SaaS vs Cloud – Is There Even a Difference?

Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) is the cloud service model that most anyone that interacts with digital services has experience with.  This service model is now so ubiquitous that most people are not even aware that they are using a cloud computing service at all.  Today’s bevy of social media services are all SaaS applications. Despite this, most of those services’ users, if asked, will not be able to provide a clear distinction between SaaS and cloud computing and will quite possibly consider that they are the same thing.

 Is There a Difference Between SaaS and Cloud Computing?

Part of the problem in understanding SaaS vs Cloud is that cloud computing has been both made to seem rocket science-level complicated and been dumbed down to the level of just being an on demand storage service (a SaaS, by the way).   The use of this storage-as-a-service SaaS as a default cloud example has proven to be an unfortunate choice because raw storage (i.e. hard drives of some flavor) are also part of another cloud service model known as Infrastructure-as-a-Service or IaaS.  The recent trendiness of the -aaS designation has also resulted in a proliferation of as-a-Service designations for a variety of what are really just SaaS services. For a further explanation of SaaS, check out What is Software as Service (SaaS) Anyway?

While definitions of cloud computing are legion, a widely accepted and official definition provided by US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) distills down what makes a cloud into a system with five essential characteristics: measured service, on-demand, self-service access, resource pooling, rapid elasticity and broad network access. In an IaaS example this would be self-service, on-demand access to servers, network and storage components.  For SaaS, this would simply be access to application. For completeness, the third ‘service model’ is the (application development) Platform-as-a-Service or PaaS.  A PaaS (e.g. Heroku, OpenShift) provides an on-demand app development platform that allows developers to build and deploy applications without worrying about running the infrastructure. It fits in between the IaaS and SaaS service models in terms of complexity and flexibility.

Do You Need a SaaS Product?

At this point, it is hopefully clear that SaaS is just one of three cloud computing service models along with PaaS and IaaS. So, all SaaS are cloud services, but not all clouds are SaaS. Well then, do you need a SaaS, PaaS or IaaS?  The accelerating trend towards “digital transformation,” aka moving to the cloud, is evidence of the overall benefit of cloud services for businesses.  The primary case where a cloud system might not be the best option is if your business or your customers are in areas where network connectivity is limited or inconsistent. Aside from that, the drawbacks to adopting a cloud system are negligible and the next question is, does a SaaS offering make the most sense for my business?

One way to think about this is recognizing that you have several cloud options for achieving your business goal and the primary tradeoff is responsibility for and flexibility with the infrastructure used.  A car analogy can be used to explain this concept. If your business goal is to travel from point A to point B on a frequent basis, where does it make sense to invest your time, effort and money?   The graphic below illustrates some of the tradeoffs you will need to make

You can see that with leasing a vehicle (IaaS), the vendor manages the car (infrastructure) but you own most of the responsibility for operating the system along with getting to where you need to go.  With a rental car (PaaS), your operational responsibility diminishes and you are still responsible for getting where you need to go.  With a hired car (SaaS) the operational responsibility is effectively eliminated and your primary responsibility is defining the destination. If owning infrastructure does not provide value and you only care about the core functionality (just get me from A to B in our analogy) a SaaS is likely the best choice.

To come back to the world of software, if you suddenly had the need to store and share your massive photo collection with your many friends, the quickest, and likely most cost effective, way to do so would be with a SaaS.  Because SaaS applications are, by definition, on-demand and self-service, you can get access to several services that meet your needs very quickly.  While you could build your own cloud storage service with an IaaS or PaaS model, you then will need to accept that it will take time to build and you will be responsible for operational aspects of the service, like upgrades and bug fixes.  

As long as there is a SaaS out there that meets your needs, it will likely be the most cost effective and efficient solution. If you truly have a unique need that requires a custom solution, then it may be time to consider a PaaS or IaaS. Even then, it is worth considering that many SaaS providers are keen to expand the range of their service. In some cases, it may be possible to have your need added as a new feature by the SaaS provider.

Is SaaS the Optimal Cloud Solution?

Short of working in an environment where network connectivity is not robust, there are few cases where running an application in the cloud is a disadvantage.  We’ve already talked a bit about why SaaS might be a better option versus IaaS or PaaS, but should it really be the go-to solution for everyone?  The key business value proposition for all cloud services really boils down to paying only for what you need and this is true for SaaS, PaaS and IaaS.  And for most businesses, that is really the question.  

Even if you are running a PaaS or IaaS, it is quite possible that you will want to integrate a SaaS application that provides some particular function that is not core to what you are trying to develop.  Why spend the time and money to build and operate a Single Sign On (SSO) function when a SaaS that provides this can readily and securely be integrated into your system. Creating applications that leverage other apps’ functionality via their APIs is a great way to increase development velocity.  Cloud services also bring with them lowered cost (compared to building your own), eliminating the toil of updates, and scaling of functionality beyond what would be otherwise possible to purchase outright.  The flexibility, cost effectiveness, and ready ability to scale functionality with low operational overhead makes it quite understandable why SaaS is the largest and fastest growing cloud service model.

Opsani provides a continuous optimization SaaS that makes sure that your cloud system (IaaS, PaaS or SaaS) is providing the greatest value. Opsani takes the complexity of system limits and desired business outcomes, calculates the optimal outcome, and then returns the appropriate configuration changes. The end result of this automated process is reduced cost, improved application performance, and engineers that are freed up from toil to do interesting things for your business.  

Contact Opsani to know more about how they can help you optimize your infrastructure and cut your costs with the power of AI and ML. You can also sign up for a free trial and experience how Opsani can take your business to greater heights.