Phusion News

Beyond The Buzzword: Demystifying SaaS

Modern society has a lot to answer for, from the explosion of mobile technology to the downfall of king-size chocolate bars. Whether it be obsessing over the latest celebrity marriage, watching a conveyor belt of reality TV series’ or living life through Facebook status updates there are plenty of things the early part of the 21st century will be remembered for.

Amongst all this there is one trend that continues to gather pace and something we are all find ourselves using, whether we like to admit it or not. Buzzwords. At one time limited to the suits of the corporate management world we now find buzzwords in just about every industry, area and blog post (this one included!). Dilbert even used it as a theme for a game.

In the IT sector we are just as guilty as anyone else with words like Web 2.0, Agile and Big Data popping up and spreading like wildfire over the last decade or so. They appear on every website, in every article and all over conference schedules with an apparent competition as to who can work them in to the wittiest title. Like all fashions the only thing that stops the growth is when the next word comes along and the cycle begins again.

Ok, you might say, so what’s the issue? What’s wrong with a few fashionable words that grab some attention and draw readers in? And I would agree, nothing at all. But consider for a moment how, in a competitive marketplace where clarity is key, misleading words can be particularly unhelpful.

Contrary to popular belief most of these words, certainly the IT related ones, do mean something, and, I’m fairly certain, started out as well-intentioned ways of describing a difficult to grasp concept. The problem comes when use of the word is manipulated for the sake of not wanting to appear out of touch or lagging behind and before you know it the word is being used for just about anything.

SaaS, or Software as a Service to give it its full title, is a particular favourite of mine and a great example of the above. The term first appeared in the early 2000’s and built on a 1990’s idea of centralising the hosting and management of applications to reduce cost. The concept of SaaS is, at its heart, extremely simple – access your software from a centrally hosted server, over the internet, using a subscription payment model. So, in even simpler terms, rather than buy your software on a CD and install it to every computer in your organisation, access it from someone else’s infrastructure and let them look after it for you.

That first generation, under the name ASP (Application Service Providers), was a fine idea but failed to take the world by storm largely due to the limitations of connecting to the hosting infrastructure due to the fact many internet users were still connected via a 56K modem using a basic web browser. Running anything other than the most basic webpages was an experience not many were looking to sign up to as an alternative to natively installed applications.

As the availability of high-speed internet access grew, combined with the improved capability of web browsers, the potential for SaaS solutions was re-ignited. Web applications could now compete with the performance and rich user interfaces previously only available to locally installed programs and the convenience and reduced maintenance cost makes SaaS an attractive solution for businesses and individuals.

As we have established, a true SaaS solution is one which is not installed locally on your network, as with traditional software packages, but one you access over the internet and pay for on a monthly or annual basis. You likely access it via your favourite web browser or mobile device and all aspects of the hosting, maintenance and updating of the application are managed for you.

Once the SaaS buzzword ball got rolling though, it wasn’t long before businesses wanted to be seen to be “doing SaaS” to avoid feeling left behind and the use of the term began to spread beyond this initial meaning and into other areas. Non web-based applications that were subscription licensed joined the SaaS bandwagon first and my first realisation that my buzzword theory was complete came earlier this year when in a meeting with a fellow IT professional I was told: “Oh yes we are into SaaS as well – we take our application and install it on our client’s existing servers all the time.” Bingo, SaaS now appears to simply mean, software.

As I said before, you may be thinking that this isn’t much of a problem and words change meaning all the time – apparently “nice” used to be far from a complement (more great examples here). I guess my issue is not with the use of the word but the motive behind the change. It is driven by the need to keep up and the fact that this company or that competitor advertises SaaS so we must do so to.

What we all need to do is look beyond the buzzword. SaaS is a great model for software delivery but it isn’t suitable for all scenarios and is plain wrong for some people/applications. The right solution is the one that matches your business’ needs, not just the one that is labelled SaaS. If you’re not doing it the SaaS way it doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong and as developers and IT professionals we need to be brave enough to call non-SaaS solutions what they are and not feel pressured to shoehorn every application we create and sell into the ever-widening SaaS bracket.

In my current sector of information management and the engineering world the software market is dominated by large, multi-functional packages which have significant installation overhead and require extensive configuration. SaaS can be a breath of fresh air in this arena as it gives organisations the opportunity to pay for the software as they need it and have the ability to respond quickly to change by turning on and off areas of functionality, scaling up or down and taking advantage of always up-to-date applications. Businesses are finding the SaaS approach gives them a flexibility they have not been used to in the past and for many it is the common sense route.

However, consumers of software products should be encouraged by suppliers who can offer expertise in a range of different delivery options including, but not limited to, SaaS and not be influenced by the ability to use a term because they think that is what you want to hear. There are perfectly good reasons that SaaS isn’t for you and you shouldn’t be frightened if this is the case. Ultimately you want a solution that works best for you, anything else is irrelevant.

But how will you know if SaaS is for you? In fact, how can you be sure of anything if the label SaaS pops up everywhere you turn? I agree, it’s difficult. My advice is to look beyond the phrases and ask for more detail. Deal with people who can explain their solutions in your terminology, not hide behind a long list of words it is fashionable to nod along to. Ask more questions until you’re happy you understand and more often than not you will be much happier with the end result.