The pros and cons of using hosted apps in the enterprise

Hosted applications can reduce IT management burdens, but they can leave you at the mercy of service providers. Here are the pros and cons to weigh before moving to the cloud.

Cloud computing has become one of the hottest trends in IT, and many organizations are beginning to look at the practicality of using cloud-based or hosted applications rather than deploying applications directly on the desktop.

Using hosted applications can help you reduce IT support costs and management burdens, but there are tradeoffs, such as losing control over your applications.

The advantages of hosted apps
One of the biggest advantages of using hosted applications is the simple fact that it eliminates application maintenance tasks. You no longer have to worry about testing and deploying patches, because the entire patch management process is handled by the cloud provider (assuming that you are leasing the application from it and not using an Infrastructure as a Service cloud to host your own app).

Furthermore, if the application breaks, you are not the one who has to come in to the office in the middle of the night to fix it.

Another benefit is the flexibility to access the hosted applications from any device with Internet access. This can be especially helpful to mobile users or to users who like to work from home. In addition, if a service provider makes an application accessible through terminal sessions, then any device with a terminal client should be able to access the app. Thus, users can access Windows applications on non-Windows devices such as iPads or Linux desktops. And because the applications run in the cloud, they should be accessible from anywhere.

In addition, hosting frees you from the headaches associated with upgrading to a new version of an application. You don't have to worry about whether you can perform an in-place upgrade or whether there are backward-compatibility issues. All of these things are handled by the hosting provider, and you usually have access to the latest version of the application as soon as it becomes available.

The disadvantages of hosted apps
While it is nice to be free from some of the application management burdens, losing some control can be a problem.

For instance, not doing your own patch management can be a disadvantage, because patches often contain new functionality. Microsoft, in particular, is known for introducing new features in service packs. If you are subscribing to a hosted application, then you have no control over if or when the latest service pack will be applied. Even if a new service pack contains functionality that you need, you may not be able to get it at all if the hosting provider decides that it doesn't want to support that particular service pack.

The single biggest disadvantage to using hosted applications is that you are at the mercy of your Internet service provider. When your Internet connection goes down, your users won't be able to access any hosted apps until the Internet connection comes back up. So it's important to consider the reliability of the Internet connection in your area and the impact of an Internet failure on the organization if you were to use hosted applications.

Also, when you begin using hosted applications, you will start using more Internet bandwidth than you previously had been. So even if your Internet connection never fails, there is a chance that user productivity could be hurt by insufficient bandwidth. Users may have no trouble using hosted applications during some times of the day, but the applications might run very slowly during peak usage periods.

The only way to really know how well hosted applications will perform in your environment is to do a trial. In some cases, a hosted application will be virtually identical to software that is installed locally. In other cases, you may find that hosted applications lack some of the features that your users are accustomed to. This is particularly true of applications designed to run within the Web browser rather than through a terminal session. For example, Microsoft's Word Web App has nowhere near all of the features that are found in Word 2010.

As with most things in life, there are advantages and disadvantages to using hosted applications. The good news is that application hosting is still a relatively immature technology, and it should get a lot better as time goes on.

Brien M. Posey, MCSE, is a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional for his work with Windows 2000 Server and IIS. He has served as CIO for a nationwide chain of hospitals and was once in charge of IT security for Fort Knox. As a freelance technical writer, he has written for Microsoft, TechTarget, CNET, ZDNet, MSD2D, Relevant Technologies and other technology companies.

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