Practical Advice for Choosing a Hosted Web Application

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A web application is just as it implies, an application you can access over the web as opposed to running it locally on your PC or Local Area Network (LAN). With the reliability, cost effectiveness, and ubiquity of Internet connectivity, hosted web applications have become a popular way for business applications to be distributed to consumers. By having the web application hosted, your business can focus on your core competencies, offloading much of the cost and complexity of I.T. management including upgrades, backups, database administration, scalability, security, remote access, and infrastructure management. Hosted web applications may also deliver improved integration and interoperability with other complimentary web applications instead of your organization having to maintain a variety of interfaces.practical advice choosing hosted web app

How Did Hosted Web Applications Emerge?

The performance, availability, and features that most hosted web applications provide is a true luxury. However, it took awhile to get here, along with some blood, sweat, and tears.

Historically, legacy business applications had to be installed locally on servers or workstations. Many of these applications were called “Client/Server” as they required a “client” component to run on the workstation along with a “server” component, typically the database, located on your server. In the small business segment, this model hit the mainstream in the early 90s led by Unix/Xenix, Novell, and later Microsoft NT based LANs. Although the concept appears simplistic – hook up a bunch of workstations and a server, it was actually quite complex, costly, and problematic. As the network services manager for an I.T. consulting firm in those days, I can attest to numerous late nights spent troubleshooting and maintaining these networks and associated Client/Server applications.

Through the 90s, LAN network technology matured into its adolescent phase and the platforms stabilized. That said, the inherent nature of the Client/Server model typically averages over two weeks of unplanned downtime each year, and requires a significant amount of effort to maintain and support. The leading causes of downtime associated with this application delivery model include viruses, software updates, patches, hardware component failures, and database inconsistencies.

Around the turn of the 21st century, web applications emerged to coincide with Internet connectivity achieving a critical mass and becoming more cost effective. Early web applications were based on a “thin client”, removing many of the variables of locally installed applications, and were often termed “web-enabled”.

What Are the Terms?

Just like your favorite ice cream, web applications come in many flavors and portions. Here are some common terms and concepts you should become familiar with to better understand what makes up a web application:

Web applications can come in a variety of different “flavors”:

  • Web-enabled – An application written to be installed on a LAN which has been “enabled” to run over the web.
  • Thin Client – A terminal-based client requiring minimal software or processing power on the workstation. This component is typically used for web-enabled applications.
  • Remote-hosted – An outsourced application hosting and deployment model using various connectivity options.
  • Web-based – An outsourced application hosting and deployment model via the web. Also termed “web-deployed”.

Web applications are typically available in three different “portions”:

  • Customer Hosted – Your organization would install, host, and maintain the web application on your own servers.
  • Remote Hosted or ASP – (Application Service Provider) – An outsourced service provider hosts the business application and may provide additional I.T. services. This approach is typically used for horizontal applications such as Microsoft Office, mainstream CRMs, and email. Cloudworks is an example of a market leading ASP.
  • SaaS – Software as a Service – The software vendor is the ASP, hosting their own application along with providing maintenance, support and upgrades as part of the solution. This is the preferred method of delivery for vertical applications which require frequent updates and unique insight required to deliver optimal performance and availability. In the healthcare segments of Fire/EMS and Home Health, Sansiowas one of the pioneers of SaaS, delivering their vertical web applications in a service-oriented approach.

In contrast to their LAN-based forefathers, hosted web applications are typically built using “best of breed” hardware, software, and security tools, thereby delivering much higher availability and a lower Total Cost of Ownership (TCO).

What Questions Should I Ask?

Finding a reputable ASP or SaaS partner for mission critical business applications is important since your organization places more reliance on this relationship than with traditional LAN-based software providers. The benefits gained can be substantial considering the expertise and application availability most ASP or SaaS vendors can bring to your organization. There is no Better Business Bureau of ASP or SaaS vendors, but here are a few things to consider when choosing one:

1. How long has the company been in the business of delivering ASP or SaaS solutions?

Strive for at least five years, as vendors new to the ASP or SaaS deployment model take a while to tune their applications and measure service delivery in order to gain the experience needed to deliver a reliable business service.

2. Does the ASP or SaaS vendor partner host its own application or outsource?

Typically, database-driven business applications require constant hands-on maintenance directly from the developer. If the vendor partner manages the delivery environment, having greater control allows them to better respond to issues and introduce new features more quickly.

What are the technical and physical capabilities of the ASP or SaaS partner’s delivery centers?

At a minimum, their delivery centers should have the following characteristics:

-Their Internet connectivity should be served by multiple, redundant ISPs via different physical routes from the delivery centers.

-Their delivery centers should have secondary power sources for redundancy.

-Their delivery centers should have physical environmental and security controls inclusive of limited, logged access.

-Their delivery centers should be physically located in regions of the country with minimal environmental issues.

3. Does the SLA (Service Level Agreement) have availability guarantees?

Most ASP or SaaS providers offer a monthly, consumer-friendly subscription pricing model. This keeps the vendor’s “skin in the game” to provide high availability and service since customers are not required to pay large sums of money up front.

4. What is the history of downtime due to unscheduled maintenance?

Typical LAN-based systems experience over 2 weeks of downtime per year, or about 96% availability. An ASP or SaaS partner providing a mission critical business service should be able to exceed 99% historical availability by scaling an enterprise-level infrastructure across multiple customers.

In summary, hosted web applications can provide centralized, secured access to critical business applications and minimize the challenges and costs associated with maintaining in-house systems. Hosted web application providers are able to scale the significant costs associated with delivering high availability solutions across their customer base. The result is that businesses both large and small can enjoy an enterprise-level solution at a fraction of the price of what it would cost to deploy a similar end user experience themselves.

Looking for software? Check out Capterra's list of the best software solutions.

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About the Author

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Kraig Erickson

Kraig Erickson is the VP of Sales for Sansio, a leading provider of SaaS solutions for Homecare and Fire/EMS healthcare providers. Prior to joining Sansio, Kraig was employed with Wizmo, Inc., an Application Service Provider (ASP) and pioneer of the Saas (Software as a Service) model. Kraig graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Business Management, with an emphasis in Computer Science from the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, MN and has written several articles on business technology.

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