October 14, 2016
Do You Want Your Content to Live in an Apartment or a House: Understanding SaaS Models

Software as a Service, or SaaS, is a great approach for web content management. It provides all the functionality of a traditional on premises Web CMS without the overhead of purchasing expensive licenses and the cost of managing the server and software environment needed to run your websites.

SaaS is definitely about cost-savings, at least upfront, but it's also about handing over the work required to keep your Web CMS environment up and running to people who are experts and leaving your IT resources to look after other important aspects of your business.

If you are thinking about moving to a SaaS-based Web content management system then it's important to understand that SaaS means different things to different CMS vendors. There are, in fact, several different approaches to SaaS, and each one has its strengths and challenges. Let's look at the three approaches to delivering software as a service.

Multitenant

Multitenant SaaS is a common approach to many SaaS applications on the market today. Simply put, the SaaS vendor has built one application and allows many customers to use it. Common examples of multitenancy SaaS include Salesforce and Yammer.

Think of it this way. Multitenant SaaS is like living in an apartment. Your CMS vendor owns the apartment building and manages everything like your heat, water, garbage and basic needs like making sure the elevator works. You simply rent an apartment in that building. You share many things with other renters: power, water, elevators and so on. What you are responsible for is your apartment and the contents within it. You can't change how the apartment is structured (like add a bathroom or a bedroom), you can only change where your furniture sits.

With multitenant SaaS every customer shares the same infrastructure, but the software partitions the customers and their data. In this approach, only one version of the software is maintained and as updates or enhancements are added, every customer benefits.

This approach to managing web content has its benefits. As a customer, there is no infrastructure or software to manage and you get full access to the Web CMS and its functionality. All you have to do is create and manage your websites. If you have a simple website with consistent traffic expectations , then this approach works fine.

However, multitenancy has its drawbacks. Websites are different from CRMs and other applications, because they are customer facing. Websites often require much more customization. 

Multitenancy typically assumes that one size fits all, but if your website has more complex requirements you're going to run into problems. For example, you might want a secure section of your website for customer support, or you may need to integrate with your marketing automation or CRM application to provide personalization or custom marketing campaigns.

You may also have a website that has large spikes in traffic certain times of the year that require more resources than a multitenant SaaS Web CMS can provide because it needs to provide a committed set of resources to all its customers. Bad neighbors may be other sites managed on the platform that are streaming a lot of video or impacting performance across the network.

In a multi-tenant environment the vendor also typically chooses when you need to upgrade. This may result in downtime when it is critical your website is available, in pushing out updates that impact the performance of your website and integrity of  implementation and integrations, and other issues.  

Virtualized

Virtualization is another approach to SaaS for many Web CMS vendors. With virtualization you take one server and partition it into many "virtual" servers. Each virtual server has dedicated storage, processing, memory and security. In essence, each customer gets its own dedicated server and all the flexibility that comes with it: upgrade the software when you choose, manage file level access, write customizations, integrate with third party applications, install additional applications or databases.

In addition, at any time you could move the entire environment to a new location, including on premises.

If we follow our apartment example above, virtualization is much like living in a house. You have your own water and power supply and you are responsible for maintaining up keep of the house. Because your house is completely separate, you can customize it based on your specific requirements, so if you want an extra bathroom you can build it in. If you want to redesign the kitchen or paint the living room, you can.

Virtualization is not without its challenges though. Once your virtualized environment is set up you are limited to the parameters of your server. If you do expect large fluctuations in website traffic, you may find you have to plan up front for the high traffic and pay for it, even when you don't need. That being said, some Web CMS vendors do provide floating resources that can help account for those spikes only when necessary.

Another point you should consider when looking at a Web CMS vendor who provided a virtualized SaaS model is how they distribute the CMS application itself. Is everything on a single server (administration and website)? Or is it separated into two different servers? Your live production web-server is where the traffic spikes can occur and planning for these spikes is part of any good SaaS deployment plan.

Hybrid Cloud

In a Hybrid Cloud deployment, you can host your Web CMS application on a dedicated server with a Web CMS vendor, but deploy the live production website with an infrastructure provider like Microsoft Azure or on shared servers with other customers. You could also host the CMS administration application on premises and deploy your live production websites to a Web CMS cloud provider.

If you have a global presence, hosting the live website with a CMS provider with data centers around the world is beneficial. Hosting the live website with Azure supports companies that require a local presence or want the ability to auto-scale for expected, and unexpected, traffic spikes.

The biggest challenge with a hybrid cloud CMS deployment is managing separate environments. You may need to purchase licenses for the on premises installation and also pay subscriptions fees for the hosted live website.

Also with a hybrid cloud deployment where you host the backend CMS application on premises, you are responsible for managing upgrades, as well as supporting its use and customizations.

For some hybrid is the "best of both worlds", but for other organizations hybrid may be the "worst of both worlds". You have the overhead of managing an on premises application and at the same time have to deal with a SaaS environment. To make hybrid worthwhile you need to have very specific business requirements, like stringent security concerns, compliance regulations, or an internal operations group built for managing on premise applications.

Which SaaS CMS Option is Best for You?

This really depends on your needs. Multi-tenant Web CMS can be less expensive, although the cost of virtualization has fallen dramatically. But most multi-tenant solutions are limiting and do not provide the flexibility required to manage complex websites and application. Virtualization provides more flexibility and baseline performance, but you often need to invest in a larger slice of computing power than a fully shared platform.

The architecture of the CMS application is also an important consideration. A tightly coupled CMS will require downtime for your website and application for upgrades. A decoupled CMS that separates content management from content delivery allows each environment to upgraded separately and delivers 100% uptime for your live website. 

It's important to understand your requirements for functionality and customizations and integrations as well as your availability and performance expectations. Discuss these requirements with SaaS CMS vendors to best understand how they can support your needs. 

Posted by Dave Hillis
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