Many software companies claim to be cloud based. Before anyone puts their trust in one of these companies, it is prudent to fully understand what the software company is doing and how they are storing and serving your data and applications.
SaaS is short for Software as a Service. SaaS is a term that is not specific for any industry. Rather, it is a term that is used in information technology overall. To understand what SaaS really is, it is important to understand cloud computing. In short, SaaS is a method whereby a software company deploys its applications to its users via the internet. More will be explained later.
First, let’s discuss the craziness surrounding the way people talk about cloud-based computing. In an attempt to keep it simple, many technology companies have generalized their discussion and grouped their technology into one term – cloud computing. This is easy (and who doesn’t like easy) but when you are deciding on who to partner with, it is best to fully understand what they mean.
If you have been around more than a few years, then you know that computing technology has evolved. Perhaps you remember the days before PCs when the only computing that was available was on the city or county’s mainframe or mid-range computer. These were often IBM or NCR or Honeywell computers. Normally, law enforcement departments either didn’t have access to these computers or if they did, the programs they used were custom written for their city and department.
Midrange and Mainframe computing was stable and steady but limited access to those users who were physically connected to the main computer via very specific wiring and software protocols. Connecting remote workers was expensive and complex and telecommunications providers took advantage of this by offering long term contracts that were difficult to migrate out of. Generally, with midrange and mainframe computing, only those cities and counties with deep staffs and strong budgets could afford to connect their remote employees to the system.
The next phase of computing involved servers and workstations. We commonly called that type of computer client/server. There is a lot of client/server computing still being used today. Most of the traditional software providers in law enforcement use client/server computing to deliver solutions to their users.
Client/Server computer had some inherit benefits. First, the computing could happen on the server or on the workstation or both. Servers (the hardware) are less expensive than mainframes computers. Companies like Microsoft and Novell invested heavily in training which resulted in a large pool of technical talent to help drive this technology in the market place. This combination resulted in client/server computing growing very quickly and many software companies developed for this environment. Unfortunately, the complexity of client/server computing drove up the costs and created many challenges with software maintenance and support.
When PCs and the Internet was born, things changed again. Suddenly, users were no longer restricted to access via specific networking protocols. The internet brought us things like browsers and plugins and services that could be used by anyone anywhere. This computing environment opened the opportunity for the birth of Software as a Service.
Software as a Service “is a software distribution model in which a third-party provider hosts applications and makes them available to customers over the internet”. By definition, a SaaS company designs their solution to be hosted and served via the internet. Why is this so important? This is important because by design, SaaS providers take full advantage of all the technology and tools created for web-based computing and the benefit of this is enjoyed by its user community. It’s like driving a car that was designed to run like a well-oiled machine versus buying a semi-truck that was converted to be a single-family vehicle.
The biggest benefit of using a true SaaS provider is that only one version of the software exists. The SaaS provider writes one version of each program, delivers that version to all users and maintains that version of the program. The reason this is beneficial is because the software company does not have to support multiple versions of its solution and this translates to faster delivery of enhancements for all their users. Likewise. This model is less expensive to maintain, and support and those savings are enjoyed by all users.
Another huge benefit of SaaS is interoperability. Interoperability is just a fancy word for the ability to work with other computing systems. Programs designed for delivery through the SaaS model are easily and quickly integrated with other programs using application programming interfaces (APIs). In simple terms, this means that if you have a court system or an accounting system that needs information from your SaaS system, those programs can get to it easily through the API. And, your SaaS system only needs one API because there is only one version of the program.
Equally important to the things already mentioned, SaaS solutions are scalable. That only matters if your computing needs are growing. We know that all agencies are experiencing a growing need for storing digital data, therefore, we consider that all agencies are experiencing growth where their computing and storage needs are concerned. With SaaS, you don’t have to purchase any hardware as you grow. Your SaaS provider simply accommodates your growth and you always only pay for what you need.
The final (and perhaps most significant) benefit to SaaS is that the payment process is flexible and budget friendly. When you switch to SaaS computing, your funds are reallocated from CAPITAL expenses to OPERATIONAL expenses. Additionally, the total cost of computing is usually dramatically less with SaaS than it is with any other computing methodology.
If you are considering changing software, in addition to evaluating the functions of the software itself, if you are looking at “Cloud Based” software, be sure to ask the following technical questions.
- Where is the software that we will be using hosted?
- When was the software developed? When was it first introduced and when was it last updated?
- How often are improvements released?
- What is the process for releasing enhancements to the software?
- How do our users connect to your system? Is anything required on our PCs to ensure that the access meets CJIS security requirements?
- Where is my data hosted?
- What is the process for getting my data out of your system?
- How is backup and recovery handled?
- Do you have redundant computing processes and what are they?
Change is hard. But it doesn’t have to be. Understanding the difference between true SaaS Cloud Computing and a solution that is really client/server where the server is in some data center somewhere is a very important component of your decision of who to work with.
Don’t be fooled by a so called “safe” decision only to find out that the issues that are driving most companies to rebuild their solutions as SaaS have not been resolved by moving the server from the customer’s location to the software company’s data center.
At ALEN, we never had a client/server solution. We have always been in the secure cloud. We utilizes Microsoft Azure Government Cloud, are completely CJIS compliant and serve the same version of our CAD, RMS, Messaging and other applications to all our users. We are the gold standard for SaaS in Law Enforcement Computing. For more information on why we are partnered with Microsoft, go on over to our blog and read about the ALEN / Microsoft Partnership.
For more information on the Microsoft Secure Government Cloud, enjoy this informative video – MS Cloud Inside Look.
For an infographic comparing on—premise, hosted computing and SaaS, refer to the chart on the following page.
- On-Premise: The servers needed are physically located at the agency or city/county and all responsibility falls on the agency.
- Hosted Computing: The servers are located at a data center and the agency is connected via VPN or some other secure method. This is common for software companies with long time investment in traditional software development who are being asked for cloud solutions.
- SaaS: The servers are in a secure location by an Infrastructure as a Service provider who is skilled and experienced at mirroring, load balancing, disaster protection and recovery and provides contractual service level agreements.