In this issue (view the digital edition by clicking on the box on the right side of this home page) we have chosen to focus on one of the primary differences between the two main digital signage content management software camps: whether their digital signage content management software is a customer-installed solution that runs mainly on “premise-based” servers, or is a “hosted” software as a service (SaaS) that the end user does not “buy” but accesses remotely through a web browser. While this is not necessarily the most important distinction separating all the software vendors out there–as with any industry category, the primary distinguishers when choosing a vendor are track record with successful installations, good service to back up the product, strength and longevity of the company, a healthy balance sheet indicating the vendor will be around for the next upgrade– it is often one of the top criteria upon which the initial selection of software is based.
Whether or not it is the best way to separate the software companies, the fact is that most end users, and integrators, see the software vendors as grouping in these two camps, and base a lot of their purchase decision on the perceived strengths of either camp. I emphasize “perceived” strengths. Because end users and integrators have this basic premise-based vs. SaaS distinction in their heads, all involved in the process must address it.
In preparing coverage in this magazine, I heard many times from software vendors that “we do both”, i..e. that they offered both premise-based and SaaS solutions. But further questioning revealed that a lot of those multiple offerings from one company were the result of that particular vendor wanting to keep their options open in case a customer wanted a different solution than the one they specialized in. And in fact almost all of them were squarely in one camp are the other when it came to the vast majority of their sales. So in this special Software section, we present an eloquent spokesman, if you will, for each camp: Jeff Collard of Omnivex carrying the banner of the premise-based software camp; and Ryan Cahoy of Rise Vision explaining the benefits of the SaaS approach. Had space provided, we could have had a dozen spokespeople from either camp, with each of them poking holes in the “perceived” strengths or weakness of either approach.
Key issues were brought up by vendors and integrators I surveyed in preparation for this coverage–some of which are raised by Collard and Cahoy, and some not. On the perceived greater strength of premised-based systems to achieve a greater level of data security, Bill Gerba of WireSpring Technologies (one of several software companies that insisted they had both premise-based solutions and SaaS offerings) pointed out that their SaaS system, which makes up most of their sales, is hosted at multiple data centers around the country for geographical redundancy, and that other SaaS providers are taking that same approach, to address the constant connectivity side of “security”. Gerba also pointed out that “any SaaS provider worth his salt will have dedicated, full-time network security employees who constantly monitor, patch and test their servers to keep them secure. We [Wirespring, on their SaaS side] can spend six figures a year on security because that cost gets spread over many clients, all of whom benefit from it.”
Sean Matthews of Visix commented that native, premise-based (fat client) applications do not work well in democratized communications environments where the client needs and wants many to contribute to the content creation process, claiming that it costs too much in licensing fees to put a native application on everyone's desktop. But Matthews also pointed out that SaaS products do not have content creation tools that are as powerful as native applications.
Interestingly, this industry use of the term “Fat Clients” to describe premise-based systems echoes a similar argument in the larger IT world.
“Twenty years ago, everyone was talking about thin clients taking over the desktop and the death of the PC,” commented Jeff Collard. “Mark Twain would have smiled. This has not happened in the IT world.”
Both standard-bearers that appear in these pages pointed to their camp as being on the cutting edge of digital signage technology. Ryan Cahoy of Rise Vision makes the case that the SaaS approach is part of the larger trend toward “cloud computing” that allows more flexibility in crafting solutions that are not married to static applications. Jeff Collard on the other hand, says that the next innovation in digital signage will be systems that do not merely push simple content out to screens, but feature content changes that are triggered by environmental cues or keyed to other internal databases. Both points can be argued: cloud computing should theoretically lead to more rapid upgrades to the software, and easier user interface logging on from any remote site (with the implication being that this model simply allows for faster market penetration and hence faster industry maturity). Premise-based, installed-on-server applications would, I would agree, offer more possibility, for example, for a retailer to cue digital signage messaging from sales data markers in their Oracle-run POS system (and I don’t think a Walmart or a Best Buy or a Nordstrom is going to let an outside vendor host and view all their sales data anytime soon).
But as much as we digital signage professionals like to think we’re creating the demand out there with our offerings and dictating the market, as Bob Ventresca of Netkey (who offers both SaaS and premise-based options) points out, “Many customer organizations have specific policies regarding IT infrastructure, security, operations, and other factors that require them to host all software on their own network and servers. Others are able to outsource digital signage software infrastructure to a SaaS provider. There is no right or wrong here. The best choice is simply based on what the customer wants and can support with budget, resources, etc.”
So while we–the industry insiders– know that oversimplifying the differences between premise-based and SaaS solutions is a mistake, and that there are no “rules” about which camp provides easier content management, better security, greater scalability, more affordable solutions, etc– it is still necessary, at this stage of the evolution of the industry, to try to clarify the differences between premise-based and SaaS solutions, and use that discussion as a springboard to other discussions about other software issues.
We will be examining all of those issues, in ongoing coverage in this magazine (and online at www.digitalsignageweekly.com) . And speaking of which: to complement our coverage in these pages, log onto www.digital signageweekly.com to view a Chart comparing features from a variety of digital signage content management software vendors.