Cloud computing and software as a service are two of the hottest topics of discussion in the technology community today. So if you're a marketer, you may feel now is the moment to turn away and find something more interesting and relevant to read. Well, don't, because this is a topic that has the potential to be hugely liberating for marketers. The sooner you grasp the concepts, the more quickly you can deploy this insight to create great digital experiences for your customers and enhanced revenues for your company.
What is cloud computing? Put simply, all the computing infrastructure and intelligence (software, data and servers) that you use is owned and managed remotely by a third party, and accessed by you via the internet using your web browser. A simple example is Google Mail. Users set up their email account via a web browser and access and manage email through the same interface. The data remains 'in the cloud', managed by Google, and users do not have to download any software.
Within cloud computing is software as a service (SaaS). With a SaaS deployment, the software vendor provides an application to customers as a service on demand. Generally, the SaaS vendor hosts the application on their own web servers.
Many of the innovative CRM, marketing automation and social software vendors operate via a SaaS model of delivery. But why is this important to a marketer focused on sales, brand value and customer experience, not how technology is delivered?
It matters because this approach has some considerable benefits. It is potentially hugely liberating for marketers, particularly in larger enterprises, where the IT function can appear frustratingly slow for marketers trying to keep up with the breakneck speed of changing customer expectations online, and where putting together a business case in new areas of digital may be challenging.
SaaS applications are subscription based, often with a monthly service fee, rather than a traditional software licence. This means lower initial costs, which makes it easier to fund new projects. And because the SaaS vendor manages the IT infrastructure, there are no additional costs for hardware, software and human resources. Furthermore, the ongoing IT overheads at the company level are reduced, because the SaaS vendor handles updates and upgrades.
The SaaS model is also highly flexible, allowing companies to pay only for what they need immediately and then scale according to demand, without the need for infrastructure investment or additional resources. Such flexibility is advantageous in emerging areas such as social networking, where piloting concepts and regular changes are to be expected.
So with the prospect of faster deployment, lower cost and less risk, what's not to like? There are some potential drawbacks.
First and foremost, if you head to the IT department for buy-in, security will almost certainly be the number one potential objection. The mindset is changing in corporations when it comes to cloud computing and SaaS offerings, led by the success of software vendors such as Google and Salesforce.com, but there is no doubt this is a major change in approach for IT departments. Data security is a core responsibility for IT departments, so it's no surprise that they're concerned with technology hosted and served externally.
In truth, there is a lot less risk in reality than is often perceived. SaaS-based offerings often provide a similar or even higher level of security than is provided internally. SaaS providers know that security is a big issue and have therefore built it into their solutions from the ground up. Many solutions are hosted in secure datacentres built solely for the purpose of managing servers and keeping them secure.
There obviously remains the issue of ensuring that the vendor is reputable and trustworthy. Most SaaS providers in that category will offer service level agreements to meet your security expectations.
If technology is becoming increasingly integrated into how you sell, manage relationships and build your brand's reputation, and you want to harness new technology quickly and cost-effectively, take a closer look at SaaS. But be prepared to lobby your colleagues to embrace change and to use new, improved approaches to deploying technology.
This was first published in February 2010