Thursday, 22 November 2012

To Host or not to Host

Okay they're warming the engines on my private jet (okay, technically there's a whole bunch of people I don't know on here too) as I prepare to go and deliver a coaching session in Wellington on Totara LMS to the health service here in New Zealand, that means as usual the majority of my blog gets written on my trusty iPad from the clouds (Cloud in the clouds?). Today's issue is all about your hosting and who hosts your technology. This can be an incredibly emotive subject it seems for some organisations, but we really should examine what the advantages and disadvantages are for the hosting options.

There are essentially three options as I see it;
1) host it yourself
2) a SaaS offering or Cloud solution without options
3) a third party hosts (although 2 is technically is too)

I'll host thanks
Working in open source learning solutions the self-hosting option always seems like a good idea at the start. It's a bit like deciding to have your kids birthday party at home; it can cost you every bit as much, is considerably more work and who gets to clear up the mess afterwards eh? That said it can give you a greater sense of satisfaction and ultimately you have full control over your system (in theory at least). I've said here that the cost can be as much to host yourself but surely this is a typo right? I'm afraid not. The problem is often in the set up and services that your technology piece requires, do you have the right servers, access, operating system, web services and expertise to be able to put the system in place and ultimately the ability to make the updates and changes necessary in running a scalable operation. The real key here though is what is your relationship with your IT people (unless you do it all yourself, in which case just allow time, lots of it). In the open source world if your IT people are Windows people then I'd probably happily pass at that point and move on, Linux based systems are different and there will almost certainly be troubles ahead. There are options here and a good one is to consider getting your supplier to build you a VM or virtual machine. In layman's terms it means you host a 'box' and it does its magic for you!

Hosting internally doesn't necessarily mean working unsupported either, ask your vendor if they can provide technical or remote support to you; watch again though as it may well cost as much to support your system remotely as it does to have them host and support. If you do get remote support, make sure your IT people are on-board and give the vendor the access they need otherwise the relationship can quickly become very difficult and time consuming to get things done.

Finally if you are hosting internally get commitment from your IT peeps to continually support the system. All systems require regular updates and patches for security and functionality and you don't want to be left with an outmoded system that in a few months isn't performing the way it should be.

Let's get SaaSsy
Having your software as a service (ah, that's what SaaS stands for!) is pretty trendy these days. What it means in simple terms is that you just use it through the web interface and the database and code is held centrally somewhere or another that you don't have to worry about (or do you? More later). This is the best option when your IT department sucks, is slow and unresponsive or frankly non-existent. You just need to make sure that you don't have a viscous firewall that won't let you through and you're 99% of the way there! For simplicity you can't beat a SaaS offering and for setup speed it ranges from the time it takes to swipe your credit card to a few days... Either way it's the fastest way to get your learning in place.

So what's the catch? Well... There are a few things to consider. Typically interconnnectivity for SaaS systems is difficult if it allows for this at all. That means if you want it to actively link to your other systems and hierarchical structures or have SSO (single sign on) you will typically find this is a no-go or very difficult. Since these are typical requirements for larger vendors true SaaS offerings are often targeted at small to medium business only; and so is the pricing. That means for small users it's almost certainly the most cost effective way to set up a learning system; great for pilots or smaller organisations. If you're a larger organisation with thousands or tens of thousands of users upwards you'll probably find the SaaS option is actually dearer. It also becomes far harder to completely customise a SaaS offering both in terms of the way it looks and the way it acts. The code base is typically the same for everyone and this may not suit the way you want to work.

Back to my side note earlier SaaS offerings can be slower because of where they are hosted. Usually they use cheap locations for obvious reasons and this means your server can be a long way away from you and this can affect how quick the pages and content load. Always worth checking where the hosting is being operated from before selecting SaaS offerings if performance is important to you and your organisation.

Be my host
So hosting is the third option and this means someone other than your organisation looks after the system and the updates etc. This means it's going to be hosted somewhere in the cloud and they look after it. If you're wondering what the difference between this and the previous example is, you're right to ask as essentially this is still SaaS in most instances, but the differences is that it's hosted for you rather than hosted for everyone and you're just a user. Think private jet rather than economy space; well... Maybe it's more business class, but it sure makes you feel a bit superior, though you pay for that of course. The point about scale comes in to play here, if you travel often and far enough it's cheaper to own a jet than use one... This translates to if you have enough users it may be cheap to have it hosted than SaaS offerings, and even if not cheaper it certainly feels more like it's yours.

The advantages here are several but most notably that if you want to customise or link to another system or two you can. If you want SSO or things that aren't available to economy class you can have them. You also get a system hosted by a company that knows the right environment to host their own system; the performance difference can be massive, particularly with large databases that LMSs typically rely on.

The disadvantages of this approach tend to be the start up costs, particularly for a low level number of users or pilots, and that the timeline can be slower than the almost instant SaaS offering (although better than an internal hosting where people don't know what they're up to!). Control isn't normally an issue as the site is essentially yours, but some hosters are decidedly better than others so do your research I guess!

For me there's no single answer as to what's the best option. Sometimes the decision is made for you by the powers that be and their policies, but as a general rule, if you want to set up a pilot for a few users without customisation then you can't really find a better choice than SaaS. The internal hosting is an obvious choice when you have the internal skills, capacity and systems but otherwise I'd avoid it unless of the aforementioned policies. That means big and custom installs tend naturally to fall into hosted systems where they belong. All in all though it really depends and a good vendor will talk through the options with you and help you in your decision.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Andrew McKee Avenue,Mangere South,New Zealand