Software as a Service is often seen as the future of enterprise computing, but today’s IT managers remain deeply ambivalent about the model.
There are countless SaaS success stories, ranging from hosted CRM à la Salesforce.com, office productivity tools like Zoho and Google Docs, service desk with Service Now, and even IT monitoring and performance management from Nimsoft and AccelOps. Now, the latest entrant into the SaaS marketplace is ScaleXtreme, a configuration management provider that offers inventory, audit, configuration, patching and automation exclusively as a hosted subscription. Last week, the company said it can support internal servers as well as those running on Amazon EC2 and VMware vCloud Director platforms.
ScaleXtreme’s founders have roots in the on-premises software world, but the company is banking that IT professionals have come to accept SaaS as a valid application delivery model.
“We believe there’s a large enough number of people out there that are comfortable with SaaS,” said Nand Mulchandani, ScaleXtreme co-founder and CEO. “I’ll probably eat my words, but we have no intention of ever offering an on-premise version.”
From his perspective as an independent software vendor, the problem with on-premises software is that the vendor has to support the customer’s specific operating environment–operating system, database, middleware and often various versions of each. “You know how it goes. If you’re based on Postgres, they’re based on Oracle. If you’re based on Red Hat, they’re based on SuSE. With SaaS tools, you install an agent, configure some firewall ports, and you’re done.”
But that might be wishful thinking. Earlier this month, ScaleXtreme competitor Opscode launched an on-premises companion to its Hosted Chef configuration management and automation tool, capitulating to the needs of enterprise customers.
Chef tends to find its way into organizations via greenfield projects, through developers with “a license to rip [stuff] up,” said Jesse Robbins, Opscode CEO. SaaS is a fine model in those environments, but things change if the project goes mainstream. Then “all of a sudden we find ourselves in an enterprise procurement process,” Robbins said, complete with specific locality requirements and rules against shipping data off-site. For those shops, Opscode will deliver its so-called Private Chef as a dedicated hardware appliance behind the firewall, but with SaaS subscription pricing.
SaaS has its own challenges
Procurement and compliance issues aside, IT managers in the trenches report that relying heavily on hosted software isn’t all bread and roses.
Tom Peacock, an infrastructure consultant at SYS/TOMS Technology Partners in Tewksbury, Mass., says he’s witnessed a number of IT professionals struggle mightily with the transition to SaaS, and in some cases, the IT departments are a shadow of their former selves.
One of the realities is that outsourcing a lot of computing functionality to hosted services often leads to downsizing of the IT staff itself–a trend IT pros obviously aren’t wild about.
“It’s definitely a challenge not having an army anymore,” Peacock said.
Making things worse, managed service providers (MSPs) and their change management processes are far from perfect, Peacock said. “When everything is done over email and [instant messages], things fall through the cracks and it can be a real challenge getting things done,” he said.
Others have more prosaic concerns: Internet flameouts.
“The fear is that if the Internet goes down, you won’t be able to do your job because the tools won’t work,” said Michael Coté, an analyst with Redmonk. “That’s not a fear to be laughed at.”
At the same time, Coté said some IT managers may make too much of that pitfall, especially as it regards SaaS-based management tools. “If the Internet goes down for a company, not being able to configure your servers is probably the least of your worries.”
Still, providing services to end users over the Internet has to be a concern for IT managers, said Bill Kleyman, director of IT at Worldwide Fittings, a pipe fittings manufacturer in Nile, Ill.
“You always have to worry about the unhappy user … or the angry user,” Kleyman said. With SaaS, that’s a very real possibility, given flaky network connections and IT’s inability to go in and tinker and fix a problem.
An unstoppable force
Not every application is necessarily “SaaSy,” said Jonathan Eunice, principal IT advisor at Illuminata in Nashua, N.H. For example, applications that require local instrumentation or that have massive bandwidth requirements are probably better delivered as pre-configured virtual appliances that run on-premises.
But going forward, IT professionals need to get comfortable with SaaS-based applications, Eunice said. For years, ISVs have struggled with the “horror show” of developing software for users’ specific platforms, databases and middleware. “If the ISVs can minimize their exposure to that diversity, they probably will.”
In the long run, SaaS-based applications are just another manifestation of the maturation of IT, and IT managers that resist them need to get with the program, he said. “The idea of IT where you lovingly specify every last little piece–that’s an idea from the 1990s, and it’s just not going to fly in the next decade.”
Worldwide Fittings’ Kleyman agreed with this sentiment and is responding to the growing number of SaaS apps in his environment by branching out into yet more SaaS applications–identity federation tools that mirror users’ electronic profiles up in the cloud to augment his local Active Directory environment. Examples include services like those offered by Layer 7 Technologies in Vancouver and Ping Indentity Corp. of Denver.
“Sure, you want some level of control, but you’ve got to get with the times,” Kleyman said.