Clarifying SaaS, PaaS, and IaaS: What You Need to Know

The cloud has become an intrinsic part of business. In 2017, 451 Research found that 90% of the businesses surveyed were using a cloud-based service in their operations. While many organizations manage their own data infrastructure on-premise, it requires a great deal of work to continually maintain and update those databases. This is one of the reasons why so many businesses opt for public cloud-based databases. There are many vendors offering a variety of cloud-based services, each with their own unique features. Below, we explain the three types of cloud-based systems.

Software as a Service (SaaS)

Here’s the basic definition: SaaS refers to software that is hosted completely online through a third party and is purchased on a subscription basis.

Let’s unpack that a bit. SaaS is delivered and hosted entirely on the internet and is the most popular cloud computing service. 451 Research notes that SaaS carries 24% of all enterprise workloadsSaaS platforms are created with the end-user in mind. These users likely have limited database management skills or lack the time to properly keep up with the work of maintaining the system.

Qlik Sense® is one example of SaaS. With Qlik®, data is stored securely in the cloud and allows users to access helpful tools to understand trends in their data (including graphs, visualizations, and summaries). While Qlik offers on-premise, private, and public cloud services, their SaaS cloud-based platform has become well-known for its accessible services that offer numerous features for its users. Qlik Sense allows you to get started for free with a trial period to see for yourself what the hype is about before committing to a subscription. This way, you can be sure that the software fits the needs of the company before you make a commitment.

Think of SaaS this way: imagine you are at a furniture store and you see a bookshelf. This bookshelf is decorated perfectly with plants, antiques, and artistic photos. You like this bookshelf so much that you decide to purchase it along with the decorations on the shelves. Soon, the store delivers it to your home. You are free to add books (i.e. business data) from various places around your home to be stored on the bookshelf. The shelf will mostly remain the same as you saw in the store, but it is personalized because it organizes your book collection. This is how an SaaS platform works. The system is designed, built, and delivered by the vendor, but it’s up to you to fill it with your data in a way that will reveal patterns. 


Services like this can allow employees within the company to access the platform from any device ⁠— as long as they have an internet connection. The software doesn’t need to be downloaded onto a hard drive to use the platform (although some platforms offer that option). Some vendors even offer apps for your phone to give you access on the go. 

While SaaS offers many advantages for its users, the best feature is  ease of use. Although user experience differs from software to software, oftentimes free tutorials are offered and vendor customer service representatives are available to answer questions. SaaS programs are made even easier to use as they are compatible with most operating systems. Because SaaS platforms are delivered via the internet, they can  run on whichever the operating system a particular business prefers (although the platform might work more optimally with a certain browser).

Another key advantage of SaaS is that the end user is not responsible for maintaining the system. The company that owns the software takes care of any bugs that may come up and is responsible for any updates. This gives your IT department the freedom to focus on other tasks, or, if there is no IT department, allows a small business to manage its data  without requiring an IT professional.


The downside of SaaS? Unexpected downtime. Because the company that owns the software is responsible for maintaining it, there may be times where you can’t access your company’s data. Most companies will notify customers if a long-term outage is planned, however this is still an inconvenience. 

Another potential pitfall with SaaS is the long-term contractual obligation. To avoid being stuck in this situation, thoroughly research the vendor that you’re considering and read the fine print of any contract you sign. 

Platform as a Service (PaaS)

PaaS is where a third party provides the software tools over the internet, such as developing kits, programming environments, and other ready-made elements that users need to develop applications. Some often-included components consist of back-end frameworks, libraries, and database management tools. A user is given the platform but can customize it to suit their needs. The platform is still hosted by the provider so the user can focus on running applications or managing data sets. It differs from SaaS because it provides the platform, but does not include all of the applications and tools that are often found with SaaS. 

PaaS is a solution intended for companies who need customized apps and have developers on staff who are capable of creating and maintaining those apps. Microsoft Azure, Google App Engine, and Amazon Web Services (AWS) are a few examples of popular vendors who offer PaaS systems. 

