Application Service Providers: Can They Solve Libraries' Problems?

Article excerpt

So what's the real story on ASPs? Do they work? Are they viable options for purchasing applications?

Application service providers (ASPs) might be able to cure the common cold, or they might be the Edsel of computer software-depending on which hour you checked your NASDAQ stock. As always, the truth is somewhere in between these extremes. As working librarians, we need the power of ASPs to organize critical information for decision making. We also need to separate the hype from the reality, so we can decide when to use ASPs and when to use other software. Increasingly sophisticated databases, calendaring functions, and even financial management software make ASPs factors that serious managers must consider.

As catalog librarian for the Douglas County (Oregon) Library System, I oversee both acquisitions and cataloging functions in a 10-branch public library that serves 100,000 people living in a county about the same area as the state of Connecticut. We have a total staff of 4.5 FTE in acquisitions and cataloging, a materials budget of around $200,000, and limited funds for office automation other than our in-process DRA upgrade. I have been exploring free application service providers to use in our library, and I have found ways to use them both in library operations and in related organizational work.

A Little History on ASPs

ASP definitions can be so broad as to be meaningless--a problem that was exacerbated last spring when the tag "ASP" was good for a few million dollars extra in venture-capital funding. In general, the consensus definition of an ASP is a Web-based computer application that resides on a server rather than on a local personal computer. The acronym ASP arose as a play on ISP (Internet service provider), when some companies began positioning themselves as providers of enhanced services in addition to plain Internet access. Now the term can apply to software available for anywhere from free to "only" $30,000 or more.

Large organizations use applications across the entire firm or enterprise. These enterprise-level ASPs require substantial local information technology and support staff, even if the application is running on an off-site computer, in addition to license fees and related costs. They are called "enterprise-level ASPs" not because you could build a Federation starship for the same price (it only seems that way), but because they are used throughout the organization.

Consumer-level ASPs are targeted to small businesses, individuals, and organizations. Many of these smaller types of ASPs are available for free at a basic level, with monthly charges per user for more advanced service levels. This consumer-level ASP market may be longer-lasting than enterprise-level ASPs because smaller organizations have less access to their own information technology staff or budgets. Also, the ASP offers what may be a small organization's only chance to obtain a specific type of software, such as project-management software that's too expensive to buy outright but is affordable as a per-user monthly rental.

In addition to riding last year's venture-capital boomlet, ASPs were also heralded as the Next New Thing because of the expected spread of broadband Internet connections. If your Internet connection ran as fast as your internal network, what difference would it make if software resided on your PC or on a server in Milpitas, California? Unfortunately, as I learned decades ago while bodysurfing off Sullivan's Island, South Carolina, getting ahead of a wave leaves you just as dead in the water as missing one altogether. In business as in bodysurfing, timing is everything. Broadband connections didn't roll out as quickly as predicted, so ASPs were left to dog paddle in some very still water.

They Are Everywhere!

Just as you may be surprised by the silly advice you'd get from a Magic 8 Ball, you may be surprised to discover that you're probably using an ASP right now. …