Are Cloud Apps Right For Your Business?

by | April 1st, 2014

The browser is fast-becoming the world’s desktop, with an application marketplace reaching beyond Candy Crush and Spotify deep into business and industry.  We are now squarely in the midst of a heady App Boom. But software in the cloud isn’t exactly a new concept. It is likely you’ve run across cloud apps if you are looking to:

  • maximize employee collaboration

  • free your workspace from the confines of the cubicle

  • reduce dependence and traffic on your local network

Of course, with any boom there will be a lot of crowding into the market, creating a multitude of choices available to the Enterprise customer.  When vetting Software as a Service (SaaS) applications for your business, what features should you look for?

Startups have fleshed out their concepts to develop robust, intuitive applications, and cloud storage has become commonplace, reliable and affordable. As a result, knee-jerk data loss paranoia is no longer a deal-breaker. Verizon’s Fall 2013 Enterprise-level study states:

“Use of cloud-based storage has increased by 90 percent in the time period studied.”

and a recent survey of cloud-committed companies from Computer Economics finds that:

“Organizations fully utilizing cloud computing save on average more than 15% in IT spending, whether measured as a percentage of revenue or on a per-user basis.”

Those numbers go a long way towards arguing for migration to the cloud.

Preparing Your Team for the Cloud

You may  want to consider your team’s technical expertise, and think about how detailed your instructions will need to be for them to do their jobs using cloud-based tools. Will you need to develop some custom, written documentation and hold individual training sessions? Or will they pick up the new system on their own, with little push-back or need for support?

One solution the PINT team found for a client moving to SaaS office software was to set up a custom support website for their team to use internally. It offers help through written tutorials and help videos. The site also allows them to ask us questions, as well as share tips and tricks with one another. Since the transition happened, we have received feedback from the client that it was very helpful, and assisted their team in picking up the new tools very quickly.

Will All Your Services Play Nice Together?

If you’ve researched SaaS options for your business, you’ve run into this problem: the application you’re investigating touts its compatibility with a laundry list of applications in the cloud. “It slices! It dices! It parses your employees’ handwritten benefits forms and withholds their deductions through your payroll software!”

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Unfortunately, many of these integration offerings do little beyond importing and exporting contacts or line-item entries between applications.  Custom-built integrations exist for many of the more prevalent SaaS products such as Salesforce and Dropbox. But the more specifically-tailored a SaaS service is to a sector, the less likely it will be to interact with your various other services.  While thorough APIs have made integrating software over HTTPS much easier, not every application is created equal.  So do your homework:

1. Build a Wish List

Draft a list of the common actions or methods of all the services you currently use. This may seem obvious, but it is an easily-overlooked step.  Rather than adding the criterion “Employee Calendar” when considering an HR Management Tool that might integrate with your CRM, list the various methods:

  • Create Calendar Event

  • Update Calendar Event

  • Delete Calendar Event

It may seem overwrought, but you’d be amazed how many of the prefabbed integrations out there only offer the “Create” option.  Later, you can compare this list to the documentation of the new service you are considering.

2. Read the Docs

Now that you have your wish list of methods/actions, it’s time to look at the documentation. The first and easiest indication that the service you are considering is a contender is the care they’ve put into their docs. Speaking of which, have you seen the improvements our friends at ZingChart have made to their docs recently?

Here are some considerations when looking at an app’s documentation:

  • Have they offered a lot of access points to their application?

  • Are those points well-documented?

  • Do the specific methods and attributes you listed earlier have corresponding points in the new service?

  • Are there nice JSON-payloaded webhooks available for the events and triggers you’ll be alerting your other apps about, or will your service have to poll the API?

  • Does the support team have a history of building different integrations and an ambition to continue doing so?

All of these are worthy considerations, and the 10 minutes you spend on the documentation will make your final decision much easier.

3. Consider the Possibilities

At this point, you know the specific aspects of your current services you want to integrate, and you’ve established if these criteria are mirrored in the prospective service you’re vetting.  This leaves the question: “How is it to be done?”

There are many options here of varying degrees of difficulty.  Ideally, the service you are vetting is attempting to grow and it will be zealous in building new integration features as a cornerstone of its marketing model.  If this is not the case (or you can’t wait on their developers), look to the 3rd party integration platforms to bridge the gap between applications. Some options include:

Some of the out-of-the-box integrations from these companies will serve to link applications effectively. And even if those don’t quite fit, most will either work with you to build a custom solution, or provide simplified coding tools so you can roll your own.

Finally, you always have the option of spinning up a web server, catching and handling requests and writing all the code to do the dirty work yourself…but let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

After You Flip the Switch

Hopefully you make your changes and everything goes swimmingly. But what happens if the data import didn’t work? What if support won’t respond to your emails? The sky is falling! What can you do?

There IS the possibility of committing all your firm’s operations, finances and personnel records to a SaaS provider that vanished like smoke in the wind. You can guard against this scenario by performing due diligence and selecting a reputable provider with a track record of success. In the event you were wrong, you can mitigate disaster with a couple of simple tactics:

1. Be cautious during the Honeymoon

Maximize the hedging opportunity afforded by trial periods. Once you’ve settled on a provider, ask for an extended trial (we’ve never heard a “No”) and practice dogmatic redundancy. Running your operations twice will slow you down in the short term, but it will give your staff time to grow comfortable with the new service and to find any possible weak points.

2. Back it up

It may seem elementary, but don’t get involved with any service that won’t give you access to your own information. At the absolute bare minimum, obtain exports of all your firm’s information on a chronological basis (daily or even hourly if you’re meticulous). Service doesn’t offer at least a .csv backup? Sounds fishy.

You should be able to get a dump of one of the database structures to query as you see fit. If you’ve already developed a web application to interact with the service’s API, use that to grab new records as you like, and compliment them with your export dumps. From there, turning back the SaaS clock is nothing a little Excel wizardry or a few SQL queries can’t fix.

3. Temper your enthusiasm

Even if the SaaS is performing spectacularly, it’s important to poll users in the office during early days to ensure they’re acclimating well. Beyond the inevitable initial friction, try to uncover any fundamental flaws before they become entrenched: if you’ve used the simple steps above you’ll be able to dump the service without much regret.

Which cloud apps have worked well for your organization? How did you get buy-in for the transition from your team? Share your experiences with us in the comments section below.