Cloud-based digital signage vs on premise: what is the best choice?
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 talk about the advantages and disadvantages of both digital signage solutions, let’s be clear about what we mean by “on premise digital signage” and “cloud-based digital signage”.
On-premise digital signage
An on-premise digital signage solution can of course be as simple as a USB thumb drive with a number of 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) on which the jointly managed content is stored
- 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. There are many solutions that are offered as a cloud service, but still require vendor-specific software to be installed on one or more computers. Then only the server is hosted in the cloud. For convenience, we're going to call this a "semi cloud solution". The purest cloud solution runs entirely in a web browser on all computers and requires no further 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 own hardware, you should in the simplest case run the installation programs on each machine. Then configure the software for initial use. On a server it may be necessary to install and configure additional software, such as a database.
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 difficult 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. You will only need to configure the players to automatically launch such a web browser.
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 by yourself, you will have to take all the actions mentioned: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7.
- In case of a semi cloud solution you only have to worry about 1, 3, 4 and (partially) 5.
- In 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.
An important reason to do everything in-house is security: that all data remains within the company network. It takes breaking into the company network in order to get even close to the stored data.
With all cloud variants, data is stored on servers that can be accessed via the Internet. In theory, this data is easier to access by more people if security could be bypassed. Another aspect is that employees of a cloud service could also access your data.
For reliable cloud providers, security is an important topic. Depending on the knowledge and skills of your own 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 important security setting or update and you may have a data leak on your hands.
An important point of attention in semi cloud solutions is the way the server communicates with the players. Often this is set up in such a way that a server sends the recent content to the players. This means that the server must be able to initiate communication with the players from the internet. For this purpose, firewall ports must be opened. Something you usually want to be cautious about.
Pure cloud solutions, that run in a browser, always initiate communication with the server from their own network. Just like you do when you open a website in your web browser. No special 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 employees of a cloud service 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 big advantage, because employees can examine where things go wrong with your content. That way they are able to offer quick and appropriate help.
As a rule, software that you install and manage yourself costs less than a cloud service. And that also makes sense when you realize that there’s so much more to a digital signage system than just having the software alone. Cloud solutions are called "services" for a reason, because you don't just purchase the pure software, but a fully running and optimized system with 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 that you have purchased yourself almost always comes with a kind of maintenance contract, which often means that you buy the right to download and install the latest updates over a longer period of time.
In addition to paid solutions, there are also a number of free solutions. In terms of basic costs, they will of course be the winners in this category. But these are also the solutions where you have to do most of the work yourself and where support is often lacking. So the variable costs for the required man-hours are a considerable factor here.
Low purchase costs for digital signage software can make it very attractive to choose a system that you install and maintain yourself. Especially if those purchase costs are $0. However, the amount of software/components you need to install multiplied by the number of machines on which they need to be installed increases the variable costs considerably.
A logical consequence is that it is not desirable to update the software frequently. Especially when an update only contains "some cool new features" and no critical security updates, for example. Content managers will then have to wait longer for new features or bug fixes of a system to become available. In that case, a pure cloud solution is most ideal: each new release can be used directly by the end users without anyone having to do anything.
While we draw the conclusion 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 solution has to run in a place where no internet is available. Then a cloud-based solution just isn't an option. 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.