Half a decade ago, cloud computing burst onto the commercial scene as a viable option for the delivery of software, IT infrastructure, and even platform services. Cloud marketers promised a number of adoption benefits that were not limited to, but focused first on cost reduction achieved through new efficiencies gained in the sharing of multi-tenant environments and transferred to the customer via subscription pricing that enabled a shift from CAPEX to OPEX models – an approach designed to make enterprise capabilities available to the smaller business. In the next iteration of cloud benefits, providers focused on the agility that adopters would experience and faster time to market for a wider array of new products and services won through quick access to preconfigured IT infrastructure resources – services like SaaS-delivered applications available for instantaneous download. In theory, cloud also offered greater client control over the procurement process, through the dial up (and down) of vms on demand, and the ability to shop around various providers more easily than was the case with traditional, on-premise environments. While cloud promise has not changed over the last five years, real life examples of cloud potential realized are perhaps less constant. The Silanis cloud journey outlined below provides an interesting exception to this.
In the signature business for over 20 years, Silanis began life in 1992 with software technology targeted at organizations looking to automate or fix internal processes. Ontario Hydro, which required a process for document sign off was an early customer, as was the US Department of Defense: according to Michael Laurie, co-founder and VP, product strategy, Silanis, “government in general runs entirely on documents, and approval processes based on what gets signed is a huge part of daily operations.” The company’s first significant engagement was with the US Joint Chiefs of Staff for a solution that would allow any member to sign off on any key document, memo or letter.
Silanis started with solutions to manage internal processes as these were about the creation of secure document audit trails, and did not touch legal issues that might arise in customer facing e-signature services. However, in the late 1990s, financial services firms began to approach the company for help with automating processes like insurance, finance and lending. By 2000, Laurie explained, there was also a US led movement at the federal level towards the passing of laws that would allow for the commercial use of electronic signatures. On a global basis, many countries adopted a model law developed by the UN – Canada passed a law soon after the US. “This allowed us to really break into commercial markets, particularly financial services, insurance and banking, but also healthcare, life sciences, procurement and some manufacturing,” he added.
In 2001, Silanis built its first server-based product to enable online signing: “Silanis was the first company to come up with a solution that would allow people to sign on the web. Our solution would allow you to have your documents served up in a browser without needing Adobe Acrobat, for example, to look at it and sign it.” The company marketed this as an on-premise solution that ported to the web. In 2009, it began development of this solution as a cloud service, which was introduced a year later. According to Laurie, today, several of the top banks use their service at enterprise scale to manage signing processes around mortgages, account openings, wealth management; Silanis also counts as clients 8 of the top 15 US insurance companies, who use the service to allow their customers to sign applications, claims, etc.. If these kinds of organizations can be characterized as conservative in their use of process, as Laurie pointed out, banks have been pioneers in the use of technologies such as online banking for money transfer and similar transactions, and increasingly rely on technology for more complex scenarios such as those described above, which require signature authentication – “this is where we come in,” he noted.
As Laurie described it, the Silanis approach is not single dimension e-signature capability; rather it addresses multiple ways to sign, including the capture of handwritten signatures, signature pads that are tethered to a computer, “use your own device,” where a phone is used to capture a signature for upload to a web service where it can be securely embedded into documents, as well as “click to sign,” a fast, easy and popular technique where click through agreement to a statement constitutes signature. In addition to these methods for verifying the intent of the signer, Silanis also provides technology to authenticate user identities, and its software solutions encompass the assembly, delivery and presentation of multiple documents to users/customers for signature in a way that ensures compliance with regulatory requirements, management and storage of document process in order to produce electronic evidence of compliance, and to modify documents, identities or security mid-process – the ability to control work flows that occur with different signers or users that might reside outside the organization’s firewall. According to Laurie, “it’s really a process for carrying out a transaction with the customer: just having a way to put a signature into the document is perhaps only five percent of the actual solution.”
Since business processes are unique to customer environments, Silanis built its on premise solution to be customizable; however, this platform has also served as the basis for the company’s out-of-the box cloud offering, eSignLive, which is targeted at the smaller enterprise, mid-range customer. Over the past two years, Silanis has seen significant growth in the cloud, which Laurie attributes to company focus on messaging that stresses its single solution with two different deployment models.
