In a commercial world of increasingly numerous and, some would say, meaningless acronyms, Software as a Service (SaaS) stands out as offering real value to a wide range of businesses says Jerona Noonan
As the world becomes more virtual, so communications technologies enabling collaboration can make the difference between success and failure. And, in turn, deploying such tools in the best manner possible is critical in ensuring their full value enterprise-wide.
In supporting this, the best Software as a Service (SaaS) solutions can lay fair claim to being the most reliable and cost-effective delivery model currently available, by offering a broad range of benefits to both the enterprise and individual users. Quick and easy to deploy, you only pay for what you use: in addition, the IT department does not have to manage capacity, performance or maintenance and it is easy to extend use to partners, suppliers, customers and other users outside the organisation's firewall.
In its latest report, Leveraging the Value of Software as a Service: Key Benefits & Best Practices, industry analyst, Frost & Sullivan also points to other benefits ensuring a substantial return on investment.
Users can avoid getting locked into a single vendor or solution, for example; they are able to test applications without the upfront commitment to a long-term implementation and, as a result of being located remotely, SaaS solutions aid disaster recovery planning in the event of business interruptions.
More for less
Today, the SaaS concept has assumed a high media profile, as a cost-effective way of large enterprises meeting the broader business imperative for IT investment to achieve ‘more for less'. As organisations face growing commercial, regulatory and environmental pressures in ever more global markets, there is an unprecedented need for IT to drive greater internal efficiencies, better customer service and within a reduced carbon footprint. Yet the budgets available to achieve this remain consistently tight, putting pressure on solutions providers to be more creative, both in terms of the supporting technologies and their implementation and ongoing management. In response, across all areas of IT, vendors are developing SaaS-based solutions designed to achieve lower-cost service delivery. And, as ever in a market where the latest technology ‘buzzword' appears to offer highly attractive returns, their ability to deliver the benefits both promised and desired are likely to vary significantly, depending on the quality of the individual vendor's offering and the particular sector they are looking to support.
Having said that, by common consent analysts point to multi-media conferencing as an area of especially strong potential for SaaS.
The reasons are not hard to find. It is, for example, cost-prohibitive for a large enterprise to build out its infrastructure to support a truly scalable web conferencing solution, including the appropriate network, applications and resources.
As an online service, there is no upfront hardware or software investment to be made, allowing the enterprise to focus investment on its core competencies and not on applications and technologies requiring continuous expenditure and resources to properly maintain. In most cases, it requires no more than a simple Windows-based application to be installed on each user's desktop.
Companies realise that this is not an application that they can easily deploy and support themselves. Large enterprises could not possibly keep up with the technology and changes in applications, as well as the overall support required to make this an effective and useful capability across the company.
Not surprisingly, in light of this, Frost & Sullivan predicts ‘robust growth' for such applications as audio, video and web conferencing and collaboration. In the case of web-conferencing in particular, it forecasts that almost 70 per cent of the total market will be services by 2011.
In today's virtual commercial world, adopting and deploying the right communications technologies has become mission-critical for businesses both large and small. Yet the SaaS concept has, in various guises, been around for more than 20 years. For example, the hosted services model - as a cost-efficient alternative to in-house implementation - has formed the basis of Genesys Conferencing's own market proposition since the 1980s.
Having said that, there is a clear distinction to be made here with application service providers (ASPs), in earlier years a well-recognised means of delivering hosted applications. The fundamental difference is that, unlike the more recent SaaS delivery mechanism, ASPs typically adopted the traditional client-server model, managing the servers without making any modifications to the delivery system.
Scaling up and managing multiple customer accounts was also problematic as, in effect, they had to add more infrastructure each time they signed a new client. SaaS vendors, by contrast, rely on net-native applications, which significantly improves performance.
Further, scalability and performance is greatly improved as dedicated servers are not required for each client site: this not only improves vendor profitability but enables some of the savings to be passed on to customers in the form of lower prices.
