Collaboration Solutions for SMBs: SaaSy Communication

Managed Services / SaaS / PaaS / IaaS
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Are you aware of the broad range of SaaS solutions, including enterprise solultions, available for SMBs?


Of all Software as a Service (SaaS) applications, collaboration is perhaps the most used yet least realized in enterprises of all sizes. Most organizations use online conferencing, such as Cisco WebEx or Citrix GoToMeeting. Many use instant messaging, such as AOL Instant Messenger. There is also growing use of online document collaboration tools, such as Microsoft SharePoint and Google Apps.


Gartner Group recently reported that it expects SaaS sales in enterprise application markets to surpass $6.4 billion in 2008. For collaboration SaaS, Gartner reported that it believes sales will exceed $2.1 billion in 2008 and $4.7 billion in 2012.


Presumably, organizations believe these tools provide business benefits. However, it seems many organizations fall into collaboration SaaS rather than follow a strategy. Therefore, what is typical is a hodgepodge of collaboration tools, mixed between SaaS and offline solutions.


Furthermore, many of the SaaS offerings for collaboration originally were made for personal use. This means they lack enterprise capabilities such as security and archiving. And there is definitely an issue with security on some of these offerings, particularly the free ones; witness the Sarah Palin exposure via Yahoo mail. For those who use Yahoo Instant Messaging, for example, there is no complete record of the conversations (that the user keeps, anyway), and it's totally unsecured.


Fortunately, solutions such as IBM Lotus are addressing many of these issues. Lotus has enterprise-class security and archiving, as well as integration between collaboration tools, making it a superior enterprise solution rather than a mix of free tools. In addition, AOL offers AOL Pro, a business version of AOL AIM that integrates with Windows Vista, Windows Outlook, and WebEx while providing business-grade security.


A slew of recent announcements points to an unprecedented level of critical mass for enterprise collaboration available as SaaS, especially for SMBs. Recently, IBM announced delivery of Lotus Notes as a hosted service, called Lotus Notes Hosted Messaging. The move continues IBM's efforts in what it calls "cloud services," including its offerings such as Sametime Unyte Web conferencing software and IBM's "Bluehouse" extranet collaboration service. IBM expects the Notes move to attract new customers in many industries. Yet the offering is targeted to SMBs; the company said the service is designed primarily for companies with 1,000 to 10,000 employees.


A new report by the research firm IntelliCom Analytics shows that Web conferencing and whiteboarding clearly emerged as the most important collaboration capabilities. The survey showed that there is tremendous value in collaboration applications that allow teams to easily work together on documents. Also, according to Intellicom Analytics, video conferencing became more important. All of these desired capabilities are predominately available to enterprises as SaaS. Collaboration in today's office means across time zones, often across oceans. SaaS solutions are ideal for those scenarios.


Cisco is a huge player in the online collaboration market and recently announced a new collaboration portfolio it says should help companies accelerate business processes, increase productivity, and speed innovation. Included are Cisco Unified Communications, Cisco TelePresence, and a new Web 2.0 application platform. Cisco designed the portfolio to integrate with business applications, existing IT infrastructures, and other Web services and to allow developers to create customized applications and network-based services.


For enterprises, the ability to integrate collaboration into the application stack is essential. As vendors such as Cisco and IBM offer such integration, the barriers to SaaS versions of collaboration tools begin to crumble.


However, collaboration via SaaS is still software, meaning there will be problems regardless of where it's hosted. For example, earlier this month there was a Gmail outage at Google that lasted 30 hours for some of Google Apps' one million customers. Google Apps is a suite of hosted collaboration tools for businesses including Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Talk, Google Docs, Google Video, and Google Sites. In August, there were other outages associated with the suite. While such outages will occur and are heavily publicized, on-premise systems also commonly have outages. It is important to keep things in perspective. In general, the SaaS providers have a large pool of experienced people to throw at problems.


For its part, Microsoft announced, at the Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles, the availability of lightweight versions of Office (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote) accessible through Web browsers. The company already offers the Web Outlook and Hosted Exchange solutions as well as SharePoint for document sharing. Microsoft does not want to jump on the SaaS bandwagon, so it calls its strategy "software plus services" instead. Microsoft also offers Office Live in two versions: Workspace and Small Business. While the new Web offerings are free to consumers, businesses will use them under a hosted subscription service and through existing volume-licensing agreements, said Microsoft. The company is not stopping with the applications, though, as evidenced with its Windows Azure, a cloud services operating system.


So while Microsoft has every reason to resist SaaS, its recent moves suggest it is convinced of the value of the cloud and intends to be a player in the SaaS market, especially for businesses. It appears the tide is shifting, and through its partners and its own actions, Microsoft is providing many SaaS capabilities.

Much is happening with the grandfather of collaboration technologies: email. Many announcements involve Microsoft Outlook, the venerable email solution used by many enterprises.


Intermedia, a SaaS provider of hosted Microsoft Exchange, announced the expansion of its hosted Microsoft Exchange offering to customers in the United Kingdom (UK). According to Intermedia, it was the first provider to offer hosted Exchange 2007 in December 2006. The company also offers hosted versions of Microsoft collaboration tools SharePoint and Office Communications Server 2007.


In a related move, C-MAIL Corporation announced the launch of C-MAIL, on-demand. C-MAIL is a SaaS add-in to Microsoft Outlook for prioritizing email messages. C-MAIL has patent-pending algorithms that collect and analyze users' email usage behaviors to help users sift through email in Outlook. The program does not require changing Outlook's email rules, folders, or archiving policies, said the company.


In another Microsoft partner development, IntelePeer Inc., a provider of hosted, on-demand, rich-media communications, said it is teaming with Microsoft through its Partner Program to integrate voice features in the IntelePeer AppworX open communications platform with Microsoft Outlook and Windows Live Services. Rich-media integration is a growing requirement amongst businesses seeking to broaden their collaboration using the latest technology offerings.


Open source is often mixed with SaaS, and the collaboration space is no exception. Open-Xchange and Funambol recently announced a partnership to provide mobile email, calendar, and contact synchronization for telephone handsets. The partnership also provides document-sharing capabilities. The joint offering is designed for the SMB market, said the companies. As discussed in my previous SaaS article, the SMB market is using SaaS, and many vendors are providing SaaS solutions for them, promoting the cost- and resource-savings potential.


SMBs now have a slew of impressive options for collaboration, with the emphasis of newer offerings being available on hosted services. All of the largest collaboration vendors offer a SaaS capability, and many small providers have niche SaaS capabilities as well. According to the research firm Saugatuck Technology, SaaS continues to evolve to address increasing levels of business process and customer complexity as SaaS becomes fully integrated with broader enterprise architectures. Saugatuck says that the focus of SaaS shifts from cost-effective delivery of standalone application services (Wave I), to integrated business solutions enabled by Web services APIs and enterprise service buses (ESBs) (Wave II), to workflow- and collaboration-enabled business transformation (Wave III), and finally to measured, monitored, and managed business processes (Wave IV).


Those making technology decisions in SMBs should evaluate the hosted offerings as there are potential cost-savings associated with lower licensing costs and the reduced need for internal support people.