Silanis’ decision to adopt cloud in 2009 was motivated by the view that cloud was really beginning to take shape, underpinned by the company’s stance as a forward thinker on technology innovation. “Amazon was really hitting its stride,” Laurie noted, “and you had other vendors like Google, Oracle, IBM that were investing time and effort in that space and even Microsoft had made it known that they were going to be coming out with Azure.” Cloud-based services such as Salesforce.com were also building momentum – as well as ecosystems – where e-signature might play, an additional consideration in Silanis’ decision. “At that point, we could already see where the market was going, and the ability to connect to other services online was a part of it: whether the market was going to adopt cloud 100 percent, or 50 percent, it was going to be hugely successful,” Laurie added. Another business driver was the potential for Silanis to offer cloud services with built in capabilities that would allow customers to very quickly get a service up and running, deploying in a matter of days or weeks, depending on the project, as opposed to months for the customized implementations preferred by large enterprise customers. For Silanis, cloud offered entre to a new customer segment – businesses that may not have significant IT infrastructure in place to support an e-signature solution, or those who could better manage a subscription model than investment in infrastructure.
At that time, “Amazon offered the only sure, viable solution,” according to Laurie, “and though tools were basic, it was a true, solid cloud” that was very easy to use – from a business perspective at least: “Our contract was our credit card,” he added. Set up of cloud instances of the Silanis service on AWS was more challenging, however, and implementation on Amazon a skill that developed over two to three years’ time and was mastered through delivery of projects for a couple of large banking customers. Laurie attributes some of this hurdle to the fact that the company had plenty of in-house IT expertise – just not in data centre configuration.
Fast forward to 2014, and Silanis has found that the Amazon service is more sophisticated, both in terms of ease of use for customers configuring their own services and in Amazon management of its own environment. Nevertheless, when looking to develop a cloud service in Canada, Silanis opted for IBM’s SmartCloud infrastructure services, delivered out of the new SoftLayer data centre cloud, which launched in IBM’s Markham facility this past August. This decision was prompted by Silanis growth in the Canadian marketplace, which the company felt had to be serviced out of a Canadian-based public cloud. For Silanis, “the bulk of our business continues to be in the US, but the ability to service international customers is crucial, and for these the biggest issue is data residency as it relates to different country’s legislative treatment of privacy rights” Laurie explained. If data residency requirements may be more perceptual than real, he also noted: “our customers have very much made this an issue. When it comes to electronic handling of data – electronically signing a document, privacy or data residency – the customer always wants to have certainty around legality and enforceability. You can’t provide complete certainty, but having our servers in Canada helps to alleviate doubt around the ‘What if?’ scenarios.”
The Silanis decision was also encouraged by a decade long business partnership with IBM Global Services on e-signature application delivery, which the company is looking to extend through cooperation on cloud services and other initiatives.
To support cloud portability, IBM has created a set of tools that ease migration from an Amazon to a SoftLayer installation, which the Silanis cloud operations team made extensive use of to move profiling information from Amazon instances to IBM. Automation of this process was enormously helpful in setting up the Silanis service in Canada, Laurie explained, as it made deployment easier and speedier, while ensuring that the service delivery capabilities are identical across borders. And while Silanis was also able to save time on the Canadian deployment since the company was transferring an architecture for data bases, application and email servers that had already been developed on Amazon, Laurie did note differences between the Amazon and IBM platform that had to be learned by administrators.
So far, Silanis does not yet have adequate experience with the IBM service to make a clear statement on performance metrics or cost, but its expectation is that the IBM service will be cost competitive with AWS. However, Laurie did point to additional potential benefits of the IBM cloud, such as the connection of IBM’s data centre network via a private LAN that can improve performance in application delivery – an attribute that Silanis looks forward to using more extensively as it works to set up cloud instances in other regions of the world to serve its growing, global customer base – in the UK and Australia, for example. Bare metal servers that deliver high performance for large enterprise customers is another benefit of the IBM SmartCloud that Silanis hopes to leverage as it further develops its managed service, hybrid private cloud offerings. Laurie expects that by next year, this hosted solution will be synched with its on-premise and multi-tenant SaaS to offer customers true hybrid choice.
Through its history, Silanis has managed to take advantage of much cloud promise: growth was both supported and stimulated by cloud capabilities, and the company was able to quickly instantiate services that would provide the online automation that is increasingly required of the agile, digital enterprise. But most unique is the Silanis story of cloud portability – a tale of promise for contemporary times.