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Getting Schooled on SaaS
A Fairly Understandable Explanation of a Phenom

This article is part of the Best Practices White Paper Hosted Software Services (SaaS)[July/August 2008]
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So I suggested that the "one-copy/all-people" idea might sound somewhat monolithic, unfair or maybe just restrictive—my way or the highway—to the businessperson who thinks he is a unique and special case, and thinks outside the box, listens to a different drummer, goes his own way or any other cliché you can think of.

But Dan assured me that there are two key tenets to true SaaS-ism. "The secret-handshake questions that two SaaS providers ask one another when they meet are: One, are you multi-tenant? and two, are you configured?"

Configured. That’s a key term here. As it turns out, it’s possible to provide a single version of a particular software application to a large number of customers, but still configure the individual instances of the application to comply to customer preferences. Somehow, it’s done through a series of slide bars, buttons, knobs, gizmos of all sorts— ("Unapologetically, our configuration interface looks like the cockpit of a 747!" boasted Dan)—and allows the SaaS vendor to customize the user interface and the user experience without having to change code for each one.

In fact, if you listen to Dan long enough, you’ll get the impression that if a SaaS vendor were to change the code for one customer over another, he would be swiftly kicked out of the SaaS club and his secret decoder ring would be thrown down the sewer grating. "There are prime directives in a true SaaS environment," he swore. "If you break any of them, you violate some element of your business model... and you go down the crapper."

Now, I know I’m having a little fun at Dan’s expense, but I’m serious about this issue of the monolithic approach to application provision. Don’t, I asked, customers resist having their beloved workspace messed with?

"We watch the analytics closely enough to know how many users are using which features," replied Dan, "and who will be affected by which change. The number-one rule is: never take anything away. Number two, any change should be as intuitive and easy to use as their current application. And, number three, if you’re going to make a BIG change, find out who will be affected most by the change and make them part of the process." Customers appreciate that closed-loop, I presume. "There’s a very heavy relationship that continues, because you’re running their software!" agreed Dan.

Now, the Downside
Just so you, dear reader, don’t get the impression that SaaS is ALL sweetness and light, there are challenges for those who consider it, and those who provide it.

"There is a whole new battle emerging within SaaS," Dan admitted. "There’s a real danger of balkanization. Enough people have bought into SaaS that there are now, like, 87 different SaaS vendors across the enterprise, each one doing a specific little thing. For the CIO that becomes a different kind of mess. Now you’ve got ‘SaaS silos.’ For the CIO, that means for every vendor he has a SaaS relationship with, he has to vet their security, their hosting operations, their Web services..."

Dan, of course, insisted he’s tackling that issue, and probably is, by approaching the problem as we said at the top of this article, from a "platform" perspective. And that’s why Dan has settled on "document and content" as the rich areas to begin. Regular readers of KMWorld will recognize the challenges facing those who are trying to implement enterprise content management (ECM). "To solve a customer problem in this area," said Dan, "you need multiple technologies, and there are virtually no traditional vendors who have a complete solution to solve all the problems. So every time you face a content problem, you have to bring in multiple partners, multiple softwares. All these (DM and ECM) vendors are gobbling up other vendors primarily to provide customer solutions they can’t solve by themselves. And they still aren’t able to do it.

"Unlike ERP or CRM, which are relatively closed, siloed applications, enterprise content management is such a fragmented environment that I can’t solve a customer problem unless I can offer workflow, imaging, metadata management, plus security, audit trail plus...fax or whatever. It’s a diverse mix of applications that make up ECM. A customer may need fax-plus-workflow for an invoice process. For HR, he may need OCR and metadata management. Having a platform of content applications is one way to solve the balkanization problem."

So I asked Dan whether his company had greater aspirations beyond "content-based applications" platforms? Let’s say I’m so chuffed by your service that I want you to take over my ERP application, too? "We don’t cross the dinner line," insisted Dan. "There are platforms out there for ERP... but they won’t manage your document applications."

So now I’ll have two SaaS vendors? I asked provocatively, thinking I cleverly trapped him into a corner.

"Yes," he confidently replied. "But you won’t have 87. That’s why they’re called platforms."

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