss further [email protected].
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