SaaS for the SaaS-less

There's huge demand for SaaS services from enterprises that are firmly committed to the on-premise model, and especially for SaaS applications that help manage on-premises IT infrastructure. Isn't that ironic?

A really interesting and perhaps counter-intuitive phenomenon is that there is a huge demand for SaaS services from enterprises that are firmly committed to the on-premise model. Perhaps it's not so surprising — the vast majority of computing still runs on-premise, and therefore today's marketplace consists almost entirely of organizations with huge investments in on-premise infrastructure. No wonder SaaS vendors are targeting them.

Perhaps even more surprising is that IT departments are some of the most avid buyers of SaaS services — and they're turning to SaaS to help them manage their on-premise infrastructure. These are the very same IT professionals that SaaS vendors are well known for by-passing when they attempt to sell a SaaS solution. I suppose you can imagine by-passing IT when selling a CRM or e-commerce offering to a line-of-business manager. But an IT management solution? There's no chance you'll close that sale without spending a fair bit of time talking to the IT buyer.

Here are just a few of the many SaaS vendors that specialize in IT management applications (for some reason quite a few of my examples are based in Europe, but I wouldn't say this is a uniquely European phenomenon):

Security as a service is an important area. One of the leading SaaS pureplays in this field is Californian company Qualys. Its CEO Philippe Courtot once told me its solution is popular because security specialists realize they simply can't keep up-to-date with everything they need to do and know about if they work alone. On top of that, the on-demand model allows them to respond to out-of-hours security alerts from the comfort of their own home or social setting instead of having to travel into the office every time something needs attention — that's a big benefit not only for their own quality of life but also in holding down costs and speeding fix times.

Email management is a huge in SaaS. Postini, bought last year by Google, and MessageLabs, now being acquired by Symantec (which I kind-of forecast would happen after Google bought Postini), are well known. I recently came across a UK-based company called Mimecast that provides every aspect of email management, from archiving to compliance, for customers that operate their own Exchange servers. They prefer to keep their Exchange servers in their own data centers but they hand over all of the peripheral management activities to an external provider.

Helpdesk and service management is another big area. Interesting startups here include Zendesk and Helpstream. More established companies include Service-now.com and German-owned SolveDirect. Another innovative player is NTRGlobal [disclosure: a client], whose NTRadmin product sends out software agents that run on desktops and servers to automate IT management processes — anything from monitoring memory and disk space to making sure the device gets powered down overnight.

I feel it's somewhat ironic that on-premise software is now getting so complex and hard to manage that IT organizations are increasingly relying on SaaS vendors to come in and help them keep on top of it. Perhaps a better solution would be to put the entire infrastructure in the cloud and not have the management worries in the first place ... but although I say that, I know in my heart-of-hearts it's not going to happen at many organizations. For one thing, even if many enterprises do migrate to the cloud, it'll take many years to do so. And of course all these cloud providers still have to operate infrastructure and may well need some of those third party management services themselves.

Sometimes, though, it does make me chuckle to see some of the services that are on offer. Earlier this year I met the provider of Backstopp, a SaaS service that wipes sensitive data from your laptop if it gets stolen. It would be a whole lot better if the data were kept safely in the cloud so that if your laptop is stolen it's not at risk. But for organizations so SaaS-less that their employees are forced to wander around with valuable data ensconced on their laptops, Backstopp "is able to securely delete, to US military standards, all sensitive information on the PC should it get lost or stolen triggered by either a connection to the internet, GSM signal or RFID." It's an essential SaaS service for the SaaS-less.