Last month I sat on a SaaS panel during the Internet Telephony conference in Los Angeles.  The panel began with opening statements from the speakers, and much to my surprise the first speaker went into a diatribe on the notion of SaaS as a concept and architecture, how SaaS had no meaning, and how anybody who tried to define what SaaS was was fighting a "religious war."  The speaker kept hammering the point that a business shouldn't care about how to deliver products and only care about the product to be delivered.  He seemed to be alluding to the the seminal "IT Doesn't Matter" article by Nicholas G. Carr - an article that I've lectured about at the University of Denver and find to be one of the most misunderstood publications (maybe people should read it twice).

In the weeks since, I have given some thought toward the speaker's comments - the speaker is certainly not alone in his beliefs.  There are different roles in most corporate environments that allow people to focus on specific aspects of delivering a product and everybody doesn't need to understand how a product will be implemented.  That being said, I'm becoming more alarmed at the number of people who are adopting this attitude as the web is becoming the public portal for many businesses, or in the case of many web 2.0 businesses the business itself.

In an article entitled "Why How Matters" in Tuesday's New York Times, Thomas Friedman talks about the financial crisis and how indifference toward how things work helped get us into this mess...he mentions an attitude pervasive within finance companies that "you'll be gone and I'll be gone before the bill comes due."  This hit home with me, since this is effectively the attitude that many have about information technology. 

That being said, without understanding how technology works people can't  assess the total cost of ownership for the lifetime of a software solution, leaving them at a huge financial disadvantage.  

  • A majority of the costs associated with  a software system occur after the initial release, yet most business people focus only on the cost of the initial deployment as opposed to caring about the support/maintenance and extendibility of the solution.  It is analogous to only considering a honeymoon without thinking about the marriage - let's face it there are people who you may want to vacation with in Hawaii with but not want to spend the rest of your life with.  Technical decisions must be made with an understanding that you may own the product for longer than you anticipated.
  • All products are not created equal and some have additional features and capabilities that may make the product more useful beyond it's initial intent.  An example is business intelligence built into database systems - this can help business forecasting and improve productivity - this is only a concern once the system goes live.  This can be overlooked by people who don't understand the details of modern database technologies.
  • Business leaders must also understand the number of successful deployments of a given technology and the number of developers with experience on that technology.  These can also add HUGE costs to the development and maintenance of the solution.

That being said, you may be wondering how I reacted to the other speaker.  I just gave my presentation and basically ignored the comments.  The audience had expectations of the content that was to be presented and even if I was boring them to death about something that (according to the other speaker) they shouldn't care about I committed to give a talk on SaaS architecture and that is what they got.  I wouldn't argue with a nihilist about the meaning of life and didn't argue with someone who vehemently questions the need for technical understanding about software architecture.