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The Path To Accomplishing True Scalability In SaaS Applications

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by Henry Bell, Head of Product at Vendorland

There were times when software had to be installed locally on a device for it to be usable. A school that wanted a basic electronic memo system had to establish all the infrastructure required locally and install the applications one by one on all devices that would be part of the memo network.

Then, cloud computing came along and changed everything. Suddenly, the same school only had to hire a web developer to make a messaging app for the school. Gone were the local servers and hard drives that had to store the data. This brought about the emergence of cloud computing with Software as a Service (SaaS). This encouraged many organizations to take their businesses to ‘the cloud’.

What is SaaS?

Software as a Service (SaaS), is a branch of cloud computing. Cloud computing, according to Microsoft, “is the delivery of computing services over the internet (cloud).”

Cloud computing can be divided into three kinds:

  • Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS)
  • Platform as a Service (PaaS)
  • Software as a Service (SaaS)

Infrastructure as a service involves providing server and networking services over the cloud while clients handle, develop, and maintain their operating software. This service takes care of the need of businesses to establish and maintain their infrastructure. AWS Elastic Beanstalk is an example of IaaS.

PaaS, on the other hand, provides the infrastructure and operating system, while the user develops the applications and manages the data. Developers are the popular users of this service. An example is Microsoft Azure.

SaaS is a type of cloud computing that allows clients to use cloud-based applications over the internet as a service. SaaS is a convenient method of computing as long as there is an internet connection. It is used by individuals or businesses. An example of SaaS is Google Workspace.

Characteristics of SaaS

SaaS has a set of characteristics that have made it popular. These have determined their user base by offering a unique set of services. The characteristics are:

  • Scalability: It can be scaled to meet various needs.
  • Security: This is handled by the provider of the SaaS applications. Security isn’t the responsibility of the end-user.
  • Automation: This is a vital element of the service. Automation makes up a large portion of the services processes.
  • On-Demand Services: The clients can add or remove certain portions of the service depending on their use case.
  • Economical: SaaS operates a pay-as-you-need system and doesn’t require the business to have specialized hardware. This makes the services cost-effective.

What is Scalability?

Scalability is simply the ability to change in size to fit a situation. As a business progresses, the demands made on the business change. The business has to modify its processes to handle the change.

For example, an apple merchant sells 20 apples in a week, constantly. Then a doctor comes to town and says, “An apple a day keeps cancer away.” Suddenly, the 20 apples the merchant purchased for the week are bought on the first day. The merchant has two options. First, they could be rigid and tell the subsequent customers to buy apples from the next street, or they could scale up their business by contacting their supplier for more apples. Scalability is inevitable in a business, and the inability to do it properly might spell doom for a company.

In regard to SaaS, scalability is the ability to increase or decrease computing resources with the aim to match demand. This means that it is a form of adaptability to a situation environment or condition.

Scalability can be vertical or horizontal. Vertical can be upwards, which is the increase in resources to match an increase in demand, or it can be downwards, which is the reduction of resources to match lower demand. Horizontal scalability involves adding or removing features or service nodes. It can even be diagonal, which is the combination of vertical and horizontal scaling.

Scalability: The Past and Present

In the past, businesses that had some form of computing in their service had to scale their whole infrastructure if they planned on expanding. For instance, a library that kept a catalog of books on the computer had to upgrade the whole system if they planned on expanding the library and storing more books on their data storage units. This expansion might have been as easy as increasing the ram, or as difficult as changing the processor. It could have also been as expensive as buying a system with higher specifications.

Cloud computing provides the opportunity for easier scalability. A dry-cleaning service with a web-based application meant to handle orders can easily increase the computing capabilities of the application to handle high demand during peak seasons. The ease of scaling in cloud computing is a major contributor to the popularity of the service among businesses. For more information on scalability, check this article by Netguru.

The Importance of Scalability in SaaS

The ability to scale a business to meet demand might be the make-or-break factor for modern businesses. Scalability in SaaS is vital to the survival of any service being provided to consumers.

It is important because it has both short-term and long-term benefits. However, it could have dire consequences if it isn’t implemented properly, or at all.

