The ever-useful wikipedia defines SAAS thus:
a model of software deployment whereby a provider licenses an application to customers for use as a service on demand
Another way of looking at it is:
software that is used via the internet rather than a local server
One of the trailblazers in SAAS is Salesforce.com who were one of the first companies to offer a suite of products (in their case CRM) that was delivered online. Since then, many other companies have followed, delivering software that covers a wide range of functionality. Examples range from office suites (Google Docs, Think Free, Zoho) to complete business suites (GooRoo, Business IT Online).
But does using SAAS make sense for small and medium businesses? In many ways it can be seen as an excellent way of introducing great software and working practices into a fledgling company. Some of the SAAS offerings have free options (where you typically forego support SLA’s and other similar aspects), allowing you to dip your toe and see if the service is right for you. Paying a monthly, per-user fee can reduce the impact of high initial software licence fees at the point in time when you least need them, although over the course of the application’s lifetime you may well end up paying more.
Another advantage of SAAS over traditional installed software is that you benefit from software upgrades when they become available, rather than when you can afford to pay for them. This can be a double-edged sword, if a lot of work is needed to prepare for an upgrade, but many providers will give you the option of remaining on a superceded release for some time.
One of the big selling points of SAAS is that, regardless of your size, you benefit from the type of server infrastructure that only the larger companies can afford. Normally, SAAS providers will have a server infrastructure in a secure data centre, offering an air-conditioned environment, secure power supply, comprehensive backup facilities, and so on. Compared to a second-hand server sitting in a corner of an office, it’s easy to appreciate the attraction.
On the client side, if all your PC/laptop needs is to run a web browser to access the office applications, then there is an obvious opportunity to reduce the hardware requirements. Indeed, a pure SAAS environment can mean that a relatively cheap netbook can be used to run applications that, if ran locally, would need a high-end PC. The nature of SAAS will also make it possible to use your online ‘desktop’ anywhere you have appropriate internet access.
Of course there is one obvious aspect of using SAAS that needs careful consideration. When some or all of your applications are accessed online, you need to ensure that you have an internet connection that is both resilient, and has adequate bandwidth. You need to spend a bit of money here, firstly by using a business-grade circuit. The type of circuit is also important. ADSL may be fine, although you should ensure that the upload speed is adequate for your needs. If not, you might need to consider bonded ADSL, SDSL or even a leased line. Reputable SAAS providers should be able to give you an idea as to what bandwidth per user is needed.