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An Overview of Netsourcing

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Netsourcing is the practice of renting access to centrally managed business applications — everything from credit card validation to human resources. Learn the 11 key benefits of netsourcing, as well as types of netsourcing suppliers and business applications available today.
This is an excerpt from "Netsourcing: Renting Business Applications and Services Over a Network."
This chapter is from the book

Netsourcing is the practice of renting or "paying as you use" access to centrally managed business applications, made available to multiple users from a shared facility over the Internet or other networks via browser-enabled devices. Netsourcing allows customers to receive business applications as a service. Rather than purchase software directly from an independent software vendor (ISV), customers may use netsourcing to access ISV applications such as personal productivity tools from Microsoft Office, e-mail/collaboration tools such as Microsoft Exchange, Lotus Notes, Netscape Messenger, and sophisticated enterprise resource planning packages from Baan, Great Plains Software, Oracle, PeopleSoft, and SAP. Customers typically pay for the service with an installation fee and a monthly subscription fee based on number of users, number of transactions, or percentage of the value of the transactions.

The concept of delivering ISV business applications as a service—or apps on tap—was initially called application service provision (ASP). But that term has proved too narrow. Customers are also using netsourcing to hand over entire business processes to service providers, such as human resource management or accounting. In this scenario, access to ISV software to support these business processes is just one component of the total packaged service. In addition, customers are also using netsourcing to remotely host and manage customer-grown applications, reducing the expense and need for internal information technology (IT) resources. More broadly, then, netsourcing can be viewed as an alternative delivery channel for business applications, services, and infrastructure provision.

Early adopters are already netsourcing to validate credit cards, to send legal documents, to apply sales tax, to transfer funds, and to exchange currencies—just to name a few applications. Customers will have entire business processes netsourced, including front-end customer orders through to back-end processes such as payables, inventory, and commission compensation. Intercompany exchanges are also ideally suited for the netsourcing model, including supplier and customer matching, bidding, negotiations, and delivery.

Because of the variety of netsourcing options, one of the first tasks for potential customers is to better understand the products and services offered in this new market space. In this chapter we first categorize the types of netsourcing suppliers and the types of netsourced business applications. We outline 11 general benefits of netsourcing, called value propositions to customers. We also identify some unique value propositions of different service provider business models. But much of this information is based on supplier marketing—business managers considering netsourcing also want to know: Who is currently buying these services? Are early adopters satisfied with netsourcing? Is netsourcing just a fad or will the market grow substantially so that it cannot be ignored? As covered in this chapter, the answers to these questions all suggest that large and small organizations in both public and private sectors will adopt netsourcing within the next five years because the value proposition is so compelling. However, there are significant netsourcing risks to be mitigated. As for any other emerging business practices, business managers will have to learn the principles of sound netsourcing identified in this book.

Netsourcing by Any Other Name . . .

Potential customers are often perplexed by the proliferation of acronyms in the netsourcing space, including ASP, BSP, VSP, CSP, FSP, MSP, and SSP. Exasperated journalists have often given up on the nomenclature and more generally refer to the space as xSP. We have selected the term netsourcing as the overarching name, because the common element of any xSP is the delivery of a product or service over a network. Although there are no standard definitions for these xSP acronyms, we have placed them within a service stack based on the product or service, as shown in Figure 1.1.

Figure 1.1FIGURE 1.1 Mapping Netsourcing Options by Acronym

Managed Service Providers

Managed service providers (MSPs) help customers manage their infrastructure, primarily by monitoring devices and network traffic for their clients. Larry Greenemeier, an Internet columnist, classifies an MSP as any company that provides monitoring services for network access, infrastructure, applications, storage, and security.1 Typically, customers house their servers and workstations at their own locations, but the entire network may be monitored and managed from the MSP's remote network operation center. For example, Marconi Medical Systems in Cleveland, Ohio, uses the MSP Intellinet2 to remotely monitor Marconi's wide area network (WAN), local area networks (LANs), and remote sites. Marconi's network includes 71 routers, 200 servers, and 1800 mobile users. Marconi pays Intellinet $3500 a month for the service.3 Other MSP services could include high-speed Internet access, data and file backup, storage, and recovery services. One way to think about the MSP subspace—MSPs offer technical product and services rather than business applications. Of the 554 ASPs listed on http://www.searchasp.com, only 24 are categorized as MSPs. But the MSP Association announced that its membership had grown to 100 members by March 2001.4 The META group estimates that the MSP market will research $10 billion by 2004.

