Photo by Meredith Cook at Breckenridge, CO on a “blue bird” day, a clear day following a fresh snowfall.  It’s unrelated to SaaS or Cloud (or is it?); just nice to look at.

SaaS and cloud are starting to be used interchangeably (“we’re looking for a cloud solution”) but they really are not the same thing.

Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) is: software that is made available for use based on access to features, time, number of transactions, number of users, or a combination of variables.  A ‘cloud’ is simply a server – a computer you don’t own or maintain – that sits somewhere other than in your building, that you access to run applications or store data.

SaaS describes a type of software, cloud describes a type of platform.

So you can see it’s possible to take applications that you own, and put them in ‘the cloud,’ and also possible to use software you don’t own, but pay for based on usage, that is sitting in your data center with all your other applications.

But there are more important distinctions.

Type of Software-as-a-Service: Is it software that only you access (single tenant), or is it an application that many other people or companies use (multi-tenant)?  Multi-tenant is generally lower cost, but with less specialized functions for your particular enterprise.  Is it truly SaaS, or just a full cost, configured-for-you application hosted by someone else whose costs have been spread out monthly over 5 years to look like a SaaS solution?  True SaaS works like a subscription: sign up, pay by month and use it; when you no longer need it, you cancel.

Type of Cloud: Is it a private or public cloud, or a hybrid?  A private cloud is a single tenant environment (your enterprise) where you control access and have firewalls for security and where you can define the hardware.  A public cloud is where you are paying for a part of an existing cloud server environment; here, you “rent” space and the advantage is flexibility, low cost, and the ability to scale capacity up or down based on your needs.  Hybrid clouds offer both private and public spaces for you to use.

Let’s look at examples; in both cases we will use the scenario of a manufacturing company selling to major retailers in the U.S. and Canada.

True SaaS:  You contract with a company that offers tools for analytics (software) together with point-of-sale (POS) data for your products for your largest retail customers.  You pay by month to access and analyze POS data. The costs vary depending on how many report levels you want to see.  You access the application via internet, anyone in your company can use the service, and you can cancel at any time.

True Cloud: For purposes of experimenting with business intelligence applications, you purchase database space from a vendor, at a cost that varies depending on how much space you use.  You can scale up or down in terms of the storage you need.  You can connect to this space with a variety of tools for transporting  data and you can install and remove applications easily.  For running your business day to day, you can host your most critical applications in this cloud, and have in reserve an identical cloud with servers ready to take over in cases of disaster or over-capacity of your main servers.

Before you accept at face value the terms ‘cloud’ or ‘SaaS,’ make sure you understand what the vendor is telling you. Ask for details and explanations.  What the vendor thinks is cloud or SaaS can certainly be different from what you expect.