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On-Demand Twist: SaaS as Stepping Stone to Software

The CTO at University of North Carolina Charlotte hopes an on-demand pilot project will lead to an enterprisewide rollout behind the firewall.
Want to try out that enterprise software before you buy? Emerging software-as-a-service (SaaS) delivery options may offer a new way to test in more realistic fashion before you risk big money. That's exactly how a SaaS offering is being used at the University of North Carolina Charlotte (UNCC), where there's a big need for document management, but not enough support (as yet) to justify a big investment in software.

"We have many silos of information in different types of containers scattered about the campus, and we're trying to get a handle on that," says chief technology officer Tom Lamb, listing SharePoint instances and Novell file shares among the options. "We were considering behind-the-firewall software, but we needed a champion who could sell it to the rest of the faculty and help build momentum for an enterprisewide deployment."

UNCC already had Enterprise Document Manager software from Xythos on its short list late last year when it learned that the vendor was planning to offer Xythos On Demand, a SaaS offering that grew out of the company's six-year-old Sharemation site, a beta sandbox where customers could test the software on a limited basis. Launched in December, the hosted version of the company's software provides the same basic document management and online collaboration functionality. Like most SaaS offerings it's aimed at small- and midsize-enterprises (SMEs), in this case law firms, real estate agents, mortgage lenders and other firms that need to share and collaboratively revise lots of documents.

With more than 2,200 faculty and staff and 21,000 students, UNCC is not the typical SME target customer, but SaaS delivery presented a quick, low-cost way to prove the value of Xythos' software.

"I would have needed two people full time for at least 30 days to set up the servers, the firewalls and the user accounts for a conventional deployment," says Lamb. "Instead we'll have one person just handling user-related questions on using the on-demand software."

Lamb found his champion in Dr. Tom Kitric, a visiting professor who agreed to spearhead the pilot as part of a class on content management. Kitric, 30 students and a score of faculty members will begin using the on-demand service this month.

"We're hoping the pilot will be so successful that there will be a groundswell of support and pressure on management so we can build the infrastructure [for conventional software] and scale this across the enterprise," says Lamb.

Xythos On-Demand pricing is decidedly SME, ranging from $39.95 per month for 10 users up to $249.95 per month for 100 users, but the vendor also recognizes the potential for upgrades. "Customers always have the option of moving to our software," says Jim Till, chief marketing officer. "They would simply migrate their data to an application running on an internal server."

While "sandbox" test sites may offer a place to experience the look and feel of software, SaaS options from software vendors would seem to offer a low-risk way to let more users conduct longer-term tests with apps that are specific to the enterprise -- regardless of its size.