The term "software as a service" and the acronym "SaaS" probably entered the IT lexicon somewhere around the turn of the century. According to the research report Service-Based Software: The Future for Flexible Software, which was written for the Asia-Pacific Software Engineering Conference in 2000, the words "software as a service" had been gaining steam since the Internet gave birth to a broad, open marketplace of "highly dynamic and agile" organizations that had to adapt if they wanted to compete globally. This necessitated the creation of more demand-centric software offerings provided over the Web.

Today SaaS is a common term in the IT world for applications that are installed on hosts' servers, as opposed to "on-premise" applications you've installed on yours. And SaaS, as a means to deliver software to organizations, has enhanced the way some governments inform the public, just like it has in Indiana.

The Indiana Office of Technology uses the company RightNow's on-demand CRM services to offer dynamically driven frequently asked questions (FAQs) across 75 state agencies. These FAQs are "dynamic" instead of "static" because the way they're organized changes from page to page, so the questions most viewed by visitors are positioned higher in FAQ lists on different agency pages.

"In this particular circumstance, we had the software experts hosting and managing the software for us, so we were able to get it very quickly," said Robert Paglia, a program manager at IN.gov, the state's Web portal. He said the solution has been in use since 2007, and Indiana pays about $60,000 annually for it. "We purchased this as an enterprise solution, and that saved us a lot of money because if each one of our agencies would have purchased this software separately, obviously we would have had separate installations and many instances of this," he said.

RightNow also powers a live chat module on the state portal that users can access over the Web to communicate with state personnel. Paglia is pleased with both tools.

"The way we have measured our success with this particular product is the number of hits that we get on the FAQs, relative to the number of chat sessions that go to our state information center," he said. "We have more than 1,000 FAQs on our system right now, and last year, we had more than 3 million hits to those FAQs. Out of those 3 million hits, we had 13,960 live chats."

Things to Consider

So if SaaS can help government interact with citizens with such effectiveness, is there any reason why a jurisdiction wouldn't want to use it? It depends. Although SaaS can offer sufficient functionality without so many headaches, its relative simplicity may not be for everyone.

In many SaaS deployments, customers use the software in a multitenant architecture, meaning the same source code is used by multiple organizations. That means all users get essentially the same set of capabilities, although there's some degree of flexibility and customization. Therefore, SaaS may not be an ideal scenario for an organization wanting highly specialized applications.

Carlsbad, Calif., began using a hosted suite of e-mail, messaging and collaboration tools from Microsoft over the Web as a pilot project in spring 2009. Since these applications are hosted by a provider, the city doesn't task its own IT personnel with so many software-management hours. Gordon Peterson, Carlsbad's IT director, is pleased with this and the cost savings, but he admits one minor drawback.

"It ends up being a vanilla implementation. That could be good, and it can be limiting as far as how you can customize things. And I understand why it's that way; it makes it far easier to support," he said. "We used to be able to put

Hilton Collins, Staff Writer Hilton Collins  |  GT Staff Writer

By day, Hilton Collins is a staff writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines who covers sustainability, cybersecurity and disaster management issues. By night, he’s a sci-fi/fantasy fanatic, and if he had to choose between comic books, movies, TV shows and novels, he’d have a brain aneurysm. He can be reached at hcollins@govtech.com and on @hiltoncollins on Twitter.