Software as a service (SaaS) has been around for a while now. It doesn’t seem that long ago that Salesforce.com was the poster child of SaaS, while many small and large companies followed in search of predictable revenue streams that avoided some of the cyclical IT purchasing practices.
A lot has been written about how SaaS is changing the software landscape. This is a complex issue, and it’s one that’s going to take a while to fully settle. So this week, I’m going to look at how SaaS is changing hardware, storage and backup requirements.
SaaS is a method of software delivery that allows data to be accessed from any device with an internet connection and web browser. Software vendors host and maintain the servers, database and code that constitutes the application. This is a significant departure from the on-premise software delivery model where companies maintain their own hardware and software as well as manage updates and backup.
The biggest changes to hardware in a SaaS model take place in the server closet. Take Salesforce.com for example. For a monthly or annual fee, Salesforce.com will give you access to a powerful CRM from a web browser. This shifts the hardware burden from the company running the software to Salesforce.com and their data center, which means your company will probably need fewer servers that would otherwise host enterprise applications.
SaaS doesn’t do away with desktop or laptop computers though because employees still need a client running an operating system and web browser to access these services. If you have employees who only perform one task, and that task is completed through a web browser, IT may be able to scale back the specs of the computer. But this can get dicey because most employees utilize a number of programs to do their job, and many of those programs still require local resources such as storage, processing power and/or advanced graphics.
We are starting to see programs from Adobe and Autodesk (makers of popular AutoCAD products) that allow users to create projects on their desktop and then upload them to the cloud where rendering and data analysis is performed. A friend of mine, who is a civil engineer, used to maintain a high-end workstation with powerful NVIDIA Quadro cards because all of his 3D rendering was performed locally. The SaaS version of the software he uses allows him to migrate the rendering from his workstation to the cloud. In the last year he traded his workstation for a Microsoft Surface. Expect to see more CPU and GPU intensive activities move to the cloud under the SaaS umbrella. The bottleneck today is that these files tend to be massive in size so moving them around is burdensome, even over a fast connection.
Few topics surround SaaS are as confusing as storage. I’ve also found that SaaS providers frequently assume that cloud storage is the default storage solution for companies of all sizes when that’s just not the case. As an IT pro, you’re well aware that while some data stored in the cloud is fine, that’s often not the case for sensitive company information.
Gmail and Google Docs are good examples of how storage is handled differently by the same company. Most users of Gmail understand that all their email, calendars and contacts are saved to the cloud rather than a local hard drive. But Google Docs can sync between Google’s servers and your local drive, and it’s not always clear where a document is being saved. And even if I create a Google Doc, it’s still syncing to my local drive if I have Google Drive installed. It can quickly become confusing which is not what you want to hear where data is concerned.
The question comes down to this: Can I reduce the storage on local desktops and laptops, perhaps utilizing faster yet smaller SSDs, if I’m a SaaS customer? The answer to that question is “maybe”. If the product you’re using has an offline mode, there’s a good chance that data is being saved locally as well as in the cloud. If you’re creating Office-type documents that don’t take up much space, you can probably get away with smaller amount of local storage.
One of the major selling points of SaaS products is that maintenance and backup are provided by the hosting company. The key here is that you’re clear with your hosting company on exactly what data is being backed and how often.
Of course this matters if you need to roll back to older data, but it’s also is a matter of compliance. Sarbanes-Oxley requires businesses to maintain and comply with a number of data retention laws. This is especially true for public companies. The law is so complex that an entire industry of lawyers and compliance professionals make a living helping companies stay within the law when it comes to data retention.
I know companies that run applications through their SaaS provider, but the application saves data to an in-house database. This stretches the definition of SaaS, but it also shows the pressure many companies are under to keep company secrets from prying eyes, while maintaining some control over data storage and backup.
Moving between online and local backup can be incredibly confusing for employees who switch between programs numerous times a day. Knowing exactly where and how to access data is critical to their success. That’s where your guidance comes in.
While it took a while to catch on, SaaS is here to stay. It’s one way companies can smooth out their software purchases while retaining access to the latest features and updates with minimal impact to employee work flow. The primary downside to SaaS is that it still requires a fast and consistent internet connection. I was reminded of how fragile this can be when I called my cable provider to make a change to my programming. The sales associate explained how his internet was down. He had no way to update my account. Thus, he was using a pencil and Sticky Notes to write down my order and enter it into his computer when connectivity returned.
*Photo courtesy of Intel Free Press