IT intelligence: Software as a service

Robin Fisk's seventh of 10 technologies to watch is Software as a Service.

We usually purchase the software programs we need and pay fees to the makers, which provide us with regular updates. However, the software industry is trying to change this way of buying software.

One alternative is through application service providers, which offer programs such as Microsoft Exchange for monthly subscription fees. The ASP houses its customers' applications and data on its own servers, which are either dedicated or partitioned for each separate customer.

Benefits include being able to access the system from anywhere, on the internet, and not having to worry about maintaining servers or doing backups. The client does not have to physically acquire the software or the servers on which to run it.

ASPs have not made as big an impact as the industry had hoped for, but a new model, called Software as a Service, may do. It is similar to ASP, but has a few key differences. SaaS is based upon the 'one software, many tenants' theory - meaning that many customers run the same version of the software. This allows centralised upgrades of the software.

However, whereas ASPs let you run any software you want on their hosted servers, SaaS relates only to commercially available applications - typically, customer relationship management and human resources programs, accounting and email.

Furthermore, a mature SaaS provider is scaleable, with load-balanced servers enabling the supplier to switch on large numbers of users without incurring costs that customers would have to cover.

Will SaaS change the way charities buy software? It should provide charities with the opportunity to scale their software usage with predictable costs and less worry. All we need now is some decent charity-friendly SaaS applications.

- Robin Fisk is managing director of software company Fisk Brett.

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