November 30, 2012 / by Nick Epson, Techie.com
Over the past several months I’ve had the pleasure of becoming familiar with a very innovative company called Virtual Global. They have created an incredible cloud-based tool for developers to create their own hosted web service without any back-end programming, called SaaS Maker. The CEO of Virtual Global, Cary Landis, together with Techie.com editor-in-chief Dan Blacharski, co-wrote a book called Cloud Computing Made Easy, which was published a couple years back, and an update is currently underway. The book unravels the mysteries of cloud computing and confronts many of the misconceptions that people have generated about these services.
If you’re not familiar with the cloud, and the acronyms in the title of this article intimidate you, Cloud Computing Made Easy has the perfect concoction of information to make you brave enough to confront these shortened phrases, face-to-face. In the meantime, fear not – I have a quick crash course to get you by.
Up until now, businesses have had to rely on solutions that involved building and maintaining their own network infrastructure for computing. Now, there are large “hosting and deployment” platforms available like Microsoft Azure and Amazon EC2, which provide auto-scaling and runtime services for easily deploying and scaling software to large numbers of users. There’s no server rack to purchase and no IT staff to pay; most models have you pay a monthly service fee that covers all the maintenance aspects that were formerly required for internal systems – simply connect through the internet and you have all the features that a 6 figure investment (or more) would offer.
Virtual Global’s SaaS Maker is a platform-as-a-service (PaaS) offering. It’s completely cloud-based. When most people think of the cloud, they think of software-as-a-service (SaaS), which are applications that are used over the web and delivered from a cloud; or infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS), commonly delivered in services like cloud storage or cloud compute power. PaaS is a little less-known, but it is nonetheless what really is driving the cloud revolution. Think of PaaS as a type of operating system for the cloud. True end-to-end PaaS tools like SaaS Maker, unlike the simple hosting-and-deployment tools mentioned above, are full software development platforms for the cloud—which provide online tools for building, deploying and distributing software on the cloud. SaaS Maker provides you with a platform that hosts several different tools that you drag and drop into templates that provide a variety of functionality. It provides for a level of sophistication that belies its simplicity; besides simple proof-of-concept and productivity apps, it can be used to create complex and robust enterprise systems. Prior to SaaS Maker, the platform existed in other incarnations. It was focused on serving specific industries like healthcare and government, as well as specific applications geared towards collaboration for the likes of NASA. Virtual Global now offers SaaS Maker as a tool to create custom application development kits for any industry.
When you’re looking at big business or other organizations that utilize massive amounts of information to carry out daily tasks, it’s not enough to simply plug data into Excel and email it to everyone in the company. Tools for reporting and analyzing have become necessary to direct decision makers by providing an overview of workflow, financials as well as several other detailed processes that can be easily misinterpreted should some small, but crucial, piece of data be overlooked, hence leading to turmoil. This need is what has led Virtual Global to create platforms to assess information on behalf of data analytics professionals to enhance workplace productivity and ultimately, improve the bottom line.
The idea from Virtual Global was to ultimately make SaaS Maker easily accessible so that it could be used by anyone, rather than limiting the service to the industries they have previously served. The task I was assigned with was to beta test this new incarnation of their PaaS as I have a background in programming. My favorite project (though fairly simple, in retrospect) was a side scrolling shooter I built for a project in a VB class that used the old 8-bit Mario sprite, who was pitted against a deluge of Final Fantasy monsters, also from the NES era. Mario was animated such that he appeared as though he was running through an outer-space kind of environment and was controlled by a mouse. By left-clicking your mouse, he would shoot an orb that would kill the monster in its path. You would occasionally collect a power-up (a 16-bit MegaMan X health expansion) that could be shot with a right-click, which would wipe out all the monsters on screen. It has been a good while since I have delved into any form of hardcore coding. Fortunately, the system can build much better systems than my dumb game without any real coding.
SaaS Maker Quick Start:
It’s really simple to get started. Just like any other web service, you’ll visit theSaaS Maker site and set up an account. Basically, plug your information in and go. After you give SaaS Maker some basic information you can set up the configuration for your application. You’ll be given three choices as to how the app will be promoted: for individuals, where it can be sold to an open community; for business or internal business, essentially for closed communities, the latter of which would be strictly for internal development. You’ll be introduced to the term ‘Gizmos’ here which are widgets that provide functionality for applications, like chatting amongst other members logged in, spreadsheets, and more. You can also opt for features like additional storage space, encrypted network connection (which is a good idea, especially for business) and connection to a dedicated server, if you’re planning on porting applications or data from an existing network infrastructure.
Immediately after completing the set-up, you can start developing your application. After you log in with the credentials you provided you’ll be taken to the home page which welcomes you to the application.
[Here is the home page of the SaaS Maker Factory]
You can go through the motions step by step by clicking the next button, which will take you through each of the areas represented on the left side of the screen, or you can pick and choose. Each area offers different functionality where you can access different tools to customize the functionality of the application. The areas that you’ll likely be using most are User Experience, Forms, and the Report Designer, which can be found under the Other section on the left.
User Experience is a simplified GUI where pages in the application can be created and modified. You’ll be able to create custom web pages with the tools in the application, but you can opt to throw in other web design techniques like HTML should you so choose. The Forms section is where you as the developer will define templates for collecting information. Forms are essentially like spreadsheets. A wizard-like tool walks you through building a data retention tool that will be used by users of the application and by the Report Designer that will be used to compile the information.
The Features and Gizmo areas will be used heavily at first. Features allows the developer to designate permissions for access to the features and areas of the application based on user role. It’s a lot like Active Directory in a Windows Server environment, only much simpler. Gizmos allows you to place widgets in the application that give users a variety of different uses, as mentioned before. The Other section can be used to edit account information and access the Report Designer function. Report Designer uses .NET framework so you’ll have to use Internet Explorer to access this console. It uses a grid based GUI where tools with predefined consoles can be plugged in which interact with information retained in Forms as well other data, such as that from the Spreadsheet Gizmo (which imports and exports nicely with Microsoft Excel) and data that may be found in files stored in the File Cabinet Gizmo.
I made a very simple statistic tracking application on the beta version that recorded information about specific people I’ve met over the years. My mind was in the gutter (as usual) so it was actually a little more risqué, but the point of the application was to track different aesthetic features that I could compile in the reports I create based on whatever metric I chose (e.g. people with a certain eye color). It had a couple of minor bugs at first, but as I’m typing this, I’m playing around with the “near complete” version and I’m not experiencing any of the issues I had previously. The only memorable inconvenience I experienced was that I had to use Windows XP Pro with SP3 to use the Report Designer as it didn’t like IE9 on the Windows 7 Ultimate OS that I mostly use. It only took me a couple days to complete, which is far less time than a team of coding wizards would take to build the same thing from scratch.
Cloud applications are where it’s at, especially when it comes to business applications. A developer can honestly use this for just about anything, even making a game as there is a free SDK download within the Other section for those that want to integrate custom apps into the API. Of course, for those in business, this is a great value as custom built preexisting Java apps can be plugged in, so you can continue using these applications within SaaS Maker. Give it a try at the very least. As an individual, it’s just as easy to deploy. You’ll name a price after you choose to publish the application. Some tinkering in your free time could eventually lead to a fatter wallet – you never know!