So I was reading an article recently about the latest Google Reader and how it still can’t be used offline with full features. In particular the article focuses on its inability to allow you to read articles offline and then flag those articles as already read, such that when you get back online Google Reader doesn’t present them to you again, which is a waste of time.
Well this got me thinking about the general challenges of making SaaS based applications usable in an offline mode.
Consider the following application scenario:
- You have designed a simple SaaS application to do basic contact management
- Users need to be able to use it offline as well as online
- Users may log into the application from many computers
- The systems allows more than one person to edit any one particular contact record
Now, I specifically structured this scenario to allow each of the points above to allow each one to layer on additional complexity which needs to be considered when designing the system. We will tackle in each turn.
1. Basic SaaS Contact Management
Well this isn’t too hard if you want a basic system (and we don’t plan for any of items 2-4, or other complexities such as data design for multi-tenancy, fine grained permissioning, etc ). All you need is a database which contains contact records, which can be read or edited either through a public interface (which doesn’t necessarily need to be Web Service based) or by using a GUI of some kind (through the API or tightly bound to the database) which you provide.
2. Using the Contact Management System Offline
Now its gets more difficult. You face the following issues:
- Method two of using a GUI tightly bound to the database is no longer an option, unless you want to be maintaining that data access method as well a separate API for the offline users to use, with all the inherent potential for inconsistent behavior two data access methods would imply
- The offline user needs to have full access to a copy of his/her relevant data on the machine that they are using offline
- How do you accomplish this if the potential data in question is large (say many Gigabytes just to make it fun)
- Said offline data needs to be stored in a secure manner, which is searchable, editable, and more importantly synchronizable
- Metadata capturing the status of each record also needs to be stored along with those records
- The metadata needs to be compared against the database when the user gets back online in order to determine how to update or merge the data
3. Allowing for Multiple (Potentially Offline) Computers To Be Used By Each User
Well this is not too terribly difficult once you can solve the issues in #2 above. As long as the multiple computers are all online tis is infact really trivial with a SaaS application and is infact where SaaS shines. How often have you cursed not being able to easily synch your iPhone, MS Outlook on your Home machine and MS Outlook at Work in real time. Well with a SaaS based app, this is no problem because they all read and write the same master copy of the data which resides on the central server. That is, as long as they are online. So what if they aren’t all online? Well the following could arise and needs to be considered when designing your SaaS system.
- Assume the user has 2 computers, one at home and one at work (we will ignore the iPhone for now)
- Assume he edits some data at home (in offline mode) and forgets to sync it online before heading out to work
- Assume that when at work he edits more records (lets assume in offline mode again just for fun), and that some of the records are the same as what he edited at home.
- At the end of the day he sync’s to the central server from the office machine
- He gets back home and wants to sync the home machine and carry on from where he left off
The problem is thatthe records at home have been edited so they need to be sync’ed, but some of those may be stale and older than what was done at work. So, how do we do it? Well we ideally need to do the following:
- We need to check all records on the home machine against the central SaaS system
- For any record which was edited on the home machine but not of the server copy, just upload it
- Any records which were edited at home and at work need to be merged (which is always a pain and error prone so you need some good rules and just stick to them)
- Any record edited on the server version and not at home should be overwritten with the central copy.
After all of that, the system will be in as clean a state as it can be and the person can now continue to edit the records. Its important to note that if the records had been sync’ed in the morning that this procedure would not be needed, which makes the case for auto saving/syncing the data often, to minimize the potential for data collissions in cases like this.
4. What If Multiple People Can Access and Edit The Same Data
Well the issue in this case is one of concurrency, and it needs to be allowed for whether the users are online or offline. Consider Person A and Person B are both editing the same contact records while offline. Both then go to sync their data (and they have both edited some of the same records maybe not with the same changes to those records). So what does your system need to do?
- This gets a lot worse if they submit the data simultaneously, but we will not worry about that at this time
- Each record for each person needs to be compared against the central data copy
- If the server copy has not been modified, then just upload as normal
- If the server is modified, perform a merge in accordance with the systems rules
- Sync the local copy of the data to the new refreshed server version if needed
That’s really about it. it turns out that multiple users is really no different (from each user perspective), than if the had edited on two machines as a single user.
So whats the point of all this. Well the bottom line is that if you are designing a SaaS based application you better think about all of this. It not sufficient to assume that
- Everything is stateless
- No data concurrency issues will arise
- There is only one user on an account or that can edit any particular data
As software designers we need to make sure that what we design works when these use cases are considered, which is very difficult, especially if you are a startup and trying to get product out the door in a hurry. While I am a fan of Agile programming and have used variations of it building application for Wall Street Investment Banks, even before the term Agile existed, the idea of minimal viable product would get you into trouble here. These types of features are hard to layer on later and you will be forced to go back and redo what you already completed resulting in increased development cost and time to market, to say nothing of dissatisfied customers if you already shipped a version that needed to be drastically changed.
(Guest post by Paul Michaud, Global Executive IT Architect for the Financial Markets sector at IBM. Paul blogs at Techology Musings.)