Comment In the world of IT, we are constantly debating the latest trends and developments. Usually, although granted unsurprisingly, these deliberations revolve almost exclusively around the features of a particular technology, more often than not taking the form of "is technology/solution XYZ ready for adoption by mainstream customers or is it a bleeding-edge solution that is likely to appeal only those in desperate need of its features?"
Too rarely it seems do things get turned around to consider whether "ordinary" customers are ready to exploit the solution.
Consider, for example, the solution currently described by the acronym SaaS - software as a service. At its base SaaS consists of users sitting at a screen with essentially no special software running on their local device being able to access and run an application. Nothing new here as back in the mists of time this was the method by which all IT services were delivered. Over time things changed and for a period many systems were deployed using some variant on the client-server theme whereby the local access device had to have specialist software for each business application to be run.
This model has now begun to be replaced as it has been found wanting in the areas of cost and flexibility; it takes time and resources to keep distributed software up to date and today very many business applications now utilise the common-or-garden web browser as their front end leaving the bulk of the application code hosted on a server somewhere in the ever expanding "network".
Clearly, today in most enterprises, large and small, it is the case that these central servers are located within the business, but given that IT departments are increasingly thinking in terms of service delivery, it is fair to ask whether any application using a web browser as its front end should be classified as being examples of SaaS?
A quick investigation shows that SaaS, both delivered from servers located inside and outside the enterprise, has now matured technically. Base connectivity, Wan optimisation, solution architecture maturity, application availability, web browser acceptance, the ability of servers to deliver sophisticated content to modern browsers using plug-ins, have all developed to a stage whereby their utilisation has almost become invisible.
However, as stated at the beginning of the article, it is worthwhile spending a little time pondering the social and business issues that have developed alongside the maturation of SaaS-enabling technologies. The cost of delivering IT services has never been more visible whilst the pressure to reduce such costs has never been greater.
A quick scan around any office or place of work (including the desk at home, kitchen table, internet cafe or Wi-Fi hotspot) illustrates the fact that people, and thus in turn their business, want to access business applications wherever they happen to be located. Thus is born acceptance of SaaS as a delivery mechanism. In this respect, at least, it is more than apparent that the mainstream has already adopted the fundamental mechanics that underpin SaaS, but probably subconsciously given the wider definition of SaaS.
This therefore really only leaves the question of whether mainstream businesses, that is, everyone out there, is ready to utilise as part of their daily operations "archetypal" SaaS services, namely those provided by service providers outside the enterprise. The sophistication of solutions directly offered by suppliers of hosted email systems and application providers such as Salesforce.com, Oracle, SAP and a host of others has certainly reached a level whereby technically they are suitable for use by very many businesses.
One might still question whether the cost models are pitched at quite the right level, especially as most organisations may not be ready, willing or able, to eliminate or even significantly reduce their internal, frequently invisible, IT support costs. Whilst use of external SaaS offerings is clearly growing rapidly, it is from a very small base. However with all of the major software providers apparently ready to back SaaS, it is certain that the numbers using SaaS will continue to increase. Indeed, the movement of the likes of Google and Yahoo to offer web desktop tools is likely to hasten user acceptance of SaaS.
By and large it is fair to say that users really do not care what model is used to give them access to their applications as long as it works when they want it. Business managers, of course, have other concerns but these should focus around levels and cost of service along, perhaps, with questions of security. They, like the users, should not have to concern themselves with questions of IT service delivery architecture.
Perhaps the question of whether the mainstream is ready for SaaS should really now target the IT support community. SaaS may not be appropriate everywhere, but the solution delivery mechanism is not going to go away.
So far, SaaS has had many of its greatest successes in smaller businesses where dedicated IT skills are notoriously rare, along with individual departments or functions in larger enterprises who make their own arrangements independently, often to overcome the perceived drag of central IT.
Either way, SaaS has tended to be a business rather than IT-driven phenomenon. Like PCs when they first entered business use, SaaS is easy for individuals and groups to bring into the organisation without the blessing or even the knowledge of corporate IT.
In terms of simplicity and usability the SaaS model for delivering IT services is here and it has been accepted by the mainstream user base. IT departments need to recognise this and work out what place it holds today in their operations and where it will be utilised tomorrow, for services hosted inside the company and for those that can/should/should not be hosted outside it. The mainstream is more than ready for SaaS.
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