April 25, 2011 0

Dude, Where’s My Data? (All of It)

By in Uncategorized

The use of “Software as a Service” (SaaS) platforms has grown tremendously over the past several years. Companies such as Netsuite, which offers online accounting software and Freshbooks, which offers a Web-based time-tracking and invoicing software, are both examples of this approach.

Web-based software platforms and applications provide services to customers over the Internet in exchange for a monthly fee, which typically is not very high (although on annual basis can start to become more noticeable depending on the service’s cost). This business model has many advantages, both for the seller of the Web-based software but also for customers. For instance:

  • Clients always get the last version of the software, without having to upgrade the application (and all the headaches that entails).
  • Software can be accessed from anywhere and using different devices like laptops and mobile phones since it’s “in the cloud,” that is, on the Web.
  • Customers data is stored in the application, and so there is no need to worry about backing up vital data.
  • The business that provides the software makes a regular income that can be invested into improving the service.

So SaaS offers some definite advantages to traditional “software-as-a-product” approaches.

But there are some important drawbacks that should also be considered when you are evaluating software services or products. In particular, the more time you invest gathering and storing the data in an SaaS application, the more careful you should be about tying yourself to the application.


Your data, though theoretically yours, is bound to the platform. Thus, before committing to particular platform you consider the following:

  • What would happen if the firm that behind the SaaS platform you’ve been using in the last five years enters into bankruptcy? Will you be able to get all your data and continue using it?
  • Can you export your data at any time? Usually you can export some of the data in SaaS platforms to popular formats such as Excel tables. Sometimes, though, data is lost in the export process. After all, if you could keep the information in a Excel table to begin with you wouldn’t be using using the SaaS application to begin with! Also, many SaaS platforms allow other applications to connect to the SaaS platform via the application programming interface (API) and thus extract and use data. However, often times there are many details that cannot be exported.
  • This begs another question. Let’s say you find a different online SaaS application and you decide that you want to switch to that provider and take your data with you. Can you export all your data, with all the details, and import it into another SaaS platform that may be better and cheaper?
    • Do you think your data is safe in the cloud? The T-Mobile’s Sidekick users thought that too, and all their data got lost. The only backup you should firmly trust is the backup you make and keep.

      Most SaaS platforms keep data in proprietary undocumented formats, and usually there is little possibility of extracting it in its entirety for use in other platforms or programs. There are some exceptions, though. Google, for example, has a engineering department (known as the Data Liberation Front) whose singular goal is to make it easy for users to move their data in and out of Google products.

      We think SaaS offers several advantages over the traditional software model. But we think that the data should be owned by the customer and that he or she should always be able to move his or her data from one provider to another one, without losing detail. SaaS customers should be able to export data into documented formats so that it can be use by other applications and programs.

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