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Mashups and Software as a Service

In contrast to the architectural style and Web Service implementation strategy of SOA, software as a service (SaaS) is a business model. SaaS is the latest incarnation of the Internet-boom idea of an application service provider (ASP). Under the SaaS plan, businesses do not invest money to develop and host applications internally, but instead rent the functionality they need from an external service provider. End-user interaction with applications typically occurs via a prebuilt Web interface. The customer's business data is then fed into the system manually, using Web forms, or programmatically, using a Web Service API.

To appeal to as broad a market base as possible, most SaaS providers have focused on generic services and priced them competitively (a fee of less than $100 per service is not uncommon). Exposing macro capabilities and parameterizing functionality allows customers to achieve some degree of customization.

One of the most prominent success stories in SaaS is Salesforce.com. This "zero-infrastructure" customer relationship management (CRM) platform provides services to thousands of businesses worldwide. Small and large customers alike are able to start using the hosted service almost immediately without deploying custom hardware. The success of Salesforce.com has led many to assume SaaS is particularly well suited to CRM and sales force automation. In reality, this isn't the case. WebEx, a Web-based conference and collaboration solution, has achieved adoption on an even larger scale. Google Apps is an example of a viable alternative to traditional desktop software. It serves up a business-focused mail, spreadsheet, and word processing suite at a fraction of the cost of Microsoft Office. Many commercial vendors are exploring SaaS to create new revenue streams.

Assuming SaaS products can meet technical and functional user requirements, two key challenges must be overcome before SaaS can succeed as a general distribution model. First, firms must be comfortable with the notion that their data is housed externally to the organization. It seems that there's a new story almost every day in the press about missing hard drives or accidentally leaked personal information. SaaS providers may have better security than many of their clients, but the abdication of data management to a third party is still a tough pill for many corporations to swallow. The second obstacle for SaaS is availability. For mission-critical applications, the network remains a potentially dangerous point of failure.22

Mashups are a natural complement to SaaS. Perhaps there are SaaS solutions that appeal to your organization, but you have held back on implementing them because you couldn't get exactly the functionality you required from a single provider. Maybe the SaaS product is extensible, but you don't want to invest time and money in duplicating functionality you've already built internally. Mashup patterns such as Workflow (see Chapter 5) and Content Integration (see Chapter 6) can be used to link an external solution and internal products together. With SaaS and mashups, you may be able to maintain the bulk of your confidential data internally and send the hosted application only small subsets of data for processing. If the network link to the SaaS vendor fails, at least you will still have local access to your data.

If you're thinking about testing the SaaS waters as a vendor, then applying SOA via mashups can help you get started. The API Enabler (see Chapter 4) and Quick Proof-of-Concept (see Chapter 7) patterns are excellent means of creating a Web interface to your existing resources. You can use the Load Testing pattern (see Chapter 8) to see how your systems scale under heavy user activity.

SaaS shares another characteristic with mashups: It may already be in use in your company without your knowledge. Because this model requires only a Web browser and no special infrastructure, it is easy for end users to circumvent IT and obtain applications directly. It is crucial that an IT department doesn't have a monitoring and enforcement policy based solely on policing internal data centers. IT personnel need to engage with the business users and educate them about the risks and rewards of SaaS and the effects these decisions will have on future growth. Internal checkpoints with purchasing and legal departments are a necessity, too. All service level agreements (SLAs) should be reviewed and signed by appropriate parties, and attempts to expense software purchases that have not been vetted by IT should raise a warning flag. Otherwise, SaaS can sneak into your organization on a corporate credit card.

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