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IaaS vs. PaaS vs. SaaS: How to Choose the Right Cloud Service


Cloud computing has revolutionized businesses at every level, from scrappy startups to global corporations. Yet the term “cloud computing” can still seem vague because it captures such a wide range of services, options and uses.

Understanding how infrastructure and software are deployed on the cloud is essential to any business seeking to move to cloud-based operations. Currently, three models of cloud service dominate:

  • Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS).
  • Platform as a Service (PaaS).
  • Software as a Service (SaaS).

Understanding the pros and cons of each can help your team make better decisions during a cloud build or migration.


Using Cloud as a Service

“... as a service” refers to the way in which cloud resources are provided to businesses and individual users, write Siobhan Climer and Mike Czerniak at Mindsight. In this model, an organization uses hardware and software owned by its creator, who provides access in exchange for a fee.

One of the great benefits of cloud computing is its ability to save a business money by streamlining the use of computing resources, including software, hardware and online hosting.

Cloud computing can be contrasted with on-premises computing. In an on-premises arrangement, a business manages every aspect of its IT itself. Servers are purchased and maintained on company premises. IT staff are responsible for acquiring, installing and updating every application the business uses. If the company develops its own software, it acquires or creates its own development tools, often using custom configurations.

Those are large investments and overhead costs. Well-managed cloud-based tools, however, can reduce both workload and cost, allowing both IT staff and the organization to focus on the business’s core products and services — rather than on the infrastructure used to create or deploy those products and services.



Choosing Your Service

Cloud computing offers a vast array of computing options, from bare-bones storage to complete applications that can be used by entire teams. Understanding those various options and how they work is essential to choosing the right cloud architecture.


Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS)

Infrastructure as a service, or IaaS, offers computing and storage tools, but it doesn’t offer fully fledged applications or the tools to develop applications. IaaS can, however, offer significant cost savings for businesses.

An on-premises IT infrastructure represents a significant investment for any business. Hardware like servers can be expensive, both in initial cost and in the resources required to run and maintain the hardware.

IaaS solves this problem by offering highly flexible, scalable IT infrastructure, without sacrificing flexibility or forcing a company to cede control to an external IT contractor, writes ecommerce business consultant Tony Hou.

Popular examples of IaaS providers include Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud Platform (GCP).


Platform as a Service (PaaS)

Platform as a service, or PaaS, offers a cloud-based application development platform. The platform equips users with all the tools they need to develop their own applications, without the need to acquire or maintain their own servers, development software tools or online hosting.

One example of effective PaaS use is that of a gaming company, which seeks to release its titles to the public more quickly.

“Before cloud resources became available, it might have taken the company two to four months to launch products using only its own infrastructure and custom configurations,” writes Angel Luis Diaz, EY’s global director of engineering for technology.

“The PaaS approach allows that same company to provide the right resources in just hours for developers building games, and the customers who want to play them.”

While IaaS and PaaS were once wholly separate functions, today many IaaS providers also offer PaaS options, writes Jim Reavis, CEO at Cloud Security Alliance. AWS, Google and Microsoft Azure, for instance, all offer PaaS options as well as IaaS options.

Well-known examples of PaaS include Windows Azure, Google App Engine and OpenShift.


Software as a Service (SaaS)

Software as a service, or SaaS, is the most popular way businesses interact with the cloud. SaaS involves use of the cloud to make applications available to users; those applications are then managed by third parties, as Stephen Watts and Muhammad Raza at BMC write.

SaaS offerings lighten the load on in-house IT personnel because they do not require IT staff to install applications on each individual computer. In addition, the SaaS vendor manages issues like servers and storage. The business can focus on simply using the software rather than on installing and upgrading those tools, write Watts and Raza.

Common examples of SaaS offerings include Google Drive, Dropbox, Salesforce, Zoom and GoToMeeting.



What to Consider in the Planning Process

Determining which mix of cloud options suits your organization best is a matter of considering what resources your business has, how many workers need to use or access cloud resources, and how the organization will monitor its cloud tools.

According to ProfitWell Founder and CEO Patrick Campbell, SaaS often makes sense for companies with limited resources, regardless of the company’s size. SaaS tools make it easy for businesses to save money and collaborate within specific applications.

For medium and large businesses, both PaaS and IaaS may offer the best fit. Having an IT department makes transitioning to either model easier, Campbell writes. PaaS offers a step up in customization from SaaS tools, making it a good transitional step for a growing organization. The larger a business is and the more secure its IT capacity, the more likely that organization is to benefit from IaaS use.

For large companies with their own data centers, on-premises options may be the best fit, Campbell writes. These companies may also benefit from weighing the pros and cons of hybrid cloud computing, in which some tasks are handled on-premises while others are moved to the cloud.

Each infrastructural option has its own monitoring needs, as well:

  • IaaS requires monitoring of infrastructure even though the organization does not own that infrastructure. 
  • PaaS demands monitoring and management of applications regardless of who manages the infrastructure. 
  • SaaS monitoring is often limited to the data the SaaS provider is willing to share.

Cloud computing offers a great deal of flexibility for businesses. From basic infrastructure to complete applications, organizations of all sizes can use cloud computing to streamline their own IT work and manage computing costs. As with any business decision, however, the best choices come from having sufficient information about available options before making a choice.


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