One of the hottest topics on the minds of IT directors these days is the viability of application service providers (ASPs). Sure, going with an ASP for your enterprise apps promises a lighter capital hit on the front end and potentially lower cost of ownership. But you’re pinning the very guts of your IT strategy on a vendor’s promises.

It’s a tough call as to which is scarier—a room full of antiquated servers or entire worksites full of unproductive employees who can’t access a third party’s application bank.

We’ve been tracking the evolving ASP space for quite some time now, dating back to an overview by our own enterprise applications specialist, Jim Zimmermann. Recently, we asked several TechRepublic members about their most mission-critical concerns in evaluating a prospective ASP. We got some interesting responses, including a couple of checklists consisting of smart questions to ask as you’re grilling a future partner.

Dick Montgomery is the general manager with the Midland, MI-based 21st Century Cooperative, an online marketing and consultant networking site. He sent along this list of seven questions, with a clear eye toward easy integration with existing systems—not the “complete overhaul” approach that has given some ASPs a black eye:

  1. 1.      Can you emulate the software I am familiar with? (Microsoft & Corel Office)
  2. 2.      Can you provide backup file storage?
  3. 3.      I use perhaps 20 specialty pieces of software for certain tasks, such as holding conferences, building WBT and CBT programs, and writing Visual Basic, HTML, and Java programs. Will you offer these?
  4. 4.      How do you plan to charge for this service?
  5. 5.      If we have a falling out and I go back to my current software, will it read the files created with yours?
  6. 6.      How stable is your company financially? Will it still be around when we go into a recession?
  7. 7.      What benefits can you offer me that I can’t get by buying software?

If you’d like to participate in our straw polls on hot industry issues, follow this link to get instructions on how to sign up. Or post a comment at the bottom of this article. Speak out and help us build TechRepublic.
Our readers had plenty to say in the comments section of an article that listed some tough questions on security to ask a potential ASP. In response to our recent straw poll, Kevin Brooks, a network analyst based in Johannesburg, South Africa, shared a checklist of concerns that will help chart the implementation path of IT managers and admins:

  1. 1.      What kind of upgrade path do you offer?
  2. 2.      In case of problems I experience, what turnaround time do you guarantee?
  3. 3.      Who will be backing up your service levels?
  4. 4.      How long have you successfully serviced your clients?
  5. 5.      What additional costs (if any) are excluded from your maintenance contract?
  6. 6.      Can I integrate the application you offer with other similar packages (is it non-propriety)?
  7. 7.      How many packages can integrate and use the format your application presents?
  8. 8.      How stable is the package you offer?
  9. 9.      Has it been tested in an environment similar to the one in which I am going to apply it?
  10. 10.  Is the expense I incur cost-justified? How will this solution enhance my business?

Another TechRepublic member whose company has yet to make the move to an ASP expressed one of the fundamental reservations about outsourcing any application—delivery time to the desktop. Angelo Serra, a programmer/systems manager 1 in Hilliard, OH, said he’s worried about going with huge apps that can’t meet the standard of less than five seconds to the desktop, which many of today’s database-interface apps are hitting.

 “Any client-server, n-tiered app [not] under 15 seconds and users call them slow,” Serra said. “I can’t imagine having to load a monstrosity like MSWord from an ASP.”