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Selecting Digital Signage Content Management Software

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Don’t Be Fooled into a Strict Premise-Based vs. SaaS Decision

BY JIM HUBER, NOR-COM

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The elaborate high-res 85-foot LED video display wall in the lobby of the Comcast Center in Philadelphia. (Photo courtesy of Barco.)

Editor’s note: The digital signage content management software that organizes and directs how content will play is central to providing the unique, powerful and inherent capabilities of digital signage. But the selection of software can be complex and daunting. There are hundreds of software providers. And software being software, challenges face the systems integrator and the end-user: software doesn’t have the kind of “specs” that allow easy A/B comparison when deciding which product to go with. To help demystify software, Jim Huber, CTS/PhD, and GM/director sales and business development at Nor-Com (www.nor-com.com — one of the largest and most successful AV systems integrators in the U.S.), explains some of the nuances of digital signage content management software selection.

I’m often asked to weigh in on the premise-based vs. SaaS debate, regarding digital signage content management software. The benefits of SaaS are undeniable, but only in the proper application. The reasons are pretty simple. You can deploy it more quickly and operate it more reliably — all at lower cost than traditional enterprise software. So is the logical conclusion that premise is dead and everything is destined for the clouds? Actually no, premise-based infrastructure still has a major role to play in future deployments. Why? Equally simple reasons: physics, user experience, user skill sets…and lawyers.

For all the benefits of SaaS, we haven’t figured out how to speed up light. It will always be faster (and cheaper) to move data (whether it be a real-time HD video stream or a large video file) across campus via the LAN than to ship it to the cloud and back. So a digital signage rollout utilizing a VTC component is going to continue to require premise-based equipment and software. For all the security advantages of a professionally managed SaaS-environment, the maze of corporate policies and often conflicting privacy and regulatory regimes world-wide ensure that some traffic and data will need to be kept on the corporate network. Often for no other reason than it is easier to maintain this status quo than to gain approval for a change from the legal department.

The obvious answer then is choice — the ability to deploy in either the SaaS or the premise depending on your requirements. And often, for us, the answer is not SaaS or premise, but instead a hybrid. With the right combination of SaaS and premise- based assets we can indeed get the best of both worlds. The key is not choosing between the SaaS and the premise, but being strategic about where we choose to deploy various hardware and software components of a total solution. For example, there are real advantages to deploying the application layer in the cloud to take advantage of web-speed innovation and instant global deployments. Similarly, audio and video MCUs and distributed content cache’s have huge benefits when deployed onpremise close to the people using them. In a well-designed layered architecture, cloud deployed applications can take full advantage of these premise-based assets.

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A simple SaaS-run deployment at Malabar Farm runs on DRM Productions’ Retriever. (Photo courtesy of DRM Productions.)

Here are some generalizations about premise-based vs SaaS digital signage content management software, and I emphasize generalizations. Don’t fall into a strict SaaS vs premise-based dichotomy.

The time horizon. This is perhaps the most important element to contend with, and is tied up with the question of which specific tool you are looking to acquire. For example, say you are facing the end-of-life for your existing digital signage and are weighing different options. It will be important to consider future growth scenarios in number of nodes deployed, in customer expectations, in administrative skill sets — all of these things change the calculation of total cost of ownership of a system. Will you be using a platform for one year or for three to five years? Will you be needing features that include kiosk commerce and demographic recognition? Spec’ing out your future needs and when you might have to incorporate them into your framework becomes critical to deciding in-house or outside.

Logistic Simplicity. In general, SaaS is simpler to deploy from a technical perspective. Because you don’t need to purchase additional servers or physically install the software yourself, it can be an easy and quick means of deploying the software. On the other hand, the high level of technical ease may create additional business complexities that you may not otherwise experience with a traditional premise solution.

Flexibility. Because traditional premise is installed on your servers and you actually own the software, you can do with it as you please. You may decide to customize it, integrate it to other software, etc. Although any premise software will allow you to configure and set up the software the way you would like, SaaS is generally less flexible than traditional premise in that you can’t completely customize or rewrite the software. Conversely, since SaaS can’t be customized, it reduces some of the technical difficulties associated with changing the software.

Size of the deployment. Deploying hosted technology is not a binary, all or nothing choice. With certain technologies you can start small and gradually move upscale, depending on your needs. Of course, if you don’t know how large you might need to grow, you may end up on the wrong side of the cost equation when you eventually do expand capacity.

Accessibility. Since SaaS is entirely accessed through the web, you have no access if the internet goes down. Alternatively, traditional premise does not require internet reliability, provided your users are accessing the software from inside your company’s network.

Budgetary wiggle room. Why are you considering off-premising in the first place? Is it because you want to try something you’re not currently using? Or because you need to grow/shrink/cut costs? The key to making this decision successful is knowing whether you are looking at hosting/leasing as a transition or as a permanent shift in how you use technology. In most cases, the premise solution is considered part of the cap-ex (capital expenditure) of an organization and the SaaS solution is considered op-ex (operational expenditure).

IT interference and corporate buy-in. If you have come down on the side of making a permanent transition, then it is critically important to have the support of both the IT team and upper management. Moving to a cloud-based infrastructure to replace hardware requires IT to vet interoperability with other corporate systems, and to establish that there are appropriate security layers to the seam between the company’s tools and the premise-based networks.

Security concerns. There is no question that certain applications in certain circumstances should not be removed from the premises without a very careful security inspection. Many companies, especially those in financial services and healthcare, have to follow guidelines regarding the dispersal of private customer information. If social security or credit card numbers are part of the normal data collection process, then a company needs to be sure to establish that the hosting partner you choose has the appropriate safeguards in place.

Intangibles. There will always be an x-factor that intrudes on the discussion of whether to host or stay on-premise. Sometimes it will be rational, other times less so. This includes questions of vendor preference; executive comfort level with lack of control; and outright bias towards or against certain technology models. These may be in the mind of a decision- making individual or weaved into a corporate culture; either way, they have to be reckoned with just as clearly as a cost or ROI factor. When confronted with an irrational intangible that weighs heavily against the company’s preferred choice (pro or con), it helps to acknowledge that there are intangibles at work, and to gently try to quantify their effects in terms of costs and revenues.

Control. Many companies find that they don’t have control over SaaS software as they would like, relative to traditional premise. This is especially true of mid-size or large companies with well-defined business processes that are unable to be changed to fit the software. Smaller companies generally are able to adapt their business processes to the software easier than a larger organization.

Cost. In general, SaaS can be deployed at a much smaller initial cost, which can be attractive to smaller businesses. However, the ongoing annual payment can be higher for SaaS because you’re paying to use the software. Much like leasing vs. buying a car, that payment never goes away as long as you’re using the software and can become costly as you grow and add employees to the system.

Summation. There are some problems that contact centers face that never seem to go away. Agent turnover is one. Improving customer satisfaction is another. At first blush, these things seem to have nothing to do with the question of where you locate your technology. Solving them really has more to do with fixing business processes (and building better ones) than it does with applying specific tools to the problems. Empirically, there are more than 20 years of evidence that shows that premises-based technologies (by themselves) manifestly do not solve these structural endemic problems. It may be the case that removing technology management from the digital signage administrators daily experience provides the window of opportunity to actually deal with those business processes.

My bottom-line advice: Don’t be forced into choosing between a SaaS and premise deployment. Instead, choose both and be thoughtful about which components you deploy where.

Jim Huber (PhD), is GM/director sales and business development, Nor-Com (www.norcom.com).

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