Software can transform a business: it empowers customers to serve themselves, helps marketers to find the right prospects, and makes sure everybody gets paid at the end of the month.

When it fails, though, it can transform the business in an altogether different way. Software applications are woven into the fabric of every business. If that fabric tears, the business is no longer covered for even its most basic activities.

As companies face up to the challenging economy, many will look at how they can use software to cut their costs and improve their effectiveness. At the same time, they must minimise the risk of software failure.

Applications, be they custom or standard packages, can not just be dropped into an organisation’s IT infrastructure. They need to be tested so that performance can be measured, security holes and bugs identified – in short, to make sure it’s actually doing what it’s meant to as efficiently as possible.

A business that bypasses the testing stage is risking an underperforming application, full of glitches and security threats that can have a ripple effect on the whole IT infrastructure. And that can lead to something far more damaging – a loss in shareholder confidence.

A lot of organisations already use in-house teams to test their IT, but in a difficult economy this is maybe not an ideal way of doing things. In the majority of enterprises, the testing team will experience periods where they have nothing to do.

Sure, the people can be repurposed for other jobs, or they can just sit around playing Tetris. But hiring people who will not do what they’re there for, much of the time, is not a good strategy when budgets are tight.

Unless a lot of applications need testing consistently throughout the year, an organisation is unlikely to have enough work to keep an in-house testing team busy.

A new model has emerged for outsourcing software testing, called ‘Software testing as a service’ (STaaS). It’s inspired by software as a service, a model where software is provided over the internet, requiring minimal infrastructure and enabling rapid startup and low maintenance operation.

STaaS makes software testing similarly accessible, enabling projects to begin quickly, and making it viable for smaller software testing projects to be undertaken.

By outsourcing testing, a business can minimise software risks and control costs, ensuring that it only spends money on application testing when it needs to. Studies have shown that outsourced software testing can cut the cost of testing by 25 percent or more.

It’s not just for companies without an in-house team, either. STaaS can help to smooth the cost of an in-house team, by creating flexible capacity. In some larger enterprises, the in-house testing team could find itself in a position where it is unable to efficiently manage the volume of testing required at times.

The business could hire more staff, but when the workload decreases to manageable levels again, it’s going to need to keep paying them. STaaS means this long term investment is no longer necessary to address the short term bottleneck.

An outsourced testing professional can work with the in-house testing team to help them clear the workload much faster.

One of the reasons that traditional software testing is often expensive is that it can take a long time to get underway. Setting up can be a process that can sometimes take months. And when things do finally get underway, the results can be a long time coming.

In many cases too long – businesses need to react swiftly to changes in an unpredictable market. They need to be able to counter competitor moves.

They need to able to bring new products or services to market as soon as possible. In short, with the world as it is, businesses need results, and they need them yesterday.

Outsourced testing specialists have dedicated, industry-approved testing environments, which are ready to go at any time. As a result, for the vast majority of applications, tests can be started in as little as two days.

This, of course, means that the results can be delivered in a much shorter time-frame than with the traditional testing model. STaaS ensures that testing doesn’t cause a costly bottleneck during application deployment, which is one less headache for the organisation, and allows the business much greater operational flexibility.

The specialised infrastructure, test environment, and methodology that testing outsourcers offer also mean that applications can be tested, even if the business has little or no documentation.

In that case, the outsourcer could even help the organisation to start producing the critical documentation that will support future tests.

STaaS will deliver cost and time savings to many businesses, at a time when they need them most. But it does have its limitations.

If you’re looking to deploy an expansive enterprise-wide application, such as Siebel CRM or SAP ERP, Software Testing as a Service would certainly not be the best way to go.

Some organisations might be uncomfortable with the idea of handing over control of their testing. What these companies may not realise is that, although the testing processes are handled by a third party, the relationship is still collaborative.

Before starting tests, a reliable STaaS provider will visit the company and ensure it has a complete understanding of the organisation’s systems. The provider will make certain it knows what the customer wants and expects, so it can ensure this is what it delivers.

Through collaboration, the testing project can benefit from a combination of testing experience and a deep understanding of the customer’s corporate culture and systems.

The recession is a challenging time for many companies, but smart businesses can save themselves a lot time and money by letting someone else do the software testing for them.

Richard Terry is deputy CEO for software testing company Sogeti