Workday CEO, Aneel Bhusri, yesterday decided to make a product announcement, on his company’s blog to announce that Workday “intends” to offer an extensible platform on which customers, partners, and ISVs can both extend their core Workday applications, but also leverage core Workday processes and technologies for external applications.

The announcement was timed alongside the company’s Altitude annual conference for their service partners. Workday’s CTO, Jon Ruggiero took to the stage articulating the success of a hackathon the company ran at the event and suggested that provided sufficient validation to go all-in on the platform play.

This feels like something of a coming of age of Workday, the company that Bhusri and his co-founder, David Duffield, founded after being burned badly in the hostile takeover of PeopleSoft by Oracle. Both these seasoned vets want this company to be different in many ways – and they seem to be proving their strategy to be a good one – since launching Workday in 2005, the company has extended its original HCM product offering to include finance, planning, and analytics.

In his blog post, Bhusri explains why he feels the time is right to make this move now:

While opening up the platform was a likely possibility in the future, we needed to stay focused on more immediate priorities for our customers and the requisite needs of our application development teams. Indeed, we had to ensure our technology core offered rock-solid reliability and scalability as well as the flexibility to continually evolve with a rapidly changing business landscape.

Bhusri further opened up to admit that everyone – from customers to pundits to employees – have been wondering when this move would happen. The fundamental reason for the timing? Customer demand, per Bhusri:

…like everything we do, we based our decision on customer input. Simply put, a growing number of customers have been asking for a more open Workday platform. They want to use Workday as a cloud backbone that supports cohesive, digital workflows across multiple business applications—reflective of how their people work and how their businesses operate in today’s hyper-connected, real-time world.

The platform is the… platform

There is no doubt that today, more than ever before, IT vendors are trying to make their products offer the extra value that platforms deliver. Salesforce has its dual Force.com and Heroku platforms, Microsoft plays a platform story at many layers of the stack and Oracle and SAP, the two biggest and best known traditional enterprise vendors, owe much of their survival in this cloudy world, to the extra value (which some would perhaps call lock-in) that a platform delivers.

Applications are bread and butter, but platforms, where discrete offerings can be tied together, customer solutions can be created, and external services can integrate into core functionality, is increasingly delivering the promise that cloud proponents have long talked about.

Diving deeper

I wanted to dive in to get an idea of where Workday’s thinking is heading on this one so I took the opportunity to quiz Dan Beck, Senior Vice President of Product Marketing and Technology Strategy, via email. Beck started off by prognosticating that he expects that by opening up a platform, Workday will see an explosion of activity for the entire broader community. Beck provided some talking points to explain the vision:

Platform Services and Use Cases

Beck clarified that Workday is not opening up its platform to support general purpose development. The intent here is to support use cases related to the core Workday applications that will benefit from the platform services their own developers use, including:

  • Application Services – Services that harness the data and functionality of our application suite (e.g. Workday HCM, Workday Financial Management, Workday Student, etc.)
  • Technology Services – High-level technology services including presentation, conversation, analytics, and more
  • Core Services – Services for application development, storage, security, integrations, etc.

The types of solutions that will be built

Beck’s hope is that this will enable customers and the broader ecosystem to build the following classes of products:

  • Application extensions, which would be deep extensions and personalization of Workday’s core applications. 
  • Composite applications – Applications that merge external data and resources within Workday’s user interface.
  • External applications – Applications, running on external cloud services, without a presence in Workday’s UI that leverage Workday’s business processes and data. 

Workday’s Approach to Openness

Per Beck:

Our approach is anchored on principles of openness and flexibility. The platform services our own developers use will be exposed via modern, standards-based APIs, enabling rapid productivity for development. Additionally, we intend for our approach to grant enormous flexibility for development by not tying developers to proprietary tooling, and we’ll also promote the use of third-party cloud services and infrastructure. For example, at the Workday Altitude Hackathon, participants used services like IBM Watson Tone Analyzer, Amazon Lex, Twilio, and the Google Cloud Vision API.

On possible competition with Force.com

Workday was quick to suggest that this platform won’t be competitive to Salesforce. This is, says the company, about Workday entering the PaaS market for their customers to extend their Workday Finance and HR data into new application experiences.

MyPOV

A natural extension for an enterprise vendor that has built sufficient scale to warrant it. The lines are a little blurry as to what Workday wants to deliver, Bhusri seems to be talking more about an integration and customization engine, and the chance to integrate Workday’s core areas (HCM, finance etc) into external applications. The services that Beck detailed in his email, however, point to a broader offering, one which delivers value outside of Workday’s day-to-day business.

It is interesting to contrast two other cloud platforms for comparison. NetSuite has built a platform that is primarily about customization of its core solution, while there are third parties building standalone applications on SuiteCloud, generally, the value proposition is one that ties those apps back to NetSuite. Salesforce, on the other hand, has built a platform that delivers immense value to third-parties, even if those third parties have no real interest in CRM-centric data. Add to that the infrastructural focus of the Heroku platform, and you have something far broader than simple business processes.

Workday will no doubt have studied both these models closely, and will have spent much time thinking about its own intentions – it’s going to be interesting to see as they deliver more of their vision.

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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