Monday, July 20, 2009

Can SaaS Companies Go Back to Basics?

"Change is a bouncing ball on the circumference of a circle"

I was recently at an AWS conference and met with a substantial number of SaaS companies that are running their full production on the Amazon EC2 and S3, albeit all were relatively early stage, smaller companies. I spoke with half a dozen VP Ops or their equivalents, and all stated that they were satisfied with the service and the uptime, and did not experience major outages.
I have also met recently with a number of successful SaaS companies that we under 20 people total – and that includes R&D and Sales & Marketing and running the 24X7 operations.

So it got me thinking that if SaaS companies can do well without the need to deal with hardly any aspect of the infrastructure we may be approaching a completion of full circle.

History 101

Since the dawn of time (January 1, 1970 – Unix time, that is) there were software companies. If they were successful, they excelled at writing software and testing it, and with time developed good professional services capabilities. And of course they needed to know how to market themselves and sell, and partner – but that was true of any company out there, whether they were manufacturing rubber gaskets or CAD software.

Fast forward to the post-boom, post-ASP era, and a new breed of software vendors appeared on the scene. As they were pioneering the new on-demand model; they all owned their infrastructure, and probably some of them were even hosting the hardware in their own back office.
These new SaaS vendors had to have expertise in their domain and their software, of course, but also in operations, 24X7 customer support, servers, power, storage, DBs, networking, security, performance and load testing, on top of the mastering the model of selling services rather than software.

As the market rapidly expanded, SaaS enablement companies grew around these new vendors, and started offering hosting at first (real estate and power), then networking capabilities, and then basic network monitoring services.

Two trends developed. On one hand, Managed Services companies (e.g. IP-Soft) offered to take over all the routine operations of managing the infrastructure up to the application level. That included monitoring and maintaining the network gear, servers, storage, DBs, Web servers and their respective operating systems.
On the other hand one saw the rise of Managed Hosting companies (e.g. Rackspace).that rented out the hardware itself on top of the real estate and offered ever growing services around the hardware.

And, there are companies (such as OpSource) that offer everything from hosting, to servers, storage, application management, 1st and 2nd tier helpdesk, as well as reading you bedtime stories.

Now we are seeing companies that offer QA services (especially performance, but not limited to), security services, integration services (AKA Professional Services), 24X7 answering services and tucking you into bed.

It is too early to tell how successful this ecosystem will turn out to be, and what percent of SaaS companies will subscribe to this model, but the emerging trend is clear – SaaS companies are offered the opportunity to go back and do what they do best – write software.

Nobody Does it Better

The question is where do you draw the line? Keep in mind that the success of a SaaS company relies mostly on the second S (Service) and less on the first S (Software), or put another way – depending on the execution more than the quality of the software.

I see a number of areas that must be directly managed by the SaaS staff:
  • Product development
  • Customer relationships
  • Application management
As for functional testing, performance testing, security testing – they may all be outsourced, but never relinquish control of these processes.
Ditto for professional/integration services – you may hire an outsourcer/partner to perform these functions, but ultimately, the customer success lies at your door.

My friend and SaaS networking expert, Gil, says that you should never outsource the infra or the management of it because nobody will take care of your baby as good as yourself.

I recently had a conversation with a managed services account manager that confided in me that managing the infra of SaaS companies is far more difficult than that of your average enterprise IT, since the SaaS companies are far more sophisticated, have deeper technological understandings and higher availability and response requirements.

Another question is at what point do you want to take back ownership? Does a certain size and complexity of the service and business justify bringing in your own teams of experts to handle those tasks listed above? The cost of doing it yourself will probably start going down as you grow, but the company’s values might dictate sticking to the core competencies – Hey, isn’t that what the SaaS offering is all about?