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SaaS, New Releases and Your Lack of Control

By - Source: Toms IT Pro

SaaS vendors view upgrades differently from those offering on premise, licensed software.

SaaS vendors view upgrades differently from those offering on premise, licensed software. SaaS vendors view upgrades differently from those offering on premise, licensed software.

One difference I am starting to see between SaaS (Software as a Service) and on premise, licensed software is the way vendors view upgrades.

I don’t have enough data to make any conclusions yet but I’ve seen enough examples to make me wonder if a new model of legacy support is emerging.

From what I’ve seen over many years in the IT industry, software vendors tended to slowly remove support for features they wanted to get rid of.  When you make a major version upgrade you might read in the documentation that a function or set of services is being deprecated. You know you should avoid using this feature because it’s been replaced by another, more powerful version or it will not be supported in a future release. If you have code that makes use of such features you’ll have time to revise your code and come up with an alternate solution to your requirement.

I suspect SaaS support models are morphing into something different. Rather than give you a long window of time to upgrade (e.g. the time between major upgrades), you might find a notice in the SaaS provider’s blog that an API function is going away or a feature will work differently in the next release.  In a worst case scenario, the changes will just appear without any action on your part. 

If you are the cloud application administrator, expect a few calls from users when this happens.

A better version of this scenario allows you to choose whether to continue to use the older version of a feature or switch to the newer version.  Google used this option when deploying its new Gmail interface and Google Drive.  Users had the option to keep the classic mail interface for a while; they could even try the new interface and switch back temporarily if they did not like it.

Google, however, was the one to decide when everyone would have to use the new interface.  Google Docs users have the option of switching from their collections based organization to the Google Drive model. The interfaces are pretty similar but there were important changes in functionality. For example, in the collections model, when you organized documents they could be placed in multiple collections. This was ideal for document sharing across multiple groups of users with different access privileges to your collections.

In Google Drive, you choose a single folder to contain a document much like a conventional file directory.  There are pros and cons to both approaches but the issue is not which is better. The issue is how much control do you have over feature sets and when they are deployed?

SaaS providers can justify an “our way or the highway” approach for no-charge services (they are not free services, we trade plenty of personal information for services in some cases). The paid version of Google Apps gives administrators a choice between rapid release and schedule releases.

When choosing a SaaS provider you are buying into features offered today and whatever features the provider may choose to support in the future. How much say will you have? If feature changes become disruptive, expect to see service level agreements specifying feature lifetimes and transition requirements along with standard measures like application uptime and storage durability.

Dan Sullivan is an author, systems architect, and consultant with over 20 years of IT experience with engagements in systems architecture, enterprise security, advanced analytics and business intelligence. He has worked in a broad range of industries, including financial services, manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, software development, government, retail, gas and oil production, power generation, life sciences, and education.  Dan has written 16 books and numerous articles and white papers about topics ranging from data warehousing, Cloud Computing and advanced analytics to security management, collaboration, and text mining.

See here for all of Dan's Tom's IT Pro articles.

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