In short, the SaaS model is now both more reliable and cost-effective in providing robust support for virtual organisations.
For an enterprise business evaluating whether or not a hosted - and, more specifically, a SaaS - solution is most appropriate to their needs, a number of issues should be considered, both with regard to the solution and the choice of vendor.
Once again, the Frost & Sullivan report identifies a wide range number of business situations where a SaaS solution makes sound commercial sense, both financially and operationally.
It will be especially valuable if the organisation is growing, or where employees need to be able to collaborate with one another and with others outside the organisation. A SaaS-based approach will also be appropriate if the goal is eventually to offer a complete suite of integrated applications over time, as dictated by need, or if the company wants to avoid costly upfront expenses and ongoing maintenance charges on that up-front capital.
Selecting the most appropriate SaaS pricing model with the right scalability - both up and down - is of course essential. Yet there are a number of further considerations to be made in choosing the right vendor. Secure access to the provider's network and software applications is paramount, as is guaranteed 24/7 performance - especially critical in the context of real-time communications applications.
Services and support must ensure on-going availability to end-users and the ability to integrate with other existing applications within an existing infrastructure is also important. And finally, not only must the communications application be simple to deploy but also easy and intuitive to use: for it is only by encouraging maximum adoption and continuing use throughout the organisation, that the full financial savings and other operational and environmental benefits will be realised.
The advantages of SaaS, though wide-ranging, commonly have financial implications, both in terms of cashflow and outright cost savings. For example, unlike on-premise solutions, SaaS is quick and easy to deploy across the enterprise: and, as a hosted solution, no server hardware is required.
As SaaS is usually charged on a per user basis, companies can scale their conferencing or collaboration applications to support multiple users whenever necessary, without having to pay for every user within the organisation. The service can also be scaled easily and quickly to more users - irrespective of location and also beyond the firewall - as the need to participate expands across and beyond the enterprise.
This is especially attractive, as few employees need permanent availability, yet many will need access at least some of the time. The result is that costs are kept under control, at the same time ensuring ready participation in virtual meetings and other activities whenever it is required.
As SaaS applications include all upgrades and updates, the end-user organisation and its staff will always benefit from the latest software as soon as it becomes available. Set-up and deployment across the enterprise is almost instantaneous: the business does not have to concern itself with setting up accounts, communicating it to each end user and then training them, as this too is taken care of within the SaaS environment.
The result of delivering web conferencing via a SaaS model is that the service is available at any time, anywhere in the world. All that is required is Internet access and a telephone - indeed, by adopting the VoIP option, not even a telephone is necessary.
In the context of the latest multi-media communications and collaboration solutions, the term ‘SaaS' significantly underplays and undervalues the enterprise-wide impact of some vendors' service offerings.
In contrast to those who provide the software application only, Genesys Conferencing, for example, goes further, by offering 24/7 support, protection against technology obsolescence, full set-up, implementation and deployment capability and comprehensive reliability, performance and security.
And, where the provider authors its own software, the customer will also benefit from the flexibility of a solution that can be customised to meet their own particular needs. The result of adopting a service solution at this deeper platform level is that the customer will be assured of a future-proof yet resilient unified communications solution that will be cost-effective both to install and maintain.
The result? As an alternative delivery mechanism, "SaaS is changing the way companies buy and deploy software and for good reason," believes Frost & Sullivan. "Most SaaS providers charge per user or usage, to stay flexible with their applications purchases, scaling up or down as needed and offering applications outside the organisation, as appropriate. This model also encourages usage within the organisation, boosting productivity and the technology's RoI."
As today's enterprise businesses face greater pressures than ever, the breadth of financial, operational and service benefits which SaaS delivery offers enable companies in all sectors to remain both productive and competitive - the essential basis of both survival and profitable growth.
Jerona Noonan is Sales Director, Genesys Conferencing