Software as a service: A collaboration tool?

Software-as-a-service is uniquely positioned to foster better collaboration between agencies and their constituents, software suppliers and agency officials say.

Many agencies are trying to understand the advantages and disadvantages of turning to a software delivery model in which the service provider typically hosts the software at its facilities and offers a flexible subscription pricing plan, usually as a monthly fee or on a pay-as-you-use basis.

With a SaaS model, organizations do not have to buy, install or maintain software or hardware because they access applications via the Internet from desktop PCs or mobile devices. The goal is to allow organizations to quickly implement business applications, letting them avoid large infrastructures and ongoing administrative costs.

Many agencies are holding back on making a commitment as they assess cost, cultural, integration and security issues. However, some state and federal agencies are reaping information sharing and collaboration benefits. They have also reduced the time and costs associated with application development.

The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP), a federal agency that promotes the preservation of the nation's historic resources, has deployed a SaaS application from Salesforce.com to manage content information across the agency.

Although ACHP is a single agency, its various departments need to share information. So the agency needed a tool that could break down the barriers between information that existed among different programs and departments, said Rezaur Rahman, enterprise architect and Web services manager at ACHP.

From an architecture standpoint, a SaaS model has sped up development of application prototypes and enabled Rezaur's team to demonstrate what an application will look like upon completion.

'That's a lot easier to get by [senior managers] than saying we're going to build something that will take years and [still] it might not work,' he said during a panel discussion at the SaaSGov conference held last week by the Software Information Industry Association and Information Technology Association of America in Washington.

SaaS is a critical tool to help lower application development and is also being applied to help state agencies share intellectual property, said Aneesh Chopra, secretary of technology of Virginia.

The state is a member of Salesforce.com's Government-to-Government AppExchange, a peer-to-peer community where public-sector organizations can share on-demand software with one another. Virginina's Department of Business Assistance uses the exchange to offer Business One-Stop, an e-government portal and employee-facing application for new business registration.

SaaS is a business model built on the concept of service-oriented architecture, and as a result, is uniquely positioned to provide collaboration capabilities, said Brent Kastner, director of operations at GovDelivery, during a panel on SaaS architecture. The company provides e-mail and digital subscription management services to agencies, sending out automated e-mail alerts for clients such as the FBI and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Users can now go to the CDC Web site and sign up to get alerts from a list of topics. 'As we extend this to what we call the GovDelivery Network, we can actually mash up data from different [agencies] because they share a platform,' he said.

A portal Web page could then be developed where related topics from many agencies could be presented together in a way that benefits all agencies involved, Kastner said.

The State Department is testing a program management application from Salesforce.com that will allow employees in the agency's Nonproliferation and Disarmament Fund to collaborate and share information among themselves and with other countries, said Steve Saboe, director of the division.

'Software as a service is a tool,' he said. 'It is not the answer to everything that is out there. It is another tool that allows us to extend ourselves in a different way.'

For instance, 'I don't want it controlling airplanes. It's the wrong tool for that task. We like it because it allows us to manage programs and collaborate with others,' Saboe said.

About the Author

Rutrell Yasin is is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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