Definitions for software as a service (SaaS) abound, but they all have in common the idea that applications reside elsewhere and are accessed via a browser. Does that sound like ye olde mainframe days? Does it bring to mind green-screen terminals connected to a minicomputer? Yes — but with some important advantages.
Let’s look at SaaS from two perspectives: the client side, meaning the business and its users; and the hosted side, where the application runs. Big advances on both ends make SaaS much more useful than ye olde mainframe.
Clients can access SaaS offerings from a desktop, notebook, tablet or smartphone  — actually, from any browser with Internet access. If you have one of those refrigerators with a browser, you can update Facebook while getting a cold beverage. When cars upgrade their navigation screens to tablets, you will be able to check your Salesforce.com to-do list from the car — preferably, while parked.
SaaS hosts, such as Facebook and Salesforce, offer access to their applications on a per-user, per-month basis. Compare using the Salesforce model with spending hundreds or thousands of dollars for customer relationship management software and several hundred more for a server — that’s little or no money up front and monthly payments versus all the money up front and no monthly payments. Neither option is right or wrong, they’re just different options.
For small businesses concerned (as always) with cash flow, SaaS is a great option for two reasons: First, it costs only a few dollars per month, per user for access to much-needed applications. Second, there are no long-term contracts to sign, so if an application doesn’t work, the company can just pull that plug and try another service. (Try returning a used server and application software because “it just doesn’t feel right,” and you’ll get the picture.)
SaaS offerings are available for basically every function a business might need. Sales automation? Salesforce is the SaaS poster child, and it has dozens of competitors. Project management? Employee time management? Invoicing? There are choices aplenty for each of these, as individual apps or as part of a complete SaaS package.
Nervous about SaaS security? SaaS companies have certified security experts on staff who constantly monitor and update their products, which run in secure data centers. How many companies can say the same for the applications running on their local servers? And any business that uses a vendor to host Exchange e-mail, that uses Google’s Gmail, or that uses a browser to report employee hours to a payroll service is already using SaaS.
Perhaps the best thing about SaaS is that it’s available wherever there’s a network connection. A browser to a hosted app is just as secure (all use HTTPS to encrypt the connection between the user’s computer and the host) and much easier to set up than access to a company server through Remote Workstation or a virtual private network tunnel. Because every company has at least two locations — the office and the business owner’s home — easy remote access is important.
With a little research, it’s easy to learn which SaaS providers lead their various markets, and many offer free trials. Fire up your browser and test a couple.