Storage Service Providers

Storage service providers (SSPs) allow customers to purchase terabytes of storage on a demand basis and manage that storage on behalf of the customers. One of our research participants explained the benefits of using an SSP: "For example, we were talking about upgrades. In a managed storage environment you can burst up some old data and then bring it back down. Liquid storage. It's not just the hard disk space but the storage services around that. In the ERP environment, there is nowhere to go but up as far as amount of data. We maintain two months of data in our service level agreement; if you have historical data you want to store, there is a data warehouse on-demand product to extract historical data." Thus SSPs and MSPs provide technical services primarily.

Application Service Providers

Compared to the previous offerings, the primary product of an application service provider (ASP) is business applications, managed remotely by the ASP. Typically, ASPs do not even own their own data centers, but instead, lease servers from a third party such as Exodus. The ASP, however, serves as the central and primary interface between the customer and the application. ASPs may offer access to their own proprietary software and/or access to an ISV's software. ASPs may service primarily one application type (such as e-mail), or offer a full application portfolio, including enterprise resource planning, customer relationship management, and supply chain management software. In the embryonic stage of ASP, the one-to-many business model of vendors essentially prohibited any software customization. In the final chapter we explain how the ASP industry is moving toward customization to attract larger customers.

One example of an ASP is EasyLink Services (formerly called Mail.com). They offer e-mail and groupware services, including Microsoft Exchange, Novell GroupWise, and message delivery services such as EDI, telex, desktop fax, and broadcast. Their initial business model was to charge $5 per mailbox per month. The initial value proposition to the customer was cost savings because the average cost to license and support e-mail in-house was $100 per employee per month. Their business model has evolved over time. End customers now access e-mail free of charge, with EasyLink generating revenues from advertisements and direct promotions. In the corporate space, EasyLink provides full-service messaging solutions, groupware, firewall protection, virus protection, and content filtering capabilities for a monthly fee. They have been one of the first ASPs to attract large customers, including Chevron, Ford, General Electric, Mazda, Metropolitan Life, Siemens, Sunoco, and the U.S. Army. However, like many ASPs, EasyLink is still operating at losses and suffering a severe decline in stock price. When EasyLink was still Mail.com, the 52-week high for the stock price was $21 per share on March 28, 2000. The 52-week low was 41 cents per share on December 21, 2000, as reported on March 23, 2001.5 Now trading on the NASDAQ under EASY, the 52-week low was 38 cents on June 21, 2001.

Full-Service Providers

Full-service providers (FSPs) manage infrastructure, applications, and services such as integration, consulting, implementation, and customization. Many FSPs are trying to differentiate themselves from merely hosting applications for customers by stressing their customer-care capabilities. In many cases, FSPs offer customer services via partnerships with consulting firms. Under this definition, Corio is an example of an FSP that hosts many ISV applications, such as PeopleSoft, SAP, and Siebel. Corio has a number of implementation partners, such as Cap Gemini/Ernst & Young, Cambridge Technology Partners, and eForce, to help customers implement solutions (see Chapter 5 for a case study of Corio).

