The use of information technology has become integral part in many processes in industry, and education is not an exception. Information and communication technologies are incorporated in all aspects of university life, enabling the university to deliver quality services to the students and faculty. Software is now increasingly being used to facilitate teaching and provide access to academic materials that can be used by students as well as faculty. Therefore, there is a need to carefully consider the type of software solution that can be used in the university to help it deliver its goals. On-premise software or SaaS solutions can be used to provide the envisaged services. However, a careful study of the opportunities and challenges that are associated with the use of SaaS shows that it is the best alternative that can be used to provide quality and reliable services in the university.
The Brandon University Science and Technology (BUST) is a small university, serving a student population of approximately three thousand students enrolled in a number of courses offered by the university’s four schools. The university is situated in the outskirts of Brandon, which is a small town in Manitoba province with a population of approximately forty-six thousand people. The university has been running for the last decade and is owned by a private consortium that hopes to develop it into a leading institution of higher learning with an emphasis in science and technology research and development. The university is relatively small compared to the leading universities in Canada but has the potential to expand considering that it has large freehold land that can be used for expansion. In addition, the local council has invested in improving the infrastructure linking the university to the outside world, making it easily accessible. Although the university is located in a relatively small town, its location on the populous Manitoba province provides it with a large catchment area for students. In addition, the location is ideal for supporting an emerging research community and the attendant businesses as it can provide an idyllic, suburban living environment.
The university is currently modernizing and upgrading its IT infrastructure as it seeks to make it easier for students to access services online as well expand the range of services that are available through the university portal. Among other things, the CIO is hoping to implement an IT infrastructure that enables students to access academic resources online rather than relying only on the university library. However, the choice of software backbone used for upgrading the system is constrained by among others the limited resources that are available to the chief information officer (CIO). There is need to choose between a private and customized enterprise resource program (ERP) or software as a service (SaaS) vendor to provide the necessary infrastructure for the anticipated system upgrade. This paper shall examine the appropriateness and viability of using SaaS as the software backbone for the anticipated system upgrade.
The concept of SaaS is a relatively new phenomenon that has come to the fore mainly due to the vast advances witnessed in information and communication technologies in the recent past. SaaS is a process through which providers of software and applications allow the consumer to have access to and use of the software and applications through various client devices (Mell & Grance 2011). The consumer accesses the provider’s infrastructure through thin client interfaces like browsers or a suitable program interface. The growth of cloud computing enabled the quick development of SaaS as the immense storage and computing power provided by cloud computing makes it possible for providers of SaaS to host, store and process the large amounts of data generated by the consumers (Deka & Bakshi 2011). Cloud computing has radically changed the way information technology services are deployed, maintained and paid for, considering that cloud computing delivers functionalities of information technology that were hitherto considered unfeasible (Marston et al., 2009). Consequently, there has been a noted rise in the adoption of SaaS by many enterprises due to increased appreciation of the role that SaaS The consumer of SaaS does not own, manage or control the underlying infrastructure that delivers the services consumed, but depends on the infrastructure that is provided by the vendor, who is responsible for most of the technical and security aspects of the software. SaaS is the most common of cloud services and promises to deliver a feasible alternative to on-premise software, helping end-users to enjoy advanced software services without the need to invest in acquiring, installing, running and maintaining the software infrastructure (Benlian et al., 2009). To determine the efficacy of SaaS as a viable alternative for the software upgrade, it is necessary to carry out a detailed analysis of the advantages and disadvantages as well as the risks and benefits it provides to help in making an informed recommendation on its adoption.
The university stands to gain certain advantages in using SaaS as a platform for delivering its information technology services to the students and faculty. Some of the advantages that are inherent to SaaS are explained below.
The core business of a university is the provision of education as well as research and development in emerging areas of interest. For any enterprise, including universities, to succeed, it has to remain reasonably focused on the core business it is engaged in and not be distracted by investing in, and conducting activities that may be frivolous or antithetical to the core business (Peters & Waterman, 1982). The ICT infrastructure in universities is mainly an enabling factor that helps the university to efficiently deliver services to its students and faculty. Even in cases where the university is actively engaged in research into ICT applications, SaaS provides an invaluable asset that enables the university to exploit the synergies provided by cloud computing without the need to invest in the storage and processing capacity needed to effectively run an ICT department (Hugos & Hulitzky 2011). Although technology is increasingly becoming native for many products and services, universities do not necessarily need to invest in an extensive information technology infrastructure as this can be easily obtained from SaaS vendors, with the university merely operating the end-user infrastructure needed to access the software services from the vendor.
