ASPs, short for Application Service Providers, are another part of the Internet revolution that is dramatically affecting business operations. ASPs are a new class of information technology (IT) vendors designed to host and maintain software applications for customers. These applications reside on the vendor's computer systems, and customers can access the software via the internet or private network connections. Typically, the only software required on a customer's computer is a Web browser.

ASPs provide another option when making IT-related decisions. As an IT manager, I see ASP-based solutions as having many appealing qualities, and they are becoming a viable enterprise-level computing solution for a variety of business applications.

Using an ASP reduces the amount of resources needed to develop, deploy and support the target application. ASPs typically offer core application functionality, so programming costs can be greatly reduced. Plus, there are no system installations to worry about, and software upgrades only need to be done on the vendor's servers, thereby reducing the amount of internal IT support needed.

Depending upon security requirements, another major appeal is that ASP-based applications can be accessible anywhere around the globe. In most cases, users simply need Internet access in order to use the application. This provides users with access to customer databases, research databases, inventory systems, project tracking and communication systems from anywhere in the world at any time.

While there certainly are benefits to implementing an ASP-based solution, ASPs are not the answer for all business applications. The ASP market is still very young, and you'll find a lot of ASP vendors that only have been in business for a couple of years - if that. There also are a limited number of applications available. At NAI, we have relationships with a couple of ASPs, and are negotiating with others.

Probably the most challenging aspect of implementing an ASP is to first determine what applications you can and should outsource in this fashion and then to choose the vendor that best fits your needs. Other challenges include negotiating price and performance clauses into the contract; identifying necessary software customization and site modifications to match your needs; validating data security; planning an exit strategy if your relationship with the vendor doesn't work out; and integrating your application's data from multiple sources.

One of the most widely known ASPs to the brokerage community is LoopNet.com. LoopNet, based in San Francisco, is an ASP that provides an Internet-based commercial property listing system. NAI uses LoopNet's services to host and maintain our members' exclusive property listings. Their services include hosting the add/edit forms used to input and maintain listings, as well as a property search engine that is tightly integrated with our own Website, www.naiweb.com, as well as integration with our member's individual Websites.

Another ASP that NAI uses is WebEx.com. WebEx, based in San Jose, Calif., is an ASP that provides services that allow us to conduct online meetings via the Web. We use WebEx's services for online training for our members and clients on how to use NAI systems; application sharing where more than one person can update a document or presentation; and to make presentations to prospective clients. Participants only need a Web browser to access these meetings and can be anywhere on the globe.

We are also in discussions with several other ASPs to provide our clients and member firms with online mapping and demographic reporting, lease administration, and building photography. These applications have a broad appeal, do not require much customization and can be rapidly deployed.

Recognizing this emerging marketplace, NAI has partnered with World Wide Networx Corp., based in Mt. Laurel, N.J., to form a separate company called NAI Direct Inc. NAI Direct itself will become an ASP of sorts, with a series of Websites designed to host and maintain several commercial real estate-related applications. These applications include project management, calendaring, discussion groups and Web communities.

ASPs are definitely something to watch. They can potentially offer alternative solutions to many information systems needs. How they can be used depends upon your organization's needs. It's up to you to decide which applications can benefit from this outsourcing model.