Another example of a full-service provider is Host Analytics (see Chapter 5 for a detailed case study). This FSP does forecasting, budgeting, reporting, and analysis for strategic performance measurement, management, and planning. This includes customized reports, ad hoc reporting, and ongoing management and strategy support. This company's value proposition is to deliver business intelligence to smaller businesses comparable to larger corporations without investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in business intelligence technology. One FSP customer is Deloro Stellite, a St. Louis–based manufacturer of alloys and metal-related equipment. Host Analytics consolidates data from Deloro Stellite's manufacturing sites around the world, and creates and delivers the customized reports over a browser. The cost of hosting is $2000 per month.6

Business Service Providers

Business service providers (BSPs) deliver entire business processes as a service by managing the infrastructure, applications, data, and processes associated with an entire business process. According to a research report on 304 multinational companies sponsored by PriceWaterhouseCoopers, the most commonly outsourced business functions were:

  • Payroll (37%)
  • Benefits management (33%)
  • Real estate management (32%)
  • Tax compliance (26%)
  • Claims administration (24%)
  • Applications process (21%)
  • Human resources (19%)
  • Internal auditing (19%)
  • Sourcing/procurement (15%)
  • Finance/accounting (12%)

But participants in the PriceWaterhouseCoopers study also identified several barriers to success, including:

  • Organizational resistance (56%)
  • Unclear performance measures (56%)
  • Fear of the loss of control of the process (48%)
  • Lack of prior outsourcing experience (43%)
  • Lack of planning (42%)

Despite these obstacles, Input, Inc. estimated that the BSP market would assume one-fourth of the $2 trillion global outsourcing market by 2003.

Exult is an example of a BSP. Exult provides human resource management services, targeted at the entire human resources department for global 500 corporations. Exult delivers services via their Internet-enabled product, called eHR. Exult's eHR product, together with their comprehensive consulting services, enables the BSP to develop, refine, and implement HR best practices and realize lower HR costs for their clients. One of Exult's largest customers is BP Amoco, which signed a $600 million, five-year contract in December 1999. BP outsourced the administrative and IT burden, reserving for itself only "the things that require judgment and policy." The risks of such a big IT project—to standardize globally on and make accessible real-time human resource systems—were obvious. But BP's risk analysis concluded that project difficulties would not harm business directly and that the potential $2 billion reduction in operational costs associated with the venture warranted the risk. Other Exult customers include Unisys and Tenneco. Exult is one of the few players in this space that have enjoyed rising stock prices. Trading on the NASDAQ under EXLT, the 52-week high was $19.85 on June 27, 2001, while the 52-week low was $7 on July 5, 2000. But, by 2001, Exult was still not generating a profit (net loss of $94 million in 2000).


A related evolution, enabled by developments in Web-based technologies and infrastructure, may well be what has been called exSourcing, here meaning "engaging a service provider to deliver and service business processes that connect external constituents with internal data and processes." As one example, firms needing back-end fulfillment to support their Web site could well go to such vendors like Ryder and FedEx, who will join hosted logistics applications with the logistics infrastructure and warehouses needed to fulfill orders, thus offering full services over the Net.

Another example of exSourcing is the Outsourcing Exchange provided by the Outsourcing Center. The Outsourcing Exchange is an Internet community where buyers and suppliers of both large and small companies can locate each other, post and respond to bids, and negotiate and award the buyer's work to the chosen supplier (see http://www.outsourcing-exchange-center.com). The Outsourcing Exchange is financed through annual registration fees from suppliers as well as success fees paid by winning suppliers based on the total contract value of a negotiated deal. Some sizable IT outsourcing deals have been made through the exchange, such as a $25 million CRM data warehouse project by a Canadian Bank. EDS won a $150 million deal in only 75 days from RFP to contract. Both customer and suppliers agree that the exchange shortens the purchasing life cycle and creates a level playing field. However, some suppliers are challenged to change their rules for sales compensation, which are usually based on region. In cyberspace, which region should get credit for the sale?

The term vertical service provider (VSP) has also been introduced in the media to describe ASPs targeting certain industries. The idea of VSP is to evolve the one-to-many business model toward a specific industry so that more requirements are met within the scope of parameter-driven software. The trend is also customer driven because customers want suppliers to provide customer references from their industry. A potential customer from an oil company may not be impressed by an ASP that has only dot.com customers—he or she wants to see industry-specific expertise.

