data directions: Is it Time to Rent Your Application?

As fast as things are changing in technology, things cycle back around to the past. Maybe a new past - but one that feels an awful lot like where we have already been.

Remember those Network Stations that Oracle and IBM announced a couple of years ago. They were going to replace all the PC's on your desktop, free us from our Microsoft woes, and prevent users from installing software that would trash the machine or network. Easy to setup and run, you never have to upgrade them and the users can't mess with them. What a concept! Sounds a lot like a terminal. Oh sure, you get graphics and the web thing, but still we're talking about a device that is centrally controlled, with limited capabilities.

The reality is Network Stations are a pain to set up (I still have clients with some that they have not gotten to work at all!), they are limited, and now they are more expensive than a decent sized PC. And let's face it, we are renting out PC's and Windows software anyway. We may think we own it, even have the papers for it, but all that gives us is the right to throw it away when the next version is released and we are forced to upgrade to a new PC that can handle it’s bloated size.

So here you are after upgrading your system to be year 2000 compliant¾don’t you hate how that one snuck up on us over the last couple hundred years! Now it's time to spend money on something more productive like new applications or functionality. Things that can help the business, not just keep it where it is. The problem is, where to start? There are so many things to try, many unproven, yet compelling. Others just things you know you need. Where do you start, and how much is it going to cost you?

Maybe, you should look somewhere else for help. One of the problems we have today is that there are so many places to look for added capabilities that it is impossible to know where you are going to get decent ROI.

Remember, bringing in a new system costs more than just the software. There are the problems of maintaining it, supporting it, the cost of increased hardware requirements, and not least, the expense for additional IT staff to support the new software. Yet, all that gets you is the right to stay in business.

What if you didn’t spend $250,000 for that new software package and the thousands of dollars to install it. What if you could go to a vendor and rent the application, server, support, etc. and be able to better budget and control those costs, while at the same time buying into new technologies without having to completely fund them yourself?

I am not talking about outsourcing the labor, which lots of companies have done, and only a few have done successfully. I am talking about the technology infrastructure. If you’re old enough, this will sound like time sharing or using a service bureau. Back then, people used them because the hardware was expensive, maintaining it was expensive and somewhat mystifying, the software was complex, the technical expertise requirement was great, and you needed to concentrate on your business.

So what's really different now? We are using equipment that has to constantly be upgraded, is getting more and more complicated all the time, the software is expensive and constantly being upgraded, and the technical expertise requirement is growing at an exponential rate.

Hmmm… you still need to concentrate on your business, right? If this sounds like a vicious circle, maybe it is.

If you could pay a monthly fee for your software and usage, as you use it, maybe you could save some of that money to try new technologies at a lower cost than normal. Then as your expertise grows, you can bring parts in-house, while letting others stay outside in your technology partners hands - including backup and recovery, upgrades, technical resources, and the like, safely out of your way.

Now if you're the IT manager or programmer, this may not sound like a good idea, but just think about it for a minute. You could try data warehousing (because your service has it already) without the cost, you could build the extranet application without the steep learning curve and the initial pain of trying it. This may just be a way for some companies to get into new technologies without going out of business in the process.

How would you like to install a data warehouse, and have someone else manage it for you? How about the actual deployment of the user data. Or have a consistent way to train users, that someone else helped you manage. The opportunities to share costs are tremendous. All it takes is a little imagination, some products, some funding, and a lot of guts.

Of course this idea may turn out to be like the Network Station, and fizzle, but if in a couple of years you start to see this all over again, you know where you read it first.

John Bussert ispresident of Swift Technologies (Marengo, Ill.), a company specializing in AS/400 and Windows NT software.