ASP – What’s It All About?

January 1, 2002

As is so often the case with new technology, first appearances are hailed as if they are the second coming, with predictions that the world will change and our lives will never be the same again. The bubble then bursts and nobody wants to know. But, very quietly, on the side, and at a much steadier pace, the technology ‘finds its feet again’ and then one day, it becomes part of the mainstream. No longer a ‘wunderkind’, more a member of the establishment.

In my opinion the bubble surrounding ASPs has burst and the technology is quietly becoming a viable solution to IT needs. However, that’s only my opinion and, to date, barely 500 UK companies (there are over 11/2 million registered companies at Companies House) use an ASP. There’s still some way to go before the idea achieves mainstream acceptance.


To my mind, the ASP is no big deal – it’s just another means of remote hosting – merely another IT delivery mechanism. So why the scepticism?

In most cases, when ASPs were created, they focused mostly on two markets – Microsoft Office and CRM and the aim was to sell directly to the top thousand companies (or thereabouts). Needless to say, the concept hasn’t really taken off.

I see two reasons for this. In my opinion, for it to be a viable IT alternative, a company’s entire suite of applications should be hosted on ASP. However, the offering so far has really only been a partial solution, ie only running Office, or accounts, or CRM and so forth. The second reason is customer resistance – quite unsurprising when you consider that ASPs were effectively selling in competition to IT departments. They were proposing an alternative that took away the IT department’s functionality and thereby asking potential customers (and often the decision makers) to cannibalise themselves!

What is required for successful implementation?

So can these problems be overcome? In my mind, the answer is yes (and at Axxia we’ve seen the successful implementation of an ASP but more of that later.)

I’d venture the opinion that the small to medium-sized enterprise category (and one into which many, many law firms fall) is a better candidate for the ASP than the large companies. It’s likely that they won’t have extensive in-house IT capabilities. In a law firm it will often be the managing partner who makes the decisions when it comes to IT but he or she is rarely an IT specialist.

I mentioned that at Axxia we’ve seen, and been part of the successful implementation of, an ASP in a law firm (Telford-based Martin Kaye); indeed, it worked in this instance because they have no IT department. Martin Kaye is typical of firms where an ASP may more readily be accepted.

And to prove that the ‘whole solution’ idea is feasible I should mention that hub, the ASP, manage every application for Martin Kaye. In this instance, hub has taken over full responsibility for everything – hardware, software, communications, maintenance, support, implementation, training – in effect delivering a fully managed environment, including desktops, network, data centre and a range of added-value services. Axxia, via hub, provides its legal software (Artiion Accounts, Case Manager and the Fee Earner Desktop productivity suite) to the 54-strong practice. Indeed the relationship between the three parties, outlined above, illuminates very well what I believe are the prerequisites for successful hosting of every application.

First of all, trust and confidence come into the picture. The ASP must be viewed as trustworthy in relation to:

  • company data
  • financial stability
  • effective hardware.

And if in-house IT personnel are involved, they must be able to feel that they will be in charge since the ASP will ultimately affect the structure of the IT department. In the case of Martin Kaye, the benefit of an ASP for Chris Cann, the systems partner, is being able to concentrate on the important part of his job – improving the way they work. He estimates that he has saved about two-thirds of his time and half that of his office manager – and gained a highly reliable, fast, secure and extremely cost-effective IT infrastructure. However, this is not typical and it takes an IT director who is very sure of his or her worth to the employer to feel confident in such a situation.


‘And what about the reliability of an ASP?’ I hear you say.

In most cases, what people are really concerned with is the fear of communications (the telephone system) failure as opposed to failure of the hardware at the ASP end. Any ASP worth its salt will have excellent and extensive back-up facilities and so failure of their hardware shouldn’t really be a concern. Using an ASP is really no different and no worse than being a branch office on a wide area network.

Secondary issues

Hopefully, I’ve answered some of the questions I posed earlier. Nevertheless, if you get to the stage of considering an ASP, there are some secondary issues you really should consider.

  • There is the issue of protection of data and this is related to careful consideration as to your choice of ASP. As I mentioned earlier, many ASPs are start ups and there is a chance that they could go bust. No ASP – no data. Do ensure, therefore, that you receive back-up tapes or that they are sent regularly to a trusted third party.
  • Timing comes into it too. I would go as far to say that, if a firm’s IT infrastructure is on the verge of an overhaul, a law firm really should at least consider ASP as a viable option. It may not be the best solution for them, but with much software design leading us towards Web-based applications, a system that is Web-enabled will be harder and harder to avoid.
  • An ASP is merely another IT delivery mechanism and so protocols and procedures shouldn’t go out of the window. Choosing an ASP is most certainly not an abdication of responsibility on the IT front and there is still the need to make sure that the SLA with the ASP is watertight.
  • You want to future-proof your system so when you are considering your ASP, find out how they keep up with new technology and new applications. And what is their relationship with software suppliers like?

I am a great proponent of the ASP but I know that nothing is infallible and ASPs may not be for everyone. With an ASP, you are putting all of your eggs in one basket, technically, and if other factors (such as an ASP going bust or phone lines going down) conspire against you, it can be problematic. On the other hand, it’s really just a matter of risk management (by all parties) and with careful consideration as to whom you choose you should benefit from safe, 24/7 service from your ASP.

The hub achieves this by running its ASP offering via a secure, highly resilient private network utilising leased lines and two Unisys e-@ction ES7000 Enterprise-class servers housed in separate buildings rather than an internet-based service. Even if the leased line fails then an ISDN line backs it up automatically. And (as with any reliable ASP) it provides audited daily back-ups, free disaster recovery and sophisticated virus protection and firewalls. Prior to installation of the system, the physical premises and IT infrastructure are also inspected.

The point here is that, for Martin Kaye, IT capability and data is a great deal safer with the ASP because secure handling and processing of data is what the hub is all about and it is dedicated to that alone. Previously, Martin Kaye had taken normal precautions vis-a-vis security but what it has now is of a different magnitude.

Final thoughts

Do remember that with new technology, the marketing people often paint a picture where the ‘new toy’ in question is the answer to every ill and if you don’t have it ‘you’re doomed’. With your IT, I believe you should adhere to the maxim ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. If you are quite happy with what you’ve got or it’s a fairly new system, don’t change it for the sake of it. And if you have no remote branches – there’s just the one office – there may be little point in switching to ASP at present.

On the other hand, if you are a law firm with a number of branch offices (and you’re due for an IT upgrade), it’s a no brainer. The location of the terminal makes no difference to the server, so whether it’s Bristol or Bognor, both branches can be on the same network, and adding to the network is just a matter of connecting another terminal as opposed to the rigmarole involved in installing applications on an individual desktop. ASP is also ideal for practices looking to develop basic systems but without the immediate budget or capacity to do so; those with mature systems keen to reduce costs, simplify maintenance and administration and capitalise on added-value services; those wanting to expand rapidly and needing a fully scaleable solution available immediately; and those needing sufficient flexibility to cater for a multi-site operation, mobile users and home-workers.

What is very important is that, whether you are a managing partner or an IT director, you need to think very carefully before switching to ASP. It is a big commitment and requires a leap of faith. But with the real possibility that we’re about to see a downturn, economically, the ASP should be seen as a viable solution and one that allows flexibility without a huge investment you’d rather not make – no matter what the size of law firm.

We’re getting more and more used to the ‘virtual world’ in business and our private lives. When it comes to IT in the office people are getting used to less physicality in relation to hardware and software; I firmly believe that as long as it is reliable, people don’t mind if they don’t have a ‘box’ on their desk! n

Doug McLachlan is development director at Axxia Systems (