Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Software as a service

Wow that title is the latest buzzword!

Every IT Director who mentions that will be in for a good pay rise from his impressed boss!!

To define Software as a Service it is the idea of renting your IT software, or even your IT hardware for a monthly fee. All you have to do is pay each month, and you get the IT facilities you have been promised by your service provider. For example Google have just launched their beta (not yet finished) Google Apps service. All one needs is a web browser connected to the internet anywhere in the world, and you can access a good word processing and spreadsheet service. All your work is stored on Google's systems.

It is in contrast to buying the products needed and installing them for an upfront capital fee, and then having access to them forever (in theory) for no more charge. For example, buying a PC and printer, buying a copy of Windows software, an office application suite and a finance program.

Reportedly, "Google are firing an arrow" across Microsoft's ship with their recent launch of Google Apps, Google Docs and Spreadsheets, and other integrated features. They are reportedly aiming for the Microsoft Office user base. I will be reviewing the specific service from Google Apps very soon in another post on here. The features are promising but are not very well integrated yet.

For now I want to talk about the principle, the advantages and the disadvantages of software as a service.

I have no doubts this is going to become a very large market. How much a provider can charge people to use the service remains to be seen, but when normal competitive market forces take charge I don't think the fee to each user will be much. The Google Beta is available free at the moment.

For the home user, the concept of accessing a good word processor cheaper than buying an office suite is going to be too good to true. If your PC gets a virus your documents are safe and secure and cannot become infected. If your PC breaks, you get a new one, plug it into the internet and all your favourite programs are available instantly. On your lunch break at work you can write a personal letter. When you get home you can print it and post it on your personal stationary. No need to worry how to take it home. No need to worry about backups. You don't at the moment but you should!

For the small business (say less than 10 employees) an added advantage is that everyone can find and share the documents easily. No need to pay a consultant to configure a file server, make the disk available to all your network clients and train everyone how to save onto the file server's disk. How many times have you searched all the computers in the company to track down something written by someone who is out the office, or no longer with the company? Google is famous for search, and needless to say you can easily search all your company's files. No need for all your staff to be in the office. They can use their broadband link at home to access all the company's documents. It is even possible for more than one person in more than one location to edit a document at a time, a feature called collaborating. Bill in the UK and Eric in Germany can both work on a joint report very easily and efficiently.

For the larger business I expect you will need your own IT department to provide a customised service specific to your company's needs. Applications that employees can access will all be thoroughly tested and controlled to ensure they can be supported and can meet the needs of the company. You will want to take your own backups so you are confident they are safe and are managed to your standards. For example you will keep a backup from every day within a month. Then from the 1st day of every month for 3 years. Then backups from 1st January and 1st July will be kept forever. These will all be in fire-safe locations. Should anything be needed from a backup you know how long it will take to locate the correct media and restore from it. I still think some large company's will use internet based services for specific tasks, such as collaborating with remote workers, then copying the file to your company servers once they are complete. Accessing your internet filestore would be something of a lot of value to a competitor!

In summary there is a lot of benefits of this new idea, aside from spreading the cost monthly and not having old computers that are too slow to be any use in 3 years.

I have two principle concerns.

The one I will mention first is program updates and new versions. People don't like change. With bought software you are in control. You don't want the new version - simple, don't buy it. With a managed service the provider can and will change the service. They don't have to ask you, and if you don't like the new version, tough! You are tied to a contract and all your files are on their system.

My second is a very big concern. With legs and lots of hair! Longevity.

After you have written a letter you save it. Why? So you can access it again in the future to save time if you have to send it again. So you can copy it if you need to send a similar letter. So there is a record and you don't need to print a spare copy on paper and put it in your cupboard. Ask yourself how long you may want to go back in time when you search for something. If a company answered anything other than 'forever' to this question I would be very worried! When I started in IT I worked for a very large consultancy company. Half my time was spent trying to get documents off superceded systems, 5 1/4 floppy disks written by Wang's because people had a need for them.

What happens in 3 years time when there is a new technology? Google will not have customers for the old 'service' anymore and could switch it off. Bang. All your work has gone. How do you get it back? They will probably promise a migration path to the replacement service, but they don't have to and probably wouldn't disclose the charge for this in advance. What if the company providing your service becomes the next Enron and goes into administration? The chances are slim but it IS possible. More likely, suppose I have a billing dispute with my provider? If I don't pay they can lock my service!

Google do offer a 99.9% uptime guarantee to premium (paying) customers. Ah that's good it won't ever go down. Dig into the guarantee a bit deeper. If it does go down what then? Well you get a few free days extra service IF you know it went down and IF you claim! So you have lost a vital report that could mean the difference between win or loose in a multi-million dollar law suit. Who looses out? What is the uptime guarantee worth? 20p!! No, the guarantee was only for email, not the documents service. It also guaranteed uptime, not that your files would be safe. Plus the service credit cannot be converted to cash. If they lost my data I would be off to someone better in a flash.

In short, you are no longer in control of where and how your data is stored, and you are just hoping that it will always be there when you want it. Trust me on this. It won't. No-one will offer a guarantee worth having to promise availability in 10 years unless I pay a fortune for it.

These concerns are still an issue with some bought software that has to 'phone home' when it is installed. In 10 years its phone home call won't be answered. You will be stuck in a time limited trial version. Check you can do what you want in trial mode with your programs before relying on them.

I'm amazed no one else has picked up on this problem, and I'm gonna try and get some answers to it, if there is one. My advice? When a new format is released, print all your important old stuff onto paper quickly! At least you can still read that in 50 years time when we no longer have electricity and everything is powered by fresh air! There is nothing in the IT world that can guarantee that. You think there is a computer in use today that will still work in 50 years time? I'm taking bets :) Got to make up for the global pension shortfall somehow lol.

Did I mention my specialism in IT was Business Critical servers (working on a 4 hour from problem to fix helpdesk with one of today's largest IT manufacturers), High Availability, Backups, Fault Tolerance, Disaster Recovery and Contingency planning?


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