Industry Insights

The Difference Between Cloud and SaaS – Should I Care?

There's a common misconception that Cloud and software as a service, or SaaS as its more commonly referred to are interchangeable when in reality each have their own defining characteristics. While both share the nature of being on-demand, in their simplest forms, Cloud is an architecture based on a type of access, while SaaS is an application delivery model that lives on the Cloud architecture. Like many things the concepts are complicated more than they need to be which contributes to the confusion, I simply imagine Cloud as a place where resources like applications, servers, storage, networks and services are housed while SaaS is, well, a service that lives there. 

Interestingly enough, there was a time when SaaS was being used as a major product differentiator but now, it’s been replaced with companies presenting their solutions as Cloud which begs the question, is it even a factor anymore? And, is the name confusion trickling down into a misunderstanding of what each can offer different from the other? To clear the confusion, I am speaking with Adrian Newby, Chief Technology Officer at Crownpeak, to hear the ways in which they are different, the pros and cons of SaaS itself and why knowing the difference is crucial when it comes to Adrian’s favorite topic, upgrades. 

Important Differences Between Cloud and SaaS

Adrian made note of an important point of difference in that “all SaaS platforms are Cloud based but that doesn’t necessarily mean that all Cloud based platforms are SaaS” and, there is a flexibility and scalability modern Cloud platforms offer that SaaS was basically built to take advantage of. He also makes mention of how Cloud services on their own offer the option to take your more traditional systems, store them on servers in the Cloud and run them the same as you would from a classic data center but by no means would they be what is expected of a modern SaaS platform. This furthers his point that not all systems that run in the Cloud are created equal. 

He also pointed out the ways in which businesses could be negatively affected if, through the confusion, ended up picking the incorrect option for their needs. Adrian emphasized that most often, decision makers are attracted to the Cloud because of its opportunity for cost reduction while getting an increased agility and ease of use in managing their systems and platforms but, if they mistakenly choose “a transplanted traditional platform instead of a modern SaaS native platform, they’ll most likely only realize a fraction of the benefits that they’re really aiming for, if any at all”.

SaaS for WCM and Digital Experience

When it comes to SaaS for web content management, Adrian explained it can be a pretty big deal for a few reasons, ubiquity being perhaps the greatest benefit. Teams are increasingly spread out around the globe, which is both a cause and an effect of the advances in technology allowing teams to work together effectively in various parts of the world. As he explains: “Being able to work with teams that are distributed around the world, especially when those teams include potentially large numbers of 3rd party digital agencies, systems integrators and so forth is a huge productivity boost.”

The other massive advantage Adrian notes is speed, given the reduced friction working on a modern SaaS platform can offer. This is especially valuable to marketers whereby they can be more responsive to deliver campaigns at the accelerated speed of hours or even minutes compared to the weeks or months it used to take. 

He also showcased the way SaaS eases the burden of complexity many organizations face as they strive to deliver an impactful experience for their customers, “SaaS platforms tend to be a lot easier to integrate with other 3rd party services like marketing automation stacks, social media hubs, eCommerce services. So building the more complex experiences tends to be a lot more achievable if you’re actually embracing all of the SaaS platforms have to offer.”

Marketers and Content Teams Should Have a Say

Another misconception surrounding the process of whether to go with SaaS or just a Cloud platform has to do with who the decision maker should be. When they’re mistakenly thought of as one premise, the notion it’s all about architecture takes over, meaning the choice usually falls upon the IT and development team but when you look at SaaS as the sum of its parts, it becomes more about utility and opens up the consideration to other cohorts within an organization like the marketing and content teams, given the hand they have in creating the overall digital experience organizations want to achieve. 

I brought this up with Adrian to understand the message he has for marketers and content teams regarding what they needed to know: “Well first of all more than ever, marketing and IT teams really have to work together more closely and collaborate to be successful in the digital world. However, marketers and content teams in particular really do need to invest a little bit of time to understand at least some of the underlying technology to make sure that they really are going to be getting those speed, agility and cost benefits that they’re relying on when they’re building the business case in the first place.”

He advises marketers do some research and ask fairly pointed questions about the expansion and scalability potential of a platform in relation to both cost and time while ensuring the answers they receive are detailed, “if the answers that are coming back sound like the ones that you might expect from your own internal IT organizations, chances are your probably not looking at a real SaaS platform and therefore unlikely to see the kind of benefits that you were hoping for when you built the business case.”

True SaaS and Upgrades

After I brought up the question of upgrades to Adrian, it became clear to me one of the major benefits of working with a true SaaS platform is how easy upgrades are, especially knowing how time and cost heavy they can be for other types of platforms. Also, he explained how an examination of the upgrade process could be a way to determine if you’re actually gleaning the benefits from a SaaS platform that you hoped for. “If you’re working with a SaaS platform then any upgrades or any improvements in the service should be priced into the subscription they shouldn’t be extras, they should arrive transparently and you shouldn’t have to do anything to take advantage of them. You shouldn’t have to be scheduling upgrade time and you certainly shouldn’t be having to rework solutions you’ve already built on your platform as a precondition to actually taking that upgrade.”

To bring it all into perspective he used the example of true SaaS platforms like Gmail, Facebook or Instagram and pointed out the absence there of a need to schedule or pay for upgrades. Adrian emphasized having to manage an upgrade process the same way you previously did running in your own data center is a red flag and likely indicates “you really haven’t achieved anything at all and you haven’t really got the benefits you were hoping for when you built the business case and sold the idea of moving to the Cloud to your boss.”

Disadvantages of SaaS

To bookend the conversation, Adrian took the time to explain “it’s not all roses and puffy white Clouds out there, not all SaaS platforms are equally great.” This has to do with if they ‘play nice’ with other solutions, “some still force you into having to work with a single technology and sometimes that might make it more difficult to integrate with all the legacy solutions that don’t work well with that particular technology.”

If a particular SaaS platform has a Cloud exclusive architecture, it will create challenges for an organization with legacy applications it needs the platform to integrate with that “live within the walls of your own corporate data centre.” This is again where having an accurate view of your needs and workflow are key when creating a SaaS business model and to be aware that while Cloud is representative of an ease of access, SaaS again can differ by not consistently sharing the same attribute as Adrian points out above. 

Ending Notes

Understanding the differences between Cloud and SaaS are beneficial for many reasons, not least of which is to determine which type of platform is best for your business model given the cornucopia of available options out there today. Crownpeak also shares research done by IBM into why SaaS customers chose to use their Cloud-based services, with some of the highest percentages showing direct benefits related to two of the biggest needs of businesses today, “71% were using SaaS to accelerate time-to-market and improve customer experiences” and “66% were using SaaS to identify customer needs and to bring products to market faster”.

At the end of the day however, it all comes down to the importance of understanding what is being said when a platform is advertised as Cloud or SaaS and knowing the right questions to ask to determine if what is being offered is truly going to be the best for your organization


Laura Myers

Laura Myers

A digital business, marketing and social media enthusiast, Laura thrives on asking unique, insightful questions to ignite conversation. At an event or remotely, she enjoys any opportunity to connect with like-minded people in the industry.

Featured Case Studies