Despite the widespread use of terms like cloud or SaaS in the media, decision makers are skeptical about these concepts. Find out whether this skepticism is valid or not in this article about cloud-based digital signage systems.
What is a cloud-based Digital Signage System?
A cloud-based digital signage system usually represents a web application that controls and delivers content to digital screens. The digital signage cloud software is not installed locally on the user's computer.
Cloud was previously just the term used to describe storing files on a remote server. For example, on Dropbox. Basically, like many things in IT, it’s the same object in different packaging. Ftp servers, which have been used for file transfers since the 1980s, also fall under this definition.
In the last 10 years, the understanding of cloud has expanded to include the use of remote applications (SaaS), platforms (PaaS) and computing resources/infrastructure (IaaS) as business models. In our industry, we mainly use SaaS.
What is the Difference Between Cloud and SaaS?
While the term cloud refers to the general technology, the term “Software as a Service” (SaaS), on the other hand, describes a cloud-based business model for software. In practice, this is often used interchangeably.
Digital Signage Cloud
Distributed DS installations consist of two components: The Digital Signage Player operates the screens automatically and receives instructions from a management system. When we talk about a digital signage cloud, we always mean device and content management.
Digital signage cloud software and Digital Signage CMS can therefore be treated as equivalent in our industry. This system is installed on a web server and offers the user an interface that allows them to register and use the software.
What are the benefits of Digital Signage Cloud and SaaS?
A digital signage cloud enables device, time and location independent access and reduces costs. SaaS solutions also liberate users from server management and complex installation procedures.
Large or even globally distributed digital signage installations can only be controlled efficiently with a central system. A web based Digital Signage CMS is mandatory in such cases. No matter whether it is installed in the cloud or on a dedicated server.
Device, Time, and Location Independent Access
You can use a digital signage cloud software from anywhere, at any time in a web browser. No matter whether the user is sitting in front of a Windows, Linux, or macOS. For global projects, you can work efficiently around the clock. When the team in Europe finishes work, the work in Australia begins.
No Server Management
Centralization of server management through cloud techniques and outsourcing with SaaS solutions offer further advantages:
Cost reduction: The company no longer maintains infrastructures and only pays for the service actually required.
Quality improvement: Using specialists for administration enhances quality.
Increased effectiveness: Outsourcing secondary tasks gives companies the opportunity to focus on their core competencies. This increases effectiveness and productivity.
Flexibility: There are good times and bad times. In the latter, companies must be flexibly. External capacities have better scalability.
No Complicated Software installation
Users do not need any installable administration software on their local devices. This eliminates a potential source of errors that require support and further costs.
What are the disadvantages of a Digital Signage Cloud?
The disadvantages of a digital signage cloud are data protection, data security and support. Moreover, there is a strong risk of dependency due to vendor lock-ins with a SaaS solution.
Every coin has its other side, and advantages are bought by disadvantages. Even if we primarily sell SaaS solutions at SmilControl, I think it is fair to name the disadvantages clearly. But there are also ways to soften them.
Unless you own the cloud, it always means: My data and that of my customers is on someone else's computer. The Internet makes it possible to store our data anywhere in the world. Even in countries without comprehensively regulated data protection.
Authorities in the U.S., whose level of data protection is already far below that of the EU, have extensive access powers moreover. The so-called Cloud Act forces companies based in the U.S. to provide access to stored data. This, of course, opens gates and doors for abuse and industrial espionage.
Encrypting data can work against this. However, very many encryption algorithms contain backdoors. It is better to choose companies from countries with strict data protection precautions. The EU and Germany in particular are ideal, thanks to the GDPR.
Security and Data Integrity
Government abuse and industrial espionage are only part of the risk. What about the provider's digital signage security? Usually, shortcomings don't reveal themselves until the horse has left the barn. You can ask the right questions to get a closer look at the cloud or SaaS provider's security.
How do you back up and protect your databases and data?
Is it possible to download raw data at any time?
Are employees trained on phishing and social engineering?
Which backup strategies are used?
What is the status of server monitoring?
Some decision-makers rely on large, seemingly reputable companies. But experience shows that there are no guarantees. Sony and T-Mobile.at stored passwords unencrypted until a few years ago. If in doubt, go with your gut instinct.
Continuous support and bug management
As long as everything works smoothly, everyone is happy. Support quality only becomes visible when something doesn't work. Much dissatisfaction often arises when dealing with errors. Are they handled proactively, eliminated promptly and transparently? Or do they first play it cool, look for the user's or partner's fault, and only acknowledge what is provable in salami tactics?
In the early days of DSL, I used an old PC with a floppy disk Linux (fli4l) and a network card as a router.
Even if the log files clearly proved that the Deutsche Telekom dial-up node was unreachable: When I asked if there were dial-up problems in Hanover right now, the answer was usually: No. As soon as the supporter on the phone learned that you were using a Linux router, the laconic answer came: That must be the reason.
You had to keep at it, only to be told regularly enough that there was a dial-up issue in the region after all.
Unfortunately, it is difficult to reliably determine good support in advance. And even if it is, the question is whether it will remain that way eventually. Constant personal contact with persons are a good sign, but otherwise you have also to rely on your gut feeling.
Dependencies and Vendor Lock-ins
While you can relatively easily obtain virtual servers and storage from another provider, this is much more difficult with a SaaS solution.
As described above, distributed digital signage requires two components: Player software and the management software. Both software communicates via a defined language and interfaces. These fall under the trade secret, and therefore the components of different manufacturers usually do not work together.
Customers are therefore forced to enter into long-term contracts for their DS projects. If problems occur during the term of the contract or the service provider turns out to be a bluff package, there are huge switching costs. This is because both components have to be replaced and migrated.
However, this requires a level of expertise within the company and may therefore not always come in handy.
Solution 2: Open Language Standards like SMIL
Another interesting solution to the dependency dilemma offers SMIL. SMIL-compatible player software runs with any compatible CMS, and the language is openly documented. You don't need any non-disclosure agreements.
So, if there are any conflicts with the SaaS provider, it is relatively easy to replace it, as the devices with the player remain unchanged.
Since I have personally gained painful experience with dependencies, vendor lock-ins and gagging contracts in the past, we decided to offer SMIL-based digital signage exclusively when we developed the SmilControl products.Furthermore, a large part of our software portfolio consists of Open-Source-Software.
For which users is a Digital Signage Cloud suitable?
A digital signage cloud system is suitable for price-conscious companies that want to focus on their core competencies and don't want to have much to deal with server technology.
The following industries can benefit from a SaaS solution:
However, cloud or even SaaS solutions are not suitable for every company. Extremely security-sensitive industries such as banks, the military, and government agencies should generally stay away from third-party cloud products.
Banks and insurance companies usually install a Digital Signage CMS on their internal networks for security reasons. I recommend that government agencies build a domestic cloud infrastructure, preferably based on open-source software.
A digital signage cloud system offers a useful and, above all, cost-reducing solution for many industries. SaaS solutions enable smaller companies to participate in the market and increase competition. Dependencies get reduced through standardized formats such as SMIL.
Nevertheless, it always takes a fair amount of trust to get involved with a cloud service provider or SaaS solution. Make sure that communication is as open as possible and that servers are located in your country or the EU.
I hope this article was able to help you weigh the pros and cons. Just contact me if you have any comments or want further information.