The adoption of SaaS by the university will help increase the flexibility of the software infrastructure because SaaS reduces the risk of obsoleteness of technology without the attendant costs needed to periodically upgrade the software backbone (Gonzalez et al., 2009). The SaaS vendors periodically upgrade the software code to incorporate new advances in technology, upgrades which are immediately available to the end-user at no extra cost. The continuous upgrades are essential in increasing the flexibility if the IT infrastructure, making it more appropriate to end-users in light of the changing technological trends. SaaS is also essential in offering scalability to end-users, whose technological needs may change with the passage of time. The university has an ambitious expansion program and its technological needs are likely to change as the population increases. SaaS offers the opportunity to scale up operations by providing increased storage and processing power as the need arises, helping the university to cater to its changing technological needs. The flexibility and scalability on demand offered by SaaS makes it attractive to the university considering that the IT needs of the university not only vary year-on-year but also within the year as the academic program changes. Therefore, the university will avoid the encumbrance of superfluous capacity or under-capacity that is characteristic of an on-premise software solution.
A major advantage of the use of SaaS is the cost savings that the solution provides to the end-user. The use of SaaS obviates the need to invest massively upfront in the acquisition of the necessary software and hardware needed to run an ERP because the vendor provides the storage computing and processing power needed to efficiently run the software backbone (Kim 2009). SaaS also uses a pay-as-you-go pricing model meaning that the cost of operating the software is predicated by the volume of data that is actually used at any given time (Ryan & Loeffler 2010). This is advantageous to the university because the volume of data generated or consumed by a university varies significantly and the SaaS model enables the university to pay for used capacity as opposed to installed capacity. The SaaS model will enable the university to shift IT spending from capital expenditure to operational expense, a factor that will considerably reduced the upfront costs of implementing the software (Hugos & Hulitzky 2011). The flexibility and scalability offered by the SaaS model ensures that the university can think big in terms of future expansion while starting small in the deployment of its software needs.
If the university implements the SaaS model, there will be no need for on-premise IT specialists to run and maintain the system because the vendor provides all the support that is needed in running the system efficiently. Consequently, the university does not need to invest in data storage and processing centers or specialist staff to run them, hence considerably saving on the costs associated with running the software (Wu, 2011). The vendor dedicates capacity and specialists to provide an information system and is able to achieve better economies of scale due to the multi-tenant structure of the model. Therefore, the vendor can pass on the savings made in operating the system to the end-users, making it cheaper for the users to use the services compared to the costs that could be incurred when running an on-premise software solution.
The SaaS vendor usually externally and centrally operates the software and provides a generic underlying code that is used by all the tenants of the vendor, thus enabling cross-user compatibility (Kim 2009). The use of a single code is essential in enabling multi-user compatibility, ensuring that the software can be used across the university’s different schools without glitches. The SaaS model provides vendor technical expertise that helps to reconfigure the software if necessary to solve any problems that may arise, ensuring that software applications can be brought on-stream quickly and efficiently. The vendors enjoy economies of scale and hence can provide the latest technology quickly at no extra cost to the end-user and stronger security facilities that may be expensive for the university to operate. Considering that the vendor provides services over a network, usually the internet, it is possible to access the software services from any location, as long as one has access to the internet, making it easier for students and faculty to conduct their activities without resorting to using the university’s physical infrastructure. Providing access to the software services without place or time constraints is important for the university considering that academic resources may be needed by the faculty and students at any place or time.
Despite the listed advantages that are inherent to the SaaS model, there are a number of disadvantages that the model presents. Some of the disadvantages of the model are discussed below.
One of the main disadvantages of the SaaS model is the loss of control in the storage and processing of data, which is relinquished to the vendor (Wu, 2011). The university will rely on the vendor to safeguard the data in its possession from loss, corruption, or unauthorized access, potentially hampering the university organizational strategy and its capacity to meet its goals. Once the university chooses a vendor, there is the inherent danger of vendor lock-in because there is limited standardization in the manner that vendors provide information systems, making it difficult for portability from one vendor to another (Benlian & Hess, 2010). The high dependence on the vendor to provide software services increases the possibility of the university losing access to its core applications and data, potentially disrupting its ability to discharge services to the faculty and students (Benlian et al., 2009).