Benefits of Scalability in SaaS

A potential short-term benefit is an opportunity for SaaS startups to select features that are needed at the beginning and then add features as the need arises. This reduces start-up costs because features not needed aren’t invested in until there is demand for those features.

Another short-term benefit is the option to ramp up IT resources during temporary or routine peak periods and scale down to normal levels as they pass. For example, scalability would be vital to a moving company’s website during the summer, when demand is at its highest.

A long-term benefit is the opportunity to add features that will be vital to retaining clients in the future. For example, a company that got by using ‘passcodes’ as security for their clients in the past, will have to add biometric security to their apps in the current business environment.

The opportunity to increase resources to account for client growth is still one of the biggest long-term benefits of scalability in SaaS. Instead of changing infrastructure and retraining staff, a business can easily increase its cloud resources to meet demand. This has the added benefit of reducing downtime and reducing the chances of clients considering the competition.

Consequences of Scalability Failure

On the downside, improper application of scalability or the absence of it can have serious consequences. A major consequence of scalability failure is poor performance of the service. As more people use the service, there is more data to be processed. If the computing resources aren’t available, this data will be lost or corrupted. This will translate to longer load times and possible crashes. More than 50% of clients don’t go back to a provider after a single bad experience.

How To Achieve True Scalability in SaaS

A business might understand its need to invest in scalability and incorporate it into the framework of services, and not know how to begin. There are paths to take and ways to measure the state of certain tasks. The steps involve asking vital questions, and they are:

Why Do You Need to Scale?

It is important that a business know why scaling is important to them. For certain businesses that provide niche services, scaling might not be necessary. For non-niche businesses, knowing why you are scaling and what you plan on achieving by scaling is important.

A business needs to know how its products fit the market currently and how it will fit when it scales. Pricing is a vital part of this. If scaling upwards will cause an increase in price with no increase in features, there is a chance that cost-conscious customers will consider the competition.

How Will It Attract New Customers While Satisfying Older Ones?

A company that plans on investing in scaling up its SaaS platform, will need to ensure they grow in customers as well. Simply put, if there is no customer to use the added resources, then the only option left will be to down-scale.

This makes investment in marketing key to scaling up. A company needs to be able to attract new customers with proper marketing, and then keep them satisfied enough to invest in the service. The company also needs to maintain loyal clients with consistent services and incentives. This process needs to be fluid and almost automated. It is synonymous with ‘getting a ball to roll downhill’. When a company or business automates this process of marketing, true scalability can occur.

Is Your Workforce Ready for The Increase or Decrease?

True scalability isn’t a sprint that ends the day the new services or wider infrastructure comes online. It is a long-term commitment to providing equal or higher quality services to more customers. It takes a lot of grunt work from all departments of the business. Scalability isn’t just a chore for the developers and the IT department. It is a joint effort.

Your staff needs to be ready for the higher influx. Even though scaling in SaaS is easier to comprehend by staff, it will still have a learning curve. Staff needs to be trained and assisted in achieving their work goals. This includes the recruitment of high-quality individuals that can handle the demand.

How Will You Scale?

For the actual act of scaling up or down, there are three options:

  • Contacting the cloud providers
  • Doing it yourself
  • Waiting for the automated scaling to occur

The option that is chosen depends on the nature of the agreement with the cloud provider. If the terms of the agreement entail self-scaling, using experienced developers will be of utmost importance. If the cloud provider is to be contacted, that takes away the need to hire or pay for development. Still, automatic scaling is the most convenient method of scaling. This means that when a certain threshold is surpassed, more resources are automatically added to the service.

It is important to remember while scaling that an important goal is to achieve close to zero downtimes. Services need to continue occurring as new resources or features are added or taken away.

The Reality of SaaS Today

Today’s market relies heavily on cloud computing, and more companies will keep on moving core components of their business to the cloud for all the advantages it provides. In such a business environment, scalability becomes a culture, and companies that can’t achieve this fall to the side.

Still, scalability needs to be done right and for the right reasons. Achieving true scalability, and not just pouring money into infrastructure expansion, is the only way a business will survive and grow.

 

Henry Bell is the Head of Product at Vendorland. He is a business technologist driving transformative growth through digital technology strategies. Henry is a highly analytical and collaborative problem solver with outstanding cross-functional skills in product leadership, application management, and data analytics.