Let’s revisit the bookshelf analogy. Deploying a PaaS system is like seeing an empty bookshelf that you like at the store. After purchasing it, the store delivers it to your home and it’s now yours. The store also provides you with tools (similar to the components often included with PaaS systems) that you might need to customize your shelf — like a screwdriver, extra screws, and shelf pegs. It’s your responsibility to arrange the shelves at the height you want, fill it with books, decorations, movies, or anything else of your choosing. The store is responsible for building and delivering it, but that’s all. With a PaaS system, you are given a platform, but how it’s used or customized is completely up to the customer. 


PaaS offers the advantage of being able to customize your database while not having to start from scratch. PaaS providers give a basic system with a few extra features, but then the rest is up to the client. This way, developers can create applications that suit the specific needs of the company rather than relying on the software that an SaaS provider offers.

Having a PaaS system will most likely be a more affordable option than an SaaS solution. Because you’re designing your own software, fixing bugs in your apps, and creating new updates for those apps instead of paying for a vendor to do that, it is often less expensive to implement than other platforms.

Like SaaS, PaaS platforms offer a pay-as-you-go option, making it easy to sign up and manage your subscription. Similar to when considering a SaaS system, carefully read the vendor contract to avoid unwanted contractual obligations before implementing this system. 


One potential disadvantage to a PaaS system occurs when changes are made to the internal framework of the system by the provider. This means that some apps or features developers have created might not be supported. Developers must ensure that apps continue to work well with new updates to the system. It is important to communicate with your vendor about apps that you intend to add to the platform to avoid running into compatibility issues in the future and mitigate any potential risks. 

Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS)

IaaS means that a vendor provides the basic infrastructure over the internet. Servers, storage, and network hardware is managed by the vendor rather than by an IT department. 

This is the most customizable of the three cloud-based services. An IaaS provider offers the most basic elements of a platform and the rest is up to the customer. The vendor will manage aspects of the system like servers, storage, networking resources, and the data center while the customer hosts the applications, develops the tools they need, and manages the operating system preferences. This type of platform is intended for use by network architects who can update and maintain a larger system along with additional apps.

Let’s return to the bookshelf analogy one more time. Think of IaaS this way: imagine you’ve just selected and purchased a bookshelf from IKEA. IKEA designed the bookshelf but after purchasing it, it’s up to you to assemble, fill, and decorate the bookshelf. Just like an IaaS platform, you can customize this bookshelf how you want. Both IKEA and an IaaS platform provide minimal tools to help build the bookshelf but how you use those tools is up to you.


Beyond being the most customizable of the three cloud-based systems, IaaS is also the most scalable. It allows administrators to have more control over the infrastructure of the database without having to build it from scratch themselves. 

Additionally, IaaS platforms reduce dependence on vendors as vendors are not responsible for overseeing updates for the database. However, vendors still offer support if any issues arise. 


One disadvantage to this system is that the customer is responsible for all upkeep of the system. The consumer is  responsible for fixing any bugs and updating the platform whenever necessary to keep the everything up and running. This can result in a great deal of work and requires someone with the proper skill set.

Which Solution is Right for My Company?

If you’re considering a new cloud-based system for your company, there are lots of options and considerations. 

It’s important to analyze the existing talent within your company. Are your developers comfortable with creating and maintaining applications for a PaaS platform? Can your IT department handle the workload that accompanies setting up an IaaS platform? Would an easier-to-use SaaS platform with helpful data literacy courses for employees be beneficial? 

It’s also important to discuss what kinds of applications and features you will need. There could be an SaaS platform that already has the tools you need (we highly recommend Qlik). Would it be more beneficial to create apps of your own — in which case ease of development and compatibility with your current technology stack needs to be a priority? Take time to discuss these before beginning the search for a new system.

If you have questions about a new cloud-based system, VanData is here to help! We can help you choose a new analytics platform, migrate your data to the new system, assist you with app development, and so much more. Message us today to set up a free consultation with our team at VanData!

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