IT intelligence: Online applications versus installed software

Robin Fisk runs the rule over online applications versus installed software.

A quick glance at www.citra.org shows that charities are currently debating the pros and cons of using online applications such as Google Docs. It's not only charities that are getting more interested in online applications, either - businesses and consumers are taking a look.

Online apps (sometimes referred to as SaaS - software as a service) are an alternative to using applications installed on your PC. They are generally used via a browser, so can be run wherever you have an internet connection. Familiar examples include Hotmail and Gmail.

All information created with the application, whether word processing documents, spreadsheets, email messages or database records, is stored on centralised servers in 'the cloud' - the internet, in other words. Information can be shared publicly (for example, a public calendar showing the events your organisation is running) or privately (such as a document on which others can make comments).

The advantages of online apps are clear: you don't need to install anything on your PC to run them, so you can use them from anywhere; you don't have to pay large sums for software licences (some online apps require a subscription fee, but many are funded by advertising); and you don't need to acquire and maintain your own servers.

But they are not for everyone. Critics of online apps highlight the fact that the applications are not as functionally rich as installable software.

The biggest concerns are data security and business continuity: your data is in the hands of another organisation. Some online apps allow you to export the data and save it to your own hardware, but should your online provider disappear into the clouds, you could be a long way from being up and running again.

 - Robin Fisk is a senior charity technology specialist at ASI Europe.

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