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Commentary by Stephanie L. Jones

RISMEDIA, Jan. 5, 2009-This year’s new catch phrase is Software as a Service (SaaS). Analysts claim that by 2010, 30% of new software will be delivered via a SaaS model. Also called “on-demand software,” the “ASP model” or “hosted software,” SaaS involves subscribing to Web-based software hosted at the provider’s site.

For real estate agencies of all sizes, SaaS can be a great way to roll out new technology — especially when it comes to document management.

Save money from the start

Document management, in general, was designed to save Realtors money. By scanning and storing paper and electronic documents online, agents and brokers can get rid of bulky file cabinets, most office supplies and reduce postage and courier fees. But, when the document management service is available online, you can save even more.

Little or no upfront costs. Because there is no software to install, there are typically low, if any, upfront expenses. When you subscribe to a SaaS application, you avoid the overhead associated with implementing conventional software. A typical software implementation involves purchasing and maintaining servers, housing them securely, and installing and maintaining the software. This requires the time and effort of experienced IT personnel, which many smaller businesses these days cannot afford.

Expenses can be budgeted. When you subscribe to a SaaS application, you pay a monthly or annual subscription fee. Compared to a traditional software license, this subscription payment structure works to your advantage. An on-going monthly expense is easier to incorporate into your budget than a large one-time outlay. You can usually cancel or change your subscription at any time without losing a large initial investment.

Implement in hours or days… not months. Because you eliminate many of the typical implementation tasks associated with licensed software and because the software is already up and running on the vendor’s data center, deployment time tends to be much shorter with a SaaS application than a traditional one. Just think: someone somewhere else is already using the service successfully.

For Web-based document management, training and setup usually takes less than two hours. After training, users can begin scanning in files immediately.

“We use our training period to help our clients determine the index values for their scanned files and even scan in their first documents,” explained Leslie Haywood, CEO of eBridge Solutions. “That ensures our clients are actively using the system before hang up the phone.”

You don’t need a huge IT department

When you subscribe to a Web-based application, you free your office from supporting high-cost, time-consuming IT functions, including:

– Purchasing and supporting the server infrastructure necessary to install and maintain the software in-house.
– Providing the equipment redundancy and housing necessary to ensure security, reliability, and scalability.
– Maintaining a labor-intensive patch and upgrade process.

There is no software to install on multiple computers. Customers don’t have to rely on an IT person to install an application. Everything is running securely at the vendor’s location.

Any upgrades occur behind the scenes automatically. With traditional licensed software, you typically have to wait for the next release to get the latest. Given the cost and complexity of moving to a new version, it may not even be practical to upgrade each time a new release becomes available.

With a SaaS subscription, as soon as a new or improved feature appears in the application, you can begin using it.

Access any time, anywhere

Web-based applications enable you to save your information on the Internet, hence making it easily accessible from anywhere.

Multiple offices? No problem. With a SaaS document management system, users can scan files at one location and give employees at other offices instant access. It is easier and faster than e-mail to share files using online document management systems.

Remote or travelling employees can bring their files with them. If you have an agent showing houses, they can easily pull up a client file that they scanned in before they got in the car. Maps, contracts, correspondence and even photos can all be stored online, so there should be no reason to return to the office in the middle of a sale.

“We originally signed up for eBridge Solutions’ document management service to eliminate the clutter and free up space for a new agent,” explained Jim Longstreth of Your Neighborhood Realty in St. Petersburg, Florida. “A surprise benefit is being able to retrieve scanned files from the road. We now have instant access to everything we need to close a sale.”

No brainer off-site backup and disaster recovery

One of the most important, but often overlooked, benefits of SaaS document management systems (or SaaS systems in general) is the off-site backup of important paperwork. If you are storing your closed client files in boxes in your office or home, they could easily be destroyed by man-made or natural disaster. By storing files online, they are backed up on a daily and weekly basis by the vendor – ensuring the information is there when you need it.

Security and privacy are concerns whether you subscribe to SaaS or purchase software and implement it on in-house servers. A SaaS vendor you can trust offers you the level of security you need while saving your organization the expense and effort required to house, deliver, and back up an application.

Most vendors understand that data must be backed up religiously, and security is the top priority. Customers’ IT departments are typically pulled in many directions and can’t be as focused on one technology. Customers can assume their data security is probably safer when it’s hosted. When you are selecting a SaaS provider, you should ask questions regarding security, but overall SaaS providers have a good track record.

When you’re considering a SaaS subscription, ask the following security-related questions:

Is your production equipment housed in a state-of-the-art facility?
What are the security arrangements for the facility? Are they in place 24 hours a day, 365 days a year?
On what type of infrastructure do you host data? What are the virus protection arrangements?
How often do you back up data and where are the backups stored?
What level of data encryption do you use to protect web site transactions?
What is your privacy policy?

Document management and Software-as-a-Service applications will grow in popularity as more and more people become accustomed to using the Internet to access their business software. And it makes sense as people spend more and more time on the World Wide Web. Real estate professionals will realize time and money savings by subscribing to services like these.

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