For those of you who don't read a lot of articles on the subject, SaaS is one of the current buzzword darlings of the tech set. It stands for "Software as a Service" and means that instead of buying a piece of software and installing it on your local computer, you rent the use of the application only when you need it. The model usually entails a software/service provider hosting the application on their server and giving you remote access. The plus side is that the host takes care of maintenance, upgrades, computer capacity, and all those headaches. It can be an economical choice for clients who make infrequent use of the software and might not be able to justify a purchase license. I'm simplifying here because defining SaaS isn't the thrust of my entry today. For more details, you might like to start with the Wikipedia entry on SaaS.
Web conferencing has long been a textbook example of a SaaS application. Most of the big name technology providers that the general public is familiar with (WebEx, Microsoft Live Meeting, Raindance, ON24, GoToMeeting, iLinc, etc.) offer a pay for use model that requires no software installation on a client's computers (ignoring thin-client downloads to make the interface work). Customers can pay for the use of the software for a single event or can contract for a period of use.
There are fewer companies offering installable web conferencing software solutions. A few examples include Sonexis, MegaMeeting, and Elluminate.
The sad truth about computers is that they sometimes fail. Whether the application hits a bug, the network crashes, there are communication problems, the hardware goes kaput, or power fails, you are always vulnerable to the potential for service disruption. I hit one of those today.
I was working on a client webinar using WebEx Event Center. I tried to log onto our site and got a cryptic message saying the site was unavailable. Whammo. I got on the line to technical support and waited my turn in queue, along with what must have been quite a few other panicked or angry customers. My support person was surprisingly calm and good natured, given the call volume they must have been processing. He confirmed that there were network problems on their side and said that while he didn't know details of the problem, he was certain it would be all right soon. I had a little time before our event, so I agreed to try again later.
Sure enough, our site came up, but on a backup network. This wasn't completely clean, as one of our scheduled future events had disappeared from our registration page, meaning people couldn't sign up. But at least we could carry on with today's show. Unfortunately, performance was quite a bit below normal standards, with slides and annotations taking inconsistent and sometimes very long time lags to appear on participants' computers.
After the event, strange behavior continued, with an inability to access post-event reports through the WebEx administrator interface. I called technical support again and got agreement that it certainly was strange behavior and we should all hope it would correct itself once the system was back to normal again. Whenever that might be.
Now, I'm not singling out WebEx for any particular acrimonious treatment here. I happened to be using them when this problem occurred. Any provider can have a similar problem. At least WebEx had a backup network plan in place and we were technically able to carry on with our scheduled event. But it's worth noting that there is a frustrating sense of powerlessness while a problem like this is going on. You can't prod anybody for more details, because you don't have access to the people trying to fix the problem as you might if a similar situation occurred with your own business network. You can't get much in the way of progress updates. And you can't put your own backup plan into effect.
If you are making purchase decisions about web conferencing software and you do enough events to make the cost equation a wash, it's worth reviewing your network integrity and ability to respond to an outage situation and compare it to your SaaS vendor's information on the subject. Asking for network uptime and availability reports is a very good idea.