Feature

Case studies: SaaS in action

When people think about software as a service (SaaS) the company that often comes to mind is Salesforce.com, with its customer relationship management product, sold by monthly subscription.

But while businesses such as British Gas use SaaS to provide customer relationship management (CRM), there are many more application areas including e-mail security, remote access and desktop software that are available. In this article we highlight some of the ways companies are using software as a service.

Jump directly to a particular SaaS case study:

 

Organisation: Dixons Store Group International (DSG International)

SaaS provider: Citrix Online

Application: support desk

Report by: Jessica Twentyman

For many home PC users, getting help when things go wrong can be a confusing and frustrating experience. The average manufacturer's warranty, for example, will typically provide them with assistance in cases of PC hardware failure and some operating system support - but not much help with more complex issues, and certainly not where technical hiccups involve equipment from other manufacturers.

With that in mind, DSG International (DSGi), owner of PC World, Currys and Dixons.co.uk, launched its 'TechFriend' support service last year, offering customers round-the-clock access to a team of technical specialists equipped to deal with a vast range of home computing problems. The service costs £89.99 a year for unlimited helpdesk calls and isn't tied to any particular brand of equipment. It complements the other services offered by DSGi's 'TechGuys' support arm, which include basic telephone support, in-store tech clinics and home visits.

According to Jason Smith, head of services development at TechGuys, TechFriend has been a great success, growing in popularity since its launch last year. "But at the same time, it generates a huge volume of calls, and the staff manning the service need to deal with a huge range of problems and different levels of complexity," he says.

That means the pressure is on for TechFriend staff to fix problems as swiftly and efficiently as possible - and, in some cases, that means taking control remotely of the end-user's PC or laptop to instantly fix technical issues on their behalf. This is accomplished using GoToAssist, an online remote assistance application hosted on DSGi's behalf by provider Citrix Online.

Using GoToAssist, TechFriend customers can get help from the service via e-mail or phone and within seconds, grant permission for one of the TechGuys to access their PCs over the internet, and identify and fix problems remotely and securely.

From DSGi's perspective, the GoToAssist service includes reporting tools and an instant customer satisfaction survey that enables DSGi to measure its successes and highlight areas for potential improvement. This enables DSGi to track and deliver valuable feedback so that managers can take immediate action to ensure their service and quality goals are on target.

"Because GoToAssist is a hosted service, we have the flexibility to scale up and down in terms of subscriptions, according to customer demand. Speed of set-up was crucial to us, and because we're not involved in the maintenance of the system, we're free to concentrate on the customer experience," says Smith. "Remote assistance was a real priority for us in order to position TechFriend as a premium service and ensure its future growth, and using a hosted service has helped us achieve that."

Organisation: South Yorkshire Housing Association

Saas provider: Webroot

Application: e-mail filtering

Report by: Jessica Twentyman

As computer services manager at South Yorkshire Housing Association (SYHA), Russell Wright is acutely aware that his role involves "an overarching responsibility to achieve value for money".

After all, he argues, the not-for-profit SYHA is in the business of providing local families and individuals with affordable housing, not amassing expensive IT equipment. For that reason, Wright is a firm proponent of SaaS as a means for SYHA to access the latest application functionality without a lot of unnecessary in-house effort.

Most recently, he has signed up for SaaS security provider Webroot's e-mail filtering service, which is now up and running at SYHA. Previously, the organisation had used a hosted system from Blackspider Technologies, but had quickly become disillusioned with the amount of manual effort involved in using that service. "We still had to perform a range of tasks ourselves, which was time-consuming and expensive - it was really starting to eat into the working week," he says.

Now, Webroot is used not only to filter incoming and outgoing e-mails for viruses and to block spam, but also to ensure that SYHA employees do not breach the organisation's strict 'acceptable usage policies' (AUPs) when it comes to their e-mail communications. And in addition to scanning e-mails for pornographic content, Webroot's e-mail security services also include protection from Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) and directory harvest attacks.

"E-mail is essential to us as an organisation - but that doesn't mean me and my team of seven should be spending a disproportionate amount of our time struggling to keep e-mail systems clean and secure," says Wright. "Using Webroot, we've found that around 86% of the e-mail SYHA receives can be categorised as spam, and keeping tabs on that ourselves would involve a lot of wasted effort."

"I'm definitely interested in trialling other SaaS applications in future, because I'm finding that they free me and my team to concentrate on more strategic issues," he says.

