Web Development

ASPs must manage, not just run, your outsourced systems

Part of an ASP's value should be that it not only keeps your applications running but also helps with more complicated tasks, such as customization and expansion. If you're not getting any help in that area, take some of these new ideas to your ASP.

Having someone else worry about the management of complex applications is one of the more compelling reasons to use an ASP. Unfortunately, many ASPs confuse the “management” of applications with simply “running” the applications.

This is an important distinction, and it's probably the key factor in whether you actually get any real benefits from outsourcing. The three key points you should examine as you evaluate an ASP's application management virtues are the application environment, the core application, and application extensions.

Environment is everything
In a properly managed application environment, you can perform simple administrative tasks without direct intervention from the ASP.

Suppose you pay your accounting system ASP for disk space in 100-MB increments. When you’re approaching a 100-MB ceiling, the ASP should automatically notify you that you’re running low on disk space and give you the opportunity to upgrade your service.

If you need to restore files from a previous day, or if you have a failed batch post and need to revert to a pre-batch state, you should be able to access administrative tools (preferably Web-based) that let you do so. This reduces your administrative time and gives your environment functionality that you wouldn’t have if you were managing your own system.

Cut to the core
Once an application is up and running with out-of-the-box features, you'll need to perform basic managerial tasks, such as adding or changing users. If an ASP is truly managing the application for you, you should be able to perform most user requests or special configuration requests through simple ASP-supplied configuration screens without having to work directly with the software. Two examples of such tasks are:
  • Adding your own global distribution groups to mail systems like Exchange and Lotus Notes. This task normally requires administrator intervention even in a corporate installation.
  • Creating and managing virtual roots for intranet Web sites. This would allow departments to create collaboration hubs without having to get the ASP to set them up first.

Extending with ease
In addition to providing support for using the application itself, a well-managed application also offers your users specialized functionality not found in the usual local install of a software package.

Extending an application involves using it in special ways that normally require research or special configuration. Let’s assume an ASP is hosting your Microsoft Exchange configuration and you want to create scenarios for your users to take advantage of public folders. The ASP should provide simple, menu-driven configuration and support of the folder tree, rather than forcing your users to learn the intricacies of setting up folders, permissions, alerts, etc. In a hosted Microsoft Office scenario, the ASP could provide the configuration necessary to automatically save to and load from Web folders. The ASP could even preconfigure Web sites or give you the ability to create simple intranet sites.

Another common application extension is the ability to easily import and export data from the hosted application. Providing generic data manipulation routines gives you more flexibility in using the outsourced application than you would have if your internal IT group set it up.

When an internal IT group sets up accounting software, their main goal is to configure the system to effectively manage financial transactions, not import/export operations. A forward-thinking ASP could create an import/export wizard that would allow its hosting customers (with proper security) to select transaction types (such as invoices), date ranges, and other restrictions (such as customer IDs), and then export them to worksheets that can be placed in personal users' storage at the ASP data center. Most accounting packages have import/export routines, but they generally need to be installed on individual workstations and don't include generic, network-ready interfaces.

When considering an ASP for outsourced services, you should evaluate more than just its ability to run applications. You'll ultimately profit from the service when its use reduces your overall administration cost and time.

Does your ASP do more than just keep your apps running?
Have you tried to shift the management and development of your applications to an ASP, or is it difficult enough for them to simply keep things up and available? Send us your tips on how to get more from your ASP.