Are Appliances SaaS?
Posted by Bob Warfield on October 13, 2007
I’ve been cogitating on this one since I read a SaaSWeek post on the subject.
Ben Kepes and the UnreasonableMen have held forth on the subject. Ben says SaaS has to be in the clouds and the UnreasonableMen say it does not. This all hinges on the question of whether an appliance that can be remotely managed by it’s vendor to include all updates and admin chores provides all the benefits of SaaS or whether there is something about having the machine be in the cloud that “real” SaaS requires.
I’m in the camp that appliances are not SaaS, but I do view them as better than “regular” on-premises software. What do they lack vis a vis “real” SaaS? Here is my list:
Appliances Need Maintenance of Some Kind
What if a hard disk or power supply goes bad in the appliance? Fixing it is going to be more painful than a SaaS vendors hot failover where you should not even have to know it ever happened. Granted, dealing with these things is a (hopefully) rare occurence, but it is nevertheless something to keep in mind.
You have to find a spot in your datacenter for the box, and feed it electricity and cooling. Again, this may be a small enough thing, but it is overhead you don’t deal with on a true SaaS vendor.
This is a small collection of tasks that your IT group has to take on with appliances that they wouldn’t deal with if the computing were in the cloud.
At the SaaS vendor’s end, it’s more expensive for them to maintain a bunch of remote appliances too. They have to either buy hardware, or ensure that if you use your own hardware it gets properly configured. Configuring and shipping out boxes is painful, and talking your IT staff through installation on your own box is painful.
Lastly, if a fault develops in the appliance software that makes it impossible to remotely debug, you’re dead in the water. If it’s in the SaaS vendor’s data center, they can always get inside the guts to fix things. Such faults can happen. Imagine the consequences of accidentally sending out a patch that renders all the appliances that download the patch deaf to further patches. That would be an expensive mistake for all concerned!
Economies of Scale Don’t Exist for Appliances, So They’re More Expensive
SaaS vendors use multitenancy to amortize multiple customers into their hardware. There is cost savings in this that is impossible to capture for an appliance. In addition, SaaS infrastructure has an easier time arranging bulk multi-location backups and the like. We talked about failover above. If you start shipping backups from the appliance to some SaaS cloud datacenter, why bother with the appliance in the first place?
When Might an Appliance Make Sense?
Given these disadvantages which equate to more cost and trouble, one wonders whether there are advantages to the appliance that offset the disadvantages, at least for certain applications. I see two advantages, one perceived and one real.
First, some customers may simply be more comfortable having the data and application inside the firewall. This is a perception issue that has changed tremendously in recent years and will continue to be less and less an issue as the SaaS world matures and customers get more experience with it.
Second, there may be real technical reasons why the application works a lot better inside the firewall. I can envision security and high bandwidth LAN connection to other systems as being examples of this. There may be regulatory issues for certain kinds of applications that require the data stay put.
SaaS is a slippery subject. It means many things to many people. Rather than argue there is only one definition of “real” SaaS, or that SaaS is associated with some technology such as multitenant, it probably makes more sense to recognize that SaaS is a continuum of service levels. I happen to think that placing the software in the cloud is the least requirement to have before you can call the offering “SaaS”, hence my feeling that appliances don’t qualify. I’ve pointed out some of the advantages that accrue to any cloud-based offering. In a later post, I will discuss what some of the other levels might be to move you on to “better” SaaS. I also want to take a look at where the current crop of SaaS apps can do even more.