When Microsoft started speaking about Software as a Service (SaaS)—aka cloud computing or Software-plus-Services (S+S), I could hear the squeals and shrieks of IT people around the world saying that Microsoft was taking their jobs away or putting VARs out of business. But stepping back from the hysteria, perhaps we should take a good look at how the world has changed. After all, many of you IT people changed it.

For instance, many of us have email accounts with several services (e.g., Gmail, MSN, Yahoo!), in addition to a company account. That’s SaaS. There’s a new mantra in the IT community that I like to refer to as Nuovo IT. I coined this expression after attending a session at Windows Connections where Steve Reilly was speaking, to describe his vision of the data center of the near future. He spoke about doing business with access to data

  • at any time
  • at any place
  • on any device
  • on any OS

When you think about this idea, it makes perfect sense. Early commercial portal offerings from the first part of this decade attempted to accomplish what Reilly was talking about. But at that time, connectivity issues and the non-ubiquitous nature of Web access and the OSs themselves caused a good deal of venture capital investments in portal companies to go to waste. Contrast such limitations with the state of SaaS today, when Microsoft is offering several kinds of offerings that have several levels of support.

Where SaaS Makes Sense
Here’s a typical SaaS scenario. Suppose you’re an IT consulting company. You have 15 servers that you have to keep up to maintain your business. Perhaps you support a number of Microsoft Small Business Server (SBS) clients as well as some midsized networks. Those 15 servers take up quite a bit of your time. If you have 30 people in your organization, then managing your Exchange server alone is taking a chunk of time. That’s time that you could be using to grow your business and taking care of customers, which would be billable time. The Exchange server management task could well be a candidate for moving offsite to an SaaS model, such as a hosted Exchange service.

Another business application that fits within the cloud computing model is CRM. I work extensively with Microsoft Dynamics CRM, which Microsoft is making available as an online version (as the company has done with other products, such as Microsoft SharePoint Online and Microsoft Exchange Hosted Services) as well as the traditional server-based, inhouse-hosted product.

Delivering Services
What does Microsoft Dynamics CRM Online deliver? Let’s take a look.

When you first hit the link http://crm.dynamics.com, you see a typical product marketing page. But as you register, you see firsthand how quickly an online, SaaS version of a product can be deployed. You can rapidly set up an application and get access to resources that will be available in the Nuovo IT manner.

Microsoft Dynamics CRM Online will integrate with your local Microsoft Office Outlook 2007 client, and you can upload and download data from the online application to your existing onsite applications.

Returning to our IT consulting company scenario, you realize that you don’t have to buy any servers or Windows Server licenses. You also know that Microsoft is running this application on a huge SQL Server back end that you probably couldn’t afford—and even if you could, it wouldn’t make business sense to buy an 8-way 64-bit Intel Xeon for your 30-person company. And now your sales and support people have a tool that they can use, anytime, anywhere, and believe it or not, you can get it going on a PDA. How sweet it is.

Now the lights go on, and SaaS is not such a harbinger of doom but rather a way to extend functionality and economies of scale to your business.

Adapting the Product to Your Business
Of course, Microsoft won’t let you have administrator access to its data centers. So “on-premise” deployments of all the major Microsoft server packages make sense in the right scenarios. But now there are online application options that have compelling financial and technical value and are extensible; that is, they can be adapted to business needs, as the options on the Getting Started page show.

To illustrate, suppose I’m a sales manager who subscribes to the new CRM Online service. So, naturally, I’ll hone in on the sales areas of the Getting Started list. I’ll see that the default label for customers in the application is Accounts, but in my organization they’re called Clients. I don’t need to call a developer or an administrator to change the label. Rather, I can customize the label and other business entities within the application, as you see below.

There’s also an option to provide this same view when the CRM Outlook client is integrated with the online version of CRM 4.0. This feature lets you provide a consistent interface to workers who are offline or not in your office.

Dynamics CRM Online is one example of how Microsoft is providing a worthwhile array of SaaS/cloud computing/S+S offerings in addition to its server-based applications. These online applications are a pragmatic, extensible option for small businesses or organizations that would rather direct their resources into growing their business instead of dedicating onsite technical staff to supporting applications.

Perhaps SaaS will become part of your life after all.