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IaaS vs SaaS vs PaaS: Everything You Need to Know

Whether you’re a startup, a marketer, or a CEO evaluating cloud services, it’s highly likely that you’ve come across the Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), Software as a Service (SaaS) and Platform as a Service (PaaS) models. As software vendors vie to solve their customer’s problems, and to differentiate themselves in the marketplace, terms like these continue to grow in popularity.

The only problem is, all these different acronyms flying around can confuse the best of us.

In this article, we’re going to explain the differences between IaaS, SaaS, and PaaS so that you can be better informed about which model works best for your business, and make the right decision when you’re on the hunt for software.

What is SaaS?

SaaS — or software as a service — is a way of purchasing and using an application, or set of applications. But instead of paying for a yearly license to download an application, a SaaS model involves the customer paying a (usually smaller) monthly fee to access and use the software in a hosted environment.

Because SaaS is a cloud-based application, the customer doesn’t have to worry about downloading anything, nor do they need to concern themselves with updates and security — because it’s all taken care of centrally, in the cloud, by the vendor. With a SaaS solution, the customer simply accesses the application via a web browser, inputs their login credentials, and uses the application.

SaaS Features

Wondering how to identify a SaaS product? Here are some common SaaS traits and features to help you out:

  • Subscriptions are monthly, often with discounts for purchasing an annual plan.
  • Applications are cloud-hosted.
  • Requires an Internet connection.
  • Maintenance, security and updates are provided as part of your subscription.
  • Users are not required to pay for future updates like in the days of CD-ROM software
  • Subscription levels may be tiered, with plans based around number of users, storage space, or other factors.

 SaaS Examples

There are thousands of SaaS applications on the market. Companies big and small continue to deploy the SaaS model because it’s centralized, easier to manage, and provides them with a lot of flexibility to provide future updates.

Some of the most popular SaaS applications that you’ve heard of include:

SaaS Pros & Cons

There are several pros and cons when it comes to adopting a SaaS solution:

SaaS Pros:

  • Ready for Growth: A SaaS platform is ready out of the box, meaning a customer can pay the subscription fee today and begin accessing the software right away, making immediate use of the pre-built functionality and features. Integration with popular third-party platforms can often be accomplished instantly, too — all because the base software is pre-built and ready to use.
  • Cost effectiveness: Flexible monthly plans can typically be cancelled anytime.
  • Scalability: SaaS products are scalable by nature, allowing brands to scale up when more users, storage or server space is needed.
  • Accessibility: You and your team can access SaaS applications from any computer with an internet connection.
  • Vendor Management: The SaaS vendor takes care of hosting issues, data storage, security, product updates and pretty much everything else, so you can focus on using the software to its full potential.

SaaS Cons:

  • Customization: With a SaaS product, the vendor handles the core software, which means you can’t tinker with it for your own benefit. You’ll have to use the platform as it comes out of the box — unlike a platform as a service, as we will come to discuss.
  • Security: While cloud-hosting is generally secure, data breaches do happen with less vigilant SaaS providers, and your information could be compromised in the worst case scenario. However, hosting files offline doesn’t eliminate this issue, either.
  • Internet Connectivity Required: Most SaaS applications are rendered useless without an internet connection.
  • Downtime: If a service provider suffers downtime, you will be unable to access your SaaS application.

When Should I Use SaaS?

If you want to use a ready-made platform (or suite of applications that make up a platform), and aren’t concerned about customizing the bones of it — then SaaS is the way to go.

For example, if you need a WCMS that’s ready to help you launch websites, apps and progressive web apps today, then Zesty.io is for you. If, on the other hand, you want more granular and intricate control over the code, and you want to painstakingly build things almost from scratch, then a PaaS solution like Drupal might be the way to go. Speaking of PaaS...

What is PaaS?

PaaS, or platform as a service, is a fair simpler model than a SaaS solution — which actually makes it a more technical platform to work with.

