Cost, data ownership, security, and other factors can complicate the SaaS decision.
Software-as-a-service has moved well beyond the tidy world created by Salesforce.com. While there are now hundreds of successful SaaS vendors, customers have paid scant attention to the complexity this proliferation is having on their companies and end users.
The first impact is cost. Subscription, per-user SaaS fees, payable monthly or quarterly, seemingly provide a low entry point. But this "cheap road in" overlooks the other infrastructure investments SaaS customers must make, including redundant connectivity from multiple ISPs to ensure continuous access to business-critical software. Startups and small businesses that don't have the in-house expertise to implement the required connectivity must pay up for consultants to do so.
Another complication of the SaaS model, one that's usually considered a benefit, is automatic feature updates. More frequent, regular updates are great, provided that the new features don't materially change how people use the product to perform critical business processes. However, if a customer has to reevaluate or change core processes with minimal notice to test and validate new workflows, end users are in for rude awakenings.
Complexity is also increased as a byproduct of SaaS being browser-based. It's not just four or five different browsers, some with multiple versions in release on both PCs and Macs, but also a host of browser platforms on mobile devices -- any one of which becomes problematic for the IT pro if an employee can't do work when and where he or she wants to. IT pros now have to build out browser support policies that are more complex than ever.
But the elephant in the room in regard to SaaS is who has custody of the data, and how easy it is to get complete and portable copies of that data. It's one thing to have an offline/offsite backup of the dataset in a format compatible with the SaaS product. It's an entirely different consideration to have an offline/offsite backup of the dataset that your company can port easily into a competing SaaS product if the current one becomes unusable, unacceptable, or just goes away unexpectedly.
A secondary issue is the protection of the data in the custody of the SaaS vendor. Where is it encrypted? Who holds the encryption keys? Who has access to the encryption keys? Which encryption methodologies are in use? Going with a SaaS provider means handing the house keys over to a third party, and without a clear understanding of security and compliance, this is a leap of faith for the typical IT pro.
There are also legal implications that are beyond the realm of a typical IT pro. SaaS applications -- not unlike on-premises applications -- come with complex contracts, terms of service, licensing parameters, data storage and security requirements, and other issues, all defined in legalese. If IT pros haven't already formed relationships with members of their legal teams, they soon will.
All of these considerations can overwhelm experienced IT pros used to dealing with such issues in-house, where they had full control. Know what you're getting into before you embrace SaaS as the "simpler" enterprise software option.
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Lawrence Garvin, head geek and technical product marketing manager at SolarWinds, wrote his first computer program, in RPG-II, in 1974, to calculate quadratic equations. He tested it on some spare weekend cycles on an IBM System 3 that he "borrowed" from his father's ... View Full Bio