Organisation: 2waytraffic

SaaS Provider: Atlanta Technologies

Application: Hosted disaster recovery

Report by: Jessica Twentyman

At innovative television production company 2waytraffic, the emphasis is on creating great viewing experiences - from Who Wants to be a Millionaire? to You Are What You Eat - rather than worrying about disaster recovery (DR).

Instead, the company entrusts that responsibility to Atlanta Technologies, a specialist in providing remote and hosted services to small and mediumsized enterprises, so that its clients can focus on core business issues.

"Making the decision to use Atlanta's hosted DR service was primarily an issue of recovery time and costs," says Stuart Skilton, who provides IT support at 2waytraffic. Using Atlanta's hosted DR service, he explains, the team at 2waytraffic can be sure that, if the core business systems that run its financial accounting systems and sales databases go down, access to data will be restored within a guaranteed 60-minute period.

"That's a vast improvement from the previous situation where DR was handled in-house using tape back-ups," says Skilton. "When something went wrong, it sometimes took a day or so for full service to be restored."

With Atlanta's DR service, data is replicated from the client site to a third-party data centre at volume level, so that, when notice of invocation is received from the customer, Atlanta Technologies can rapidly mount the most recent data volume as a virtual server and make it accessible via a secure connection from any internet-connected device.

And already the strength of that service has been tested to its limit by 2waytraffic - albeit inadvertently - when an uninterruptible power supply recently failed at its offices, taking out the company's storage area network. "We were up and running again in under an hour - just as Atlanta promised in its service level agreement," says Skilton.

Organisation: NetworkLaw

SaaS Provider: Intercept

Application: desktop software

Report by: Nick Booth

Legal services firm NetworkLaw has shunned a traditional structure of equity partners, associates and support staff and built a network of experienced solicitors linked together. From its inception in 2006, NetworkLaw adopted online software, delivered as a web service, to run its operation.

The rationale is flexibility for its lawyers, along with high cost savings which can be passed on to its clients as reduced fees. Today NetworkLaw keeps up to 80% of its recovered billings, a figure it claims is impossible in traditional law firms.

The IT system that suited its needs, without requiring it to manage, support and maintain its own IT infrastructure, was OnlineDesktop from Intercept. This 'pay-as-you-go' outsourced model delivers all applications and data over the web, but is hosted centrally from its servers based in two secure data centres.

ICT is a political issue in any big company, argues NetworkLaw managing director, Marcus J O'Leary. Outsourced IT keep him in control of the company. "One thing was clear. Any solution had to meet our expectation, while keeping a tight rein on costs."

The web service model, concluded O'Leary, is the future of work. In newer companies, the IT manager is in the political wilderness!

Organisation: British Gas

SaaS provider: Salesforce.com

Application: CRM

Report by: Stuart Lauchlan

British Gas Services, part of the Centrica group, is the leading domestic central heating and gas appliance installation company in the UK With no centralised CRM system, its Central Heating Installations (CHI) business wanted to overcome the inefficiencies of each rep maintaining his or her own lead lists - some handwritten on paper. The business also wanted to improve on the manual, paper-based customer support processes that made tracking, accountability, and the ability to capture institutional knowledge difficult.

"I became intrigued about SaaS having read Nick Carr's book The Big Switch, recalls Bill Sexton, CIO at British Gas Services. "Particular food for thought came from his historical analogy that computer utilities will replace in-house computer facilities as electrical utilities replace in-house generators. It's an interesting argument he puts forward and one that I find hard to disagree with - the only question really is 'when?'"

BGS CHI implemented Salesforce.com and has seen considerable benefits. "Automated workflows route leads to appropriate individuals and provide preset responses to web-captured leads," says Sexton. "Salesforce.com can be managed to a large degree by the business team using it with support by Salesforce.com, therefore minimising the IS team support normally required for traditional CRM solutions.

"In addition, 'speed to market' is critical for us and therefore, as there is no infrastructure to "stand up", the solution can be ready to switch on in four months rather than six to 12 months for traditional solutions. Finally, cost profiling looks different as there is no large capital outlay as with a normal licence purchase over time. However, where SaaS cost is consistent an on-premise solution will become cheaper.

"We will now be able to systematically track sales leads and customer interaction, not possible with the former paper-based, disconnected support system. Sales and support benefit from new visibility into each other's respective activities with customers sharing one common view of customer issues allows for better customer service and more insight into up-sell and cross-sell opportunities."


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This was first published in August 2008

 

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