What Defines a Mature Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) Application?

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is researching how software-as-a-service (SaaS) solutions and cloud computing are being used and deployed today and how these technologies will evolve in the future. Because SaaS is so prevalent in the transportation management systems (TMS) and mobile resource management (MRM) markets, I thought it would be worthwhile to dive into NIST’s research and writings on this topic.

My first reaction is that the term “cloud computing” makes a lot of people nervous (“What is it? Is this hype or is it real?”). But NIST has developed a detailed definition of cloud computing, which I’m not I’m not going to get into today, but I recommend that you read “The NIST Definition of Cloud Computing” if you’re interested in the details.

NIST has also defined what it calls “Three Features of a Mature SaaS Application.” Because many supply chain professionals will eventually buy a SaaS supply chain application, NIST’s thoughts are worth sharing. Mature SaaS applications are:

  • Scalable: Capable of handling growing amounts of work in a graceful manner.
  • Have a multi-tenancy architecture: One application instance may be serving hundreds of companies. This is in contrast to hosted applications where each customer is provisioned their own server running one instance of the software.
  • Have metadata-driven configurability: Instead of customizing the application for a customer (requiring code changes), the user can configure the application using metadata.

NIST also outlines what a mature multi-tenant architecture looks like.

NIST Definition of Mature SaaS Architecture (Source: "Effectively and Securely Using the Cloud Computing Paradigm," presentation by Peter Mell and Tim Grance, NIST, Oct. 7, 2009; click to enlarge)

Level 4, the scalable version of SaaS, relates to NIST’s vision of SaaS being able to support utility computing. Utility computing encompasses:

  • Huge computational and storage capabilities: Think of an electric utility that can handle surging power requirements on days where it is hot across broad sections of the country.
  • Metered billing: You pay for what you use.
  • Simple access to the necessary capabilities: Think of plugging a new lamp into an outlet.

In order to scale like this, SaaS solutions will need to detect surging demand and have mechanisms for balancing loads across servers and databases. 

In conclusion, as I looked through NIST’s writings, I was struck by how well the organization described the advantages and disadvantages of SaaS—except in one area. NIST doesn’t seem to understand (or at least it didn’t highlight) the potential network-based advantages SaaS solutions provide. In TMS, for example, a key challenge is on-boarding carriers and communicating with them efficiently on an ongoing basis (see “An Overlooked (But Critical) Component of Transportation Management Systems”). A SaaS TMS solution, however, comes with a pre-built network of carriers, which expedites the implementation process and provides ongoing benefits, such as facilitating transportation procurement processes. Similarly, next generation routing solutions will be able to leverage a network of connected MRM users to understand current traffic congestion in metropolitan areas (see “Visualizing Next Generation Routing”).

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