SaaS vendors offer generic software, with the architecture provided being similar for all clients despite the varying needs of the consumers. Consequently, end-users must pay more for customization of the software to produce and maintain functionalities that may be absent from the SaaS core application, increasing the costs above the agreed subscription fee (Benlian & Hess, 2010). In addition, since vendors have a proprietary right over the core SaaS application, there is a possibility that they will charge more in order to provide better support in addition to declining to maintain dated interfaces that are compatible with customized functionalities. Choosing an appropriate vendor also includes other hidden costs like those associated with identifying and evaluating an appropriate vendor and contracting the vendor. Other costs include the transition cost, which is the time spent by employees to help the SaaS vendor and the attendant user interruption as well as the transition cost that may arise at the end of the contract, should the university decide to port to another vendor. Lastly, the university will incur monitoring and coordination costs as it constantly evaluates whether the vendor is fulfilling contractual obligations.
Sometimes, the SaaS core application does not seamlessly interoperate with in-house applications that the university is currently running, which may be a considerable barrier to the adoption and uptake of SaaS (Kim, 2009). In addition, the vendors themselves operate disparate systems, using different procedures in data storage, handling and encryption. Consequently, it is difficult to seamlessly interoperate with other vendors should the need arise, as well as being difficult to port from one vendor to another. The generic nature of the SaaS core application makes it unsuitable for extensive use since it often lacks requisite functionalities, forcing the university to invest in the development and maintenance of on-premise customized components (Vassiliadis et al., 2006).
There are a number of benefits that are associated with the use of SaaS including:
The adoption of SaaS by enterprises is increasing yearly, and there is a possibility that in the near future, a majority of enterprises shall be using the services as opposed to on-premise software solutions (Benlian, et al., 2009). The high adoption rates promises to make the use of SaaS the most viable alternative for software applications in the near future. SaaS services are now increasingly web-based meaning that there is no learning curve for employees as all that is needed is to click and play without the encumbrance of having to learn the underlying code that delivers the functionalities. In addition, SaaS core applications are often frills-free, containing the basic functionalities needed to perform a job efficiently, without the superfluous layers of functionalities that are rarely used by consumers.
One of the main problems associated with data is the risk of corruption and loss owing to the instability of data storage systems (Benlian & Hess, 2011). The SaaS model has the benefit of providing automatic backup and data recovery services to the consumers, ensuring that valuable data is not lost or corrupted. SaaS vendors have immense storage capability and hence they can cheaply backup data making it harder for data to be corrupted or lost.
SaaS solutions can be deployed quickly because the university does not need to install any software, which can take months before it is deployed, tested and running. This is because most SaaS solutions only need a browser and an internet connection through which the user will access the remote servers and begin working immediately. SaaS vendors also promise a high level of service, with most providing guarantees that the service will be available over 99.5% of the time (Marston et al., 2009). This makes the SaaS vendors an attractive software solution as they protect the university from loss of functionality majority of the time, considering that a cyber attack can quickly cripple an on-premise software solution.
The biggest risk that is associated with SaaS is the security of the data that the vendors hold on behalf of the consumers (Vassiliadis et al., 2006). SaaS vendors have a massive concentration of data in their storage and hence form an attractive target for hackers who might wish to steal or access private information illegally. In addition, SaaS providers are third-party service providers and there is a genuine concern whether they can be entrusted with sensitive information that the university generates. There are lingering problems about identity and access management of stored data with the authentication protocols open to abuse, leading to a potentially damaging breach of confidentiality.
Despite the service level guarantees promised by the SaaS vendors, service outages are a present problem afflicting SaaS solutions (Low et al., 2011). Since most SaaS solutions are web-based, they are very vulnerable to disruption caused by poor internet connections in addition to architectural problems within the SaaS infrastructure. Therefore, there is a reasonable probability that university services can be disrupted when internet connectivity problems arise.
The best option that the CIO can adopt is to identify an appropriate SaaS provider and contract it to provide IT services to students. Despite the service outages and security concerns that are associated with SaaS solutions, the benefits that can be accrued from using the solution outweigh the risks that are associated with it. SaaS offers flexibility in the provision of services, allowing students to access university services and academic material from anywhere as long as they have access to the internet. Modern SaaS platforms have mobile platforms that allow access to the system from hand-held devices. Considering that most students use smart phones, the SaaS solution is best suited for the university as it eliminates the need to invest in end-user hardware like computers for accessing the software. SaaS will also help to free up resources that could otherwise have been wasted in buying and installing software and the necessary supporting hardware, enabling the university to invest the funds in its core mission of educating, researching, and development.
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