Tuesday, September 08, 2009

SaaS 70 – Nextgen Certification for On-demand companies

“A certified lunatic is certified nonetheless” (Dani, 2009).

I was asked by one of my readers (note the plural) to include a chapter on SAS 70 in my upcoming book on SaaS Service Operations. I must admit that I was not sure if he was advocating SAS 70 or he wanted me to discuss certifications for SaaS, since I am not a fan of the former but a promoter of the latter.

Confusion is defining the SaaS market when it comes to certification.
Enterprise IT personnel certainly do not know what questions to ask, so they generate these long RFPs that are very similar to the on-premise RFPs, and they slap on top of it security questions that make their CSO officer feel important with a multitude of acronyms that are either relevant or not. Most on-demand ISVs wouldn’t know how to define a ‘certified’ SaaS either.

The good news is that the customer base is demanding assurances. While a few years back, the concerns were mostly security and mostly compared to on-premise solutions, the market is maturing and now there are a myriad on-demand solutions for every vertical or horizontal aspect of applications.
So how does an IT professional distinguish between the good and better solutions? How can she judge whether the SaaS provider will stand up to its SLAs, whether the data is secured and operational procedures exist and are followed?

SAS 70
The truth is, there are no authoritative answers to these questions nowadays. With a glowing lack of SaaS certification the only default out there is SAS 70.

Statement on Auditing Standards No.70 (SAS 70) is an internationally recognized auditing standard developed by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) in 1992. It is used to report on the "processing of transactions by service organizations", which can be done by completing either a Type I or a Type II audit. A SAS 70 Type I is known as "reporting on controls placed in operation", while a SAS 70 Type II is known as "reporting on controls placed in operation" and "tests of operating effectiveness" (http://www.sas70.us.com/what-is/definition-of-sas70.php)

(Disclosure: I have not undergone a SAS 70 audit in the companies I worked for. My knowledge is based on reading and sharing other companies’ experiences)

What’s good about SAS 70
The fact that SaaS companies want to take the extra (expensive) step to distinguish themselves from the rest of the pack, shows a level of maturity and seriousness about their business. SAS 70 requires that you have a set of practices and that you are following them.
This in itself is a big step forward for most SaaS companies – they actually have a set of defined practices.
Sorry, only two short paragraphs on the benefits.

The shortcomings of SAS 70
This audit was not defined for SaaS. It was developed in 1992, years before even ASPs were in vogue. It is a general audit for service organizations and covers a wide range of businesses, from credit processing, to medical insurance and data processing.
There are no specifics for an on-demand software company. Heck, there are no specifics for a software company either.

Please note the language “A SAS 70 audit helps companies meet regulatory compliance…”, and “a SAS 70 audit provides an additional layer of accountability…”
Nowhere does is state that it certifies the company at any level, other than the fact that the audit was done.
It reminds me of cosmetic advertizing “makes your skin feel younger” – how very scientific.
There are no recommendations, no standards to meet, no right or wrong. It merely states that you have practices (good or bad) in place, and that you are following them.

As mentioned, the mere fact that there are defined practices exhibits a level of maturity, so I do not belittle the exercise, but there are no provisions in SAS 70 to avoid documenting your bad practices and following them through.

SaaS 70
There is a dire need for a certification program for SaaS companies as the domain matures and SaaS becomes a major component of IT.
IT wants to know that you are a competent service operator, that you are running a tight shop and that the service will be around next Thanksgiving.
I am suggesting a certification program, currently named SaaS 70 (to demonstrate my famous wit), which includes three elements:
  • Service Operational Maturity – Has the company defined and implemented practices and procedures for running a robust operation, to ensure that SLAs are met? This would include Change Mgmt, Release Mgmt, Incident mgmt, Event Mgmt, Availability Mgmt, On-boarding, de-provisioning, integration, data retention, etc.
  • Security – covering all aspects of password policies, data separation, vulnerability testing, virus protection, privacy, etc.
  • Service Continuity – examining the financial viability of the company and what plans are in place to continue providing the service even if the ISV goes belly-up.
Within each component the company will score a level of maturity beyond a pass/fail that comprises coverage, depth, documentation, and tools. And, of course, the report will include recommendations for improvement and scaling up the maturity ladder.

Only with such a specific, SaaS-centric, verifiable and accountable program, will the consumer of these on-demand services know that a company can or cannot meet their expectations.