If you have to choose a suitable digital signage solution, the question soon arises: do I want to buy, install and maintain the software myself or do I go for a cloud-based solution?
Before we discuss the advantages and disadvantages of both digital signage solutions, let’s clarify what we mean by “on-premise digital signage” and “cloud-based digital signage”.
On-premise digital signage
An on-premise digital signage solution can be as simple as a USB thumb drive with many images plugged into a TV screen. But this has so many drawbacks that in this story, we start from a much more common set-up:
- One or more computers on which the content is created and managed
- A central computer (server) that stores jointly managed content
- One or more computers ("players") playing the content
Cloud-based digital signage
There are a lot of differences between various cloud-based digital signage solutions. Many solutions are offered as a cloud service but still require vendor-specific software installed on one or more computers. Then only the server is hosted in the cloud. For convenience, we'll call this a "semi-cloud solution". The purest cloud solution runs entirely in a web browser on all computers and requires no other vendor-specific installations.
Installation and configuration
In all cases, the first thing to do is to make sure you have the required computers with the required operating systems. If you buy software to run on your hardware, you should, in the simplest case, run the installation programs on each machine. Then configure the software for initial use. After that, installing and configuring additional software, such as a database on a server, may be necessary.
You don't have to worry about a server with a cloud solution. And that's a good thing because that's often the most challenging component. The vendor-specific software on all other computers with a semi-cloud solution is often quick to install. A pure cloud solution runs in a web browser that is available "out-of-the-box" on all devices today. The only thing that you need to configure on the players is to launch a web browser automatically.
Where you can plan the time for installation and configuration in most cases, maintaining and updating the entire system is often an ad hoc job. Yet this is badly needed and always more work than you think. Take, for example:
- Regularly updating the operating systems (mainly from a security point of view)
- Updating important **system components (e.g., the database on the server, often for security updates)
- Updating of the vendor-specific software on all devices (often for bug fixes and new functionality)
- Ensuring that all versions of all software work together
- Performing all necessary data and configuration migrations after software upgrades
- Backing up central content
- Ensuring that backups can be restored
The amount of work depends on your digital signage solution:
- If you do everything yourself, you must take all the actions mentioned: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.
- In the case of a semi-cloud solution, you only have to worry about 1, 3, 4, and (partially) 5.
- In the case of a pure cloud solution, you only have to deal with 1.
So as far as maintenance is concerned, a pure cloud solution will save you a lot of time and money.
Security considerations are important to keeping everything in-house; all data remains within the company network. It takes breaking into the company network to get close to the stored data.
All cloud variants make data stored on cloud servers accessible via the Internet. This data is theoretically accessible to more people if security is breached. Another aspect is that employees of a cloud service can also access your data.
For reliable cloud providers, security is an important topic. Depending on the knowledge and skills of your network administrators, a cloud provider will often provide a much more secure environment for your data than when you configure everything yourself. You only have to overlook one crucial security setting or update, and you may have a data leak on your hands.
An important point of attention in semi-cloud solutions is how the server communicates with the players. Often this is set up so that a server sends the recent content to the players. Sending content means the server must be able to initiate communication with the players from the internet. For this purpose, network administrators must open firewall ports. Of course, you want to be very cautious doing this.
Pure cloud solutions that run in a browser always initiate communication with the server from their network, just like you do when you open a website in your web browser. Therefore, no specific network configurations are required.
In all variants, you can expect that the supplier of the software or service can provide sufficient support. In the security section, we already mentioned that cloud service employees often have access to your data. From a security point of view, this can be a disadvantage. But from a support point of view, this is a significant advantage because employees can examine where things go wrong with your content. That way, they can offer quick and appropriate help.
As a rule, the software you install and manage yourself costs less than a cloud service. And that also makes sense when you realize there’s so much more to a digital signage system than just having the software alone. Cloud solutions are called "services" because you don't just purchase the pure software but a fully running and optimized system with the assurance of timeliness, security and continuity.
Cloud solutions are subject to recurring subscription fees. That may be an objection to choosing a cloud provider. But even software you have purchased almost always comes with a maintenance contract, which often means you buy the right to download and install the latest updates over an extended period.
In addition to paid solutions, there are also several free solutions**. They will be the winners in this category in terms of basic costs. But these are also the solutions where you have to do most of the work, and support is often lacking. So the variable costs for the required person-hours are an essential factor here.
Low purchase costs for digital signage software make a system you install and maintain yourself very attractive, especially if those purchase costs are $0. please keep in mind, however, the amount of software/components you need to install multiplied by the number of machines they need to be installed on increases the variable costs significantly.
A logical consequence is that it is not desirable to update the software frequently. Mainly when an update only contains "some cool new features" and no critical security updates. Content managers will then have to wait longer for new features or bug fixes to become available. In that case, a pure cloud solution is best: each new release can be used directly by the end users without anyone having to do anything.
While we conclude that cloud-based digital signage is the ideal solution in many cases, there is one more situation we haven't mentioned: the one where the system has to run in a place where no internet is available. Then a cloud-based solution isn't an option. However, in case of limited internet availability, there are possibilities again. In that case, it is wise to ask what the capacity requirements of the internet connection are.