Once upon a time whenever a user wanted to use a piece of software (s)he had to purchase it on a physical storage device (a Floppy Disc in the 80’s, a CD-ROM in the 90s and DVDs in the early 21 century) from which to needed to be installed onto one’s computer and run as a desktop application.
In the era of fast broadband this business model is increasingly becoming outdated and superseded by the concept of SaaS – Software as a Service where the software is running on a ‘host’ server in some other country (in all likelihood on a ‘server farm’) to be maintained and upgraded by the software service provider.
Instead of owning a personal copy the user is effectively ‘renting’ the software by purchasing a licence to access parts of all of the software as a ‘Web-service’ via a (annual or monthly) subscription model licencing fee. The software is accessed through a Web-browser with the requirement for an institutional login. A local administrator is needed to configure the user interface, add relevant end users and provide training and support.
The computational overheads of running the software are shifted from the end user to the service provider thus minimising the hardware costs to the user. On the other hand effective usage will require good broadband internet access to the ‘cloud’-based services.
A case in point for cloud-based services is provided by Adobe Systems, which has launched a SaaS product called Creative Cloud to replace a client-based suite of software called Creative Suite. Whilst Creative Suite required up-front payment of $2,600 per single licence, Creative Cloud is available on a £8 to £45 per month subscription basis, depending on the customer’s individual requirements. This tailor-made ‘a-la-carte’ model allows customers to purchase only those offerings they need, at a time when they will need it, JIT-type.
At Harper Adams University several of our learning technology services are now ‘hosted in the cloud’, including our ePortfolio provision (PebblePad), the Video-conferencing tool GotoMeeting and our media storage and delivery platform (Kaltura).
As these services are used only by a limited number of users a cloud-based provision provides a cost-effective way to serve our students..
The benefits are obvious for both the service provider and the end user:
The provider has complete control (and responsibility) over the software, there are no shipment/retail overheads, and the software support is much simpler.
For the end user the benefits include always being able to work with the most recent version of the software, there are no overheads in installing and running it on local PCs, the delivery is platform-independent and often includes smart devices and there are more flexible licencing options based on real usage.
The most serious disadvantage is that some user data such as account details etc. and content (with potentially sensitive data) may be held in cloud storage i.e. on a server off-side thus jeopardising data protection legislation for the country where the service is offered. This is highlighted in recent developments in particular in regards to the EU’s stance on the Safe Harbour legislation.
Several HE institutions have extended this SaaS approach by hosting the entire Virtual learning Environment (VLE) with a third party service provider, who will undertake all the necessary integration work and management of the software. As VLEs become more sophisticated, interconnected and inter-dependent this may become appropriate for those institutions who have not the ‘in-house’ expertise to run such software or who need to adapt rapidly to changing user demands.
Overall cloud-based IT service provision will allow institutions to respond to the educational needs of their customers in a highly flexible and responsive manner, including small-scale ‘niche’-aspects of training provision where enterprise solutions would not be appropriate.