The lock-in risks of Software as a Service

I started thinking a lot about software as a service environments and what this really means to customers.  I was talking to a CIO of a medium sized company the other day. His company is a customer of a major SaaS vendor (he didn’t want me to name the company). In the beginning things were quite good. The application is relatively easy to navigate and sales people were satisfied with the functionality. However, there was a problem. The use of this SaaS application was actually getting more complicated than the CIO had anticipated.  First, the company had discovered that they were locked into a three-year contract to support 450 sales people.  In addition, over the first several years of use, the company had hired a consultant to customize the workflow within the application.

So, what was the problem?  The CIO was increasingly alarmed about three issues:

  • The lack of elasticity. If the company suddenly had a bad quarter and wanted to reduce the number of licenses supported, they would be out of luck. One of the key promises of cloud computing and SaaS just went out the window.
  • High costs of the services model. It occurred to the CIO that the company was paying a lot more to support the SaaS application than it would have cost to buy an on premise CRM application. While there were many benefits to the reduced hardware and support requirements, the CIO was starting to wonder if the costs were justified.  Did the company really do the analysis to determine the long-term cost/benefit of cloud?  How would he be able to explain the long- term ramifications of budget increases that he expects will come to the CFO? It is not a conversation that he is looking forward to having.
  • No exit strategy. Given the amount of customization that the company has invested in, it is becoming increasingly clear that there is no easy answer – and no free lunch. One of the reasons that the company had decided to implement SaaS was the assumption that it would be possible to migrate from one SaaS application to another.  However, while it might be possible to migrate basic data from a SaaS application, it is almost impossible to migrate the process information. Shouldn’t there be a different approach to integration in clouds than for on premise?

The bottom line is that Software as a Service has many benefits in terms of more rapid deployment, initial savings in hardware and support services, and ease of access for a highly distributed workforce.  However, there are complications that are important to take into account.  Many SaaS vendors, like their counterparts in the on-premise world, are looking for long-term agreements and lock-in with customers.  These vendors expect and even encourage customers to customize their implication based on their specific business processes.  There is nothing wrong with this – to make applications like CRM and HR productive they need to reflect a company’s own methods of doing business. However, companies need to understand what they are getting into. It is easy to get caught in the hype of the magic land of SaaS.  As more and more SaaS companies are funded by venture capitalists, it is clear that they will not all survive. What happens to your customized processes and data if the company goes out of business?

It is becoming increasingly clear to me that we need a different approach to integration in the cloud than for on premise. It needs to leverage looser coupling, configurations rather than programmatic integration. We have the opportunity to rethink integration altogether – even for on premise applications.

There is no simple answer to the quandary.  Companies looking to deploy a SaaS application need to do their homework before barreling in.  Understand the risks and rewards. Can you separate out the business process from the basic SaaS application? Do you really want to lock yourself into a vendor you don’t know well? It may not be so easy to free your company, your processes, or your data.

  1. May 25, 2010 at 8:11 pm

    This has got to be one of the best sites I have seen. A very informative report!

  2. May 28, 2010 at 3:57 pm

    Good discussion of the issues companies can have once they have selected a SaaS solution. While the issues you discuss are mostly not fully understood until after the customer has committed to the SaaS solution, Many companies get themselves into trouble even this point. Unless a company understands the differences between selecting a SaaS solution and a COTS solution, even the initial selection process can lead to SaaS horror stories.

    What you call “doing their homework” is covered in this discussion of some of the factors to consider when selecting a SaaS solution:

    http://www.virtusa.com/blog/index.php/2010/05/10-factors-to-consider-when-selecting-saas-solutions/

    Thanks for informative blog. I am following and enjoying your posts.

  1. May 3, 2010 at 11:25 am

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