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Unless you’ve been living in a cave even less well equipped for the modern age than Fred Flintstone’s, you will have noticed the buzz about something called cloud computing. It comes with a menagerie of buzzwords: software as a service (SaaS), platform as a service (PaaS), infrastructure on demand, hosted apps … We could go on.

The trouble with buzzwords is that they can buzz for quite a while before people begin to notice they haven’t agreed on exactly what they mean.

So, in the manner of a lepidopterist, let’s try to pin a few down for closer inspection.

SaaS is nothing new. It has been with us for 20 years, but it is only mainstream enough for business, according to Zane Freame, Office 365 practice lead atContent and Code. a UK Microsoft reseller.

He argues that with regard to the cloud, there are four technology models. The first, traditional IT, isn’t really cloud. The second, infrastructure as a service (IaaS), is where the business manages the apps, security, runtime and databases but outsources the hardware.

PaaS has the business managing the applications and runtime and outsourcing the rest. SaaS is where everything is managed by a service provider, and the only control the business has is through the application.

Home comforts

“Things like Facebook and Hotmail are SaaS, it’s just that we don’t think of them that way,” Freame notes.

Once we have established that we are all talking about the same thing, we can see that soon all but the smallest organisations will be running a mixture of applications and services on public and private clouds.

“As a concept, SaaS is not a hard sell. The consumerisation of technology means that people often have access to better smartphones and computers in their personal lives than at work. SaaS gives companies the opportunity to bring the latest and greatest apps to their organisation to meet the needs of their users,” Freame says.

Steve Marsh, marketing manager at Metalogix, a developer of Microsoft Sharepoint management software, argues that companies still need to be cautious: while SaaS is a layer in the cloud, it is not quite the same thing as cloud.

“As more people have started offering private clouds, the definitions of SaaS and cloud are becoming blurred,” he says.

“SaaS as a term existed long before cloud. Now you have public cloud, hybrid clouds, private clouds. And quite often you find that a private cloud is really just software as a service being marketed differently.”

Take SharePoint, for example, says Marsh. Imagine you have SharePoint on premise at the moment and you are looking to move to a private online version of SharePoint. Is that cloud or is it just SaaS?

James Griffin, director of product strategy at Outsourcery, a UK reseller, is not sure that it matters much.

What’s in a label?

“It is virtually impossible to draw a line between SaaS and cloud. Both are industry labels for IT and comms services,” he says.

He argues that the customer is not interested in the label. “When customers are looking to adopt cloud, vendor will talk to them in terms of SaaS, PaaS, IaaS. But what they want is their apps delivered with decent SLAs [service level agreements].”

Griffin concedes that the lack of consistent terminology can be confusing for a business looking into cloud for the first time, but adds that the confusion doesn’t seem to translate into an overly cautious approach. A large proportion of customers he speaks to want to put their most critical business stuff into the cloud: voice.

“Cutting out call costs makes a big difference. It is easy to demonstrate the business value and it has a clear ROI. It also makes it easier for companies to hire the right people, regardless of where they are based,” he says.

“People come into work and wonder why they can’t make video calls”

Griffin’s experience matches that of Microsoft UK’s tech evangelist Simon May, who told us that particularly for small companies, software that enables collaborative working – Microsoft's arsenal includes SharePoint and Lync – is driving cloud adoption. Companies are interested in new ways of working.

Which brings us back to Freame's point about familiarity. “People come into work and wonder why they can’t make video calls as easily as they can at home,” he says.

Child’s play

He has an anecdote: a friend’s child had been playing with an iPad and shortly after was presented with a magazine. Immediately he tried to make the pages “do things”.

“We have a generation who will be coming to work soon – the Millennials – who will expect screens to respond to their touch. This is going to be standard even in the workplace,” he says.

If he is right, the gap between work and home will become more pronounced. Sweating your IT systems to save cash when your employees are used to touch screens and video conferencing makes no sense.

For Freame, cloud technology and SaaS in particular gives companies the opportunity to keep up with their employees without having to spend vast fortunes on hardware and IT management. ®

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