Portera is an example of a VSP. Gary Steele, chief executive officer (CEO) of Portera, is vertically targeting the professional services market. Portera offers project collaboration, document sharing, Web meetings, as well as resource management and financial control to professional service firms such as consulting firms, advertising firms, or legal firms. Another VSP, Kliger-Weiss Infosystems (KWI), focuses on small to midsized retailers by hosting and providing access to data on cash registers, sales, and inventory. The CEO's family actually operates several Benetton stores, which provide a live laboratory for the KWI's systems and services.7

Commerce Service Providers

Whereas VSPs focus on a particular industry, commerce service providers (CSPs) focus on a particular product. CSPs offer to manage online commerce operations from top to bottom. On some estimates the market will be $2.5 billion by 2003. Outsourcing retail operations could be attractive to midsized content sites looking to build a Web storefront and wanting to avoid the exposure from developing their own. The latter could, according to some estimates, cost between $2 million and $40 million plus another $2 million to $50 million in recurring costs. Between three and six technology partners would also be needed to build most sites. Enter the CSPs. The ideal range for these are sites that handle 50 to 250,000 transactions a year. Amazon would be too big and idiosyncratic, while AOL, for example, gets enough traffic to support expensive advertising sponsorships and affiliate programs. Within the midrange size, companies such as Escalate, Iconomy, CrossCommerce, and Vitessa are becoming store managers for businesses that are not solely e-tailers.

A CSP will manage every piece of the online store. This includes handling credit card transactions, order management, customer service through e-mail and call centers while keeping the Web site as the primary seller of goods, holding partial liability. A CSP will also help companies with merchandising and product sourcing, linking desired suppliers into the network, while further service can be e-fulfillment. CSPs will also help with customizing the commerce to the look and feel of their sites. Companies can choose which products to carry, design their own product catalog, set prices, suggest links, or develop a store with pictures and detailed descriptions.

CSPs also blend data analysis with CRM software. As one example, BellaOnline outsourced its retail operations to iSupplier and learned that 80% of sales were for goods between $20 and $25. iSupplier honed the company's catalog to fit with the pricing and product demands of its online audience.

The CSP revenue model depends on site complexity and volume. Providers tend to charge from $10,000 to $100,000 to set up the commerce operation. Further, they charge between $1000 and $100,000 a month for hosting and a 5 to 12% cut on product sales. Most CSPs launched online stores for their customers as late as 2000, and few have been forthcoming about their revenues.

Before CSPs, content companies that wanted to sell related products could build their own e-commerce engine or create a low-cost network of e-commerce affiliates selling through the same site. But some affiliates may be less than stable; there may be dilution of brand and loss of customer data. The rewards from the affiliate program may be small in terms of the percentage of overall revenue shared among members, and a company has no control over the pricing and products of other affiliates. Moreover, doing IT development work in-house often underestimates the amount of work involved.

An example of the alternative route is AutoMall.com, an auto shopping and resource site launched in August 2000 with the help of CrossCommerce. AutoMall needed to set up deals with distributors, project how much inventory to carry, and warehouse the product. Rather than build this capability in-house, Automall relied on its CSP, CrossCommerce. Automall also hoped that its CSP could move the company into selling books and accessories.

CSPs present a further twist in the e-outsourcing story. Although companies have been told to provide community, content, and commerce on the Web, the CSP model argues that if you are a content company, focus on that and outsource the commerce part. The model fits a certain size of content provider, although there were signs throughout 2001 of larger players becoming interested in this type of service. CSPs appeal to the logic of "focus on the core" inherent in outsourcing's attraction. However, an e-business using a CSP company must be prepared to surrender some control. For example, if a CSP mismanages an order, it is the Web site's brand that is damaged, not the CSP. There is also a trade-off between customization and cost; the more customization, the higher the price for the CSP service. Using a CSP does not avoid this trade-off dilemma, one that users also may experience.

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