The Cloud and SaaS – What is it all about?

I was recently asked to speak at a Glasgow Digital event explaining what Software as a Service (SaaS) was all about. Although well received, I think my presentation raised as many questions as it answered - certainly in my own mind. Having recently taken a decision to change my own business model from supplying traditional on-premise accounts, ERP and CRM solutions to providing best of breed cloud solutions, I now need to convince all around me that the cloud is the future.

My business is based on a traditional skill set of problem solving in the ERP world, making sure my clients have the information they need to run their business - not only when they need it, but where they need it. I have been doing this for many years and could not be described as “Generation Y”, those whose relationship with the internet is ‘inbred’. My generation actually used slide rules (I’ve got a collection) and my primary school did have lovely oak desks with ink wells.

So why am I banging on about the cloud and SaaS instead of investigating nursing homes? Basically, I believe my generation is about to have to go full circle. Our early life was free from technology and allowed us to develop thought, solve problems and engage with solutions. We currently need to make sure all our technology works before we solve the problem. Simplifying the technology is an opportunity to improve our lives, both in and out of work. We not only need to adopt new technology but we need to ensure it adds value and personally, I think the opportunity offered by the cloud is limited only by our own imagination on how to use it.

Why full circle?

Well, basically the cloud should take away a vast amount of internal technology. By moving our internal infrastructure to the cloud, we “sub-contract” our networking to those more able to manage it. All we need is connectivity, i.e. broadband, wireless, 3G or 4G connection to the web.

Businesses will have a choice of whether or not to have internal infrastructure. Technically we are jumping back 20 - 30 years to what was known as ‘thin client’, i.e. dumb terminals connected to a mainframe. Today’s mainframe is the cloud. In these halcyon days as long as the green screen worked, you left the IT problems to the guys on the mainframe. There was no need to know where they were or what they did – it just worked. Using the cloud to host your infrastructure is the same, albeit a much improved and more versatile ‘thin client’.

Of course there are options. You can do DIY and ‘rent’ a hosted server and install all your software off premise. For me this is not much gain for a slight improvement in accessibility. It is the “Service” in SaaS which makes the difference. By engaging in a SaaS solution you are not only buying software, but the provision of that software. No need to install, update or backup, you are simply gaining access to the software. In a true SaaS model, this means access anywhere at any time. But be warned, there are some hybrids.

What kind of software?

In our case it is accounts, ERP and CRM but it could be Microsoft Office 365, Exchange Server, Google apps etc. Basically there is a long and growing list of solutions available via this model. If you do not need to install it, maintain it and it is available 24/7, then it is SaaS.

What are the advantages?

Most companies list the “usual” suspects – reduced IT costs, no upfront costs, no updates, available anywhere and anytime, flexible (add users anytime). All of these are valid arguments for moving to the cloud/SaaS model but I believe they miss the most fundamental point. Moving to SaaS/Cloud models frees you up to do what you need to do – run your business more profitably.

The purpose of senior management in any business is to ensure the long term viability and profitability of the business, not to run the internal infrastructure and software. All businesses, regardless of type, need information. Not only do they need it, they need to react to it. I firmly believe the cloud and SaaS is an opportunity to focus on the important things which matter:

  • Why has margin dropped in one area for the last two months?
  • Why are donations falling?
  • Why are we over budget on advertising?

As a managing director I spend too much time “looking” for information and not enough time on reacting. I work with a file share on our sever holding most of my documents. I have some on my hard drive and some on an external drive (which I copied from the server when I thought I would not have access and never copied back). I also have information in our CRM and accounts system which I need.

Step 1 in resolving this “island of information” issue is to move it all to the cloud – and trust it! I should be able to go anywhere and access the information I need and via any device as well. The evolution of tablets (I do not go anywhere without my iPad!) means accessing useable information on the move is a reality. As a company we offer a support desk to our clients and too many support calls are about infrastructure related issues. Moving software to SaaS means we will focus on support issues around the application rather than the infrastructure.

What is holding me back?

Step 2 is we need to see a vast improvement in connectivity. If I am going to trust my business to the cloud I need to make sure I can connect, especially in rural communities, and not only connect, but connect at a reasonable cost.
The future?

In 5 to 10 years time, we will predominantly be a Saas/Cloud business community. Personally we are almost there; Google Docs, Facebook, web mail etc. Be prepared to return to the new “free from technology” technology and start thinking again!

About the Author

Alistair Livingstone is MD of Eureka Solutions, a software company focused on enabling organisations to operate more profitably by ensuring they have the right information when they need it and where they need it. The company specialises in ERP, CRM & BI solutions.

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