SaaS: A gateway to a less complex business world
When last did you use a CD to install software on your PC or laptop? Do those machines even have a disc drive anymore? Nothing better illustrates the overwhelming success of SaaS (software as a service) than how little we rely on CDs and other storage discs for software.
SaaS is possibly the earliest commercial incarnation of cloud, emerging as free e-mail services such as Gmail. You don't install SaaS, but instead access it via a Web browser or app. Most of the data and interface reside on the cloud servers that provide the service, meaning you can log in through a different device and still access the same features. SaaS fully embraces other cloud attributes, such as continual updates for all active users and usage-based licensing.
Goodbye licence lock-in
The reduced licensing requirements, in particular, are very attractive to companies. You don't need to buy software up-front, commit to lengthy licence periods, or agree to bulk-user licences that are often more than you need. SaaS is much more flexible, enabling businesses to choose precisely how many users they want to support – often paid for in an ad-hoc or subscription fee, says Mbali Khumalo, Business Development Manager at Axiz: "SaaS is much more convenient and manageable for companies. You can select the service you want, sign up for the number of users you desire, and pay just that fee. It works out of the box, often on an up-to-date browser or through the provider's app. SaaS tends to have a high focus on fluid user experiences and features, and is operating system agnostic."
SaaS is accessible to every size business, even those with tight budgets. For as little as the cost of buying yourself lunch, an employee can gain access to a service for a month. This means that today, even small businesses can use enterprise-grade software, adds Jaco Isaaks, Axiz's Pre-Sales Engineer: "Small start-ups will normally benefit more to use SaaS due to the quick onboarding it provides without needing expensive hardware to install the software. The challenge for enterprises using SaaS is that they typically need customised software to address the more complex issues."
That being said, businesses of all sizes rely on SaaS, either officially or through shadow IT. This phenomenon occurs when software is informally introduced into a company, bypassing scrutiny from IT, security and compliance. Yet shadow IT is a direct result of SaaS's ease of deployment and use, and companies are learning they should try and formalise such deployments instead of squashing them.
However you look at it, SaaS is the future of business software. So, how should companies go about taking control of this valuable trend? Nearly all SaaS products offer a free tier or a trial period, where you can evaluate the software's features. Then you can opt to pay for a user licence – either charged monthly or annually – and often select from tiers that offer different features.
"Applications can be free to customers for personal use with limited functionality," says George Masemola, Business Unit Manager for Axiz. "The software can also be offered as a monthly or yearly subscription with added or increased functionalities. Some vendors look to offer a business package to their customer that gives even more functionality. Depending on their needs, a business would rather opt for the business version than the free version. The difference between the free and monthly/yearly subscriptions would be the functionalities or more advanced features that the customer will get."
What is the channel's role?
If SaaS is so feature-rich and affordable, why would you still need the involvement of a distributor or reseller? There are several reasons. For large enterprises, even a basic SaaS deployment can result in many complexities, including customisation, cost-management and compliance. In some cases, such as Office365, SaaS applications replace well-known and widely used software. You can't expect just to flip a switch – the experience of a channel partner makes an enormous difference for a smooth transition.
Such a partner can also help explore customisation options, Masemola adds: "Rather than changing the application itself, the customer should rather look at other ways to customise the application. For example, to change the process of how a third party application integrates with the SaaS application itself. Most SaaS solutions normally allow an application to be personalised."
Likewise, you will want to attach relevant data to the SaaS application. Let's say you start using a SaaS CRM service. It would require a strategy on how to select and add your customer data to the platform safely. You'd need help with change management and benefit from ongoing support. SaaS is fantastic, but it's not seamless. A little software management from a partner will create the value you want from your software, Isaaks explains: "A value-added reseller adds value to the customer by providing additional support, including software management, and removing the burdens from the end customer. The reseller also provides technical guidance, expertise and day-to-day support."
What about your data?
Many companies still avoid SaaS over concerns around data and security. If you use SaaS, chances are your data will reside on its servers. Fortunately, most SaaS providers are reputable and also held to data laws that go some way to protect your information. But that's not a given, and using a channel partner who represents and liaises with the SaaS vendor is a better bet for some data peace of mind.
"An article I read made a very good metaphor, 'If you put your money in the bank, does it mean that your money belongs to the bank?'," explains Khumalo. "Similarly, you can exercise complete control over your data by defining the right service level agreements (SLA). If you plan to switch between vendors, you should ensure that you get your data back. You can also opt for a pay-per-use model."
Security is also a big concern, another motivation why you are better off working with a channel partner to find the right SaaS provider. But, she adds, it's not true that your data is safer in your systems than with a reputable SaaS provider: "Although there have been cloud data breaches in the past, your data is actually more secure in the cloud than in your own data centre. Cloud service providers are actively looking at ways to increase their security in order to minimise breaches."