While a PaaS solution is a category of cloud computing services that gives the customer a hosting environment too (and handles things like virtualization, runtime and middleware), a PaaS solution doesn’t enable the customer with ready-made application. It just provides the building blocks for the customer to build out their own solutions. Hence, unlike a SaaS solution which requires no technical knowledge to use, a team of developers is required to make use of a PaaS.

Common PaaS Features

The following traits are common throughout PaaS solutions:

  • A wide variety of services that can be used to develop, design, test, and deploy new applications.
  • Hosting and storage space.
  • Support for multiple users.
  • Integrated databases and web services.

PaaS Examples

While there are fewer PaaS options available, due to the complexity that goes into creating a PaaS, some of the most popular ones include:

PaaS Pros & Cons

Here are the benefits and disadvantages of using a PaaS solution:

PaaS Pros:

  • Cost Savings: Deploy apps for less, as the PaaS vendor will take care of things like hosting, OS, and server maintenance.
  • Freedom to Build and Iterate: Knowledgeable developers can build apps around precise specifications.
  • Accessibility: For developers at least, PaaS is very accessible, easy to get started with, and readily available from anywhere in the world. Teams can collaborate without any restrictions.

PaaS Cons:

  • Framework Lock-in: Every PaaS has its own framework that you will be forced to work within. Changing from one provider to another can prove challenging, and in some cases, near-impossible.
  • Hardware Failure: Although rare with the larger providers, PaaS providers are susceptible to hardware failures and outages.
  • Scaling Challenges: Some PaaS providers make it difficult to scale quickly.
  • Predetermined Hardware: You have no control over the hardware that hosts your applications.

When Should I Use PaaS?

Unlike with a SaaS solution, which gives the customer access to ready-to-use software, a PaaS usually requires some assembly, so to speak. That’s good news if you want to build a platform for your organization’s unique needs while relying on enterprise-grade servers and customer support, but it can be a serious undertaking.

The PaaS model is far cheaper than building your own servers, housing an entire development team in-house, and slowly building an app from scratch. With PaaS, you can build your application at your own pace and scale the platform as demand grows.

What is IaaS?

You may have also heard of IaaS, infrastructure as a service, the last category of the three cloud computing services. Iaas is a cloud service that provides computing, storage, and more over the Internet.

When Should I Use IaaS?

Many enterprise-level users find switching over to IaaS to be a cost-effective alternative to investing in data centers. With infrastructure as a service, the buyer is renting out a space at a physical location for their computer server and storage needs, and paying for a per-use or utility computing basis. The management aspect is left to the IaaS provider, and it falls on them to maintain, operate, and house the hardware.

One of the selling points of IaaS is that you only pay for what you use. Because the buyer is outsourcing resource needs, they can scale up and down fast according to need.

IaaS vs SaaS vs PaaS: The Key Differences

While there is some overlap between the three models, PaaS, SaaS, and IaaS are three very different solutions.

Think of IaaS as the foundation of cloud computing services. Just like with Saas and Paas, IaaS means that virtualization, servers, storage, and networking are managed by the vendor. However, with infrastructure as a service, the buyer manages applications, data, runtime, malware, and the operating system.

With a PaaS, the customer gets access to hosting, storage space, frameworks, servers, and operating system, and everything a team of developers requires to build applications. A PaaS solution suits an organization that wants to build their software, and have greater autonomy over the end product.

With SaaS, the vendor handles everything, granting the customer access to their software, so long as a subscription fee is paid. The individual application can be customized according to customer use, and the upkeep, security, and future development is in the hands of the vendor. Thus, a SaaS solution is ideal for business-focused brands that want results from a software built, maintained, and hosted by experts.

One model is not necessarily better than the other, but there are certain circumstances where each one will make more sense than the other. Now that you know the difference between IaaS, SaaS and PaaS, you’ll be able to determine which model best suits your business needs.

By Stuart Runyan

Developing web technologies is my passion! I'm focused on creating applications and experiences to solve the problems which today's digital marketers face. I believe in web standards, a mobile first approach, access for everyone, open source software and the democratization of information. My goal is to continue the Internet being pure awesome!

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