Choosing the right learning management system (LMS) for your organization is no small feat. Whether you’re starting from scratch or replacing an existing system, you need to take the time to make sure you’re picking the right solution. Missing the mark could make the whole experience both painful and costly.
Along the way there are many questions you’ll have to answer about the features, functions and support you need. Before you get too far, there’s one foundational choice you need to make: open-source software or software as a service (SaaS)?
Your requirements should always determine the model that’s most suitable, but in most cases the SaaS model wins out for reasons we’ll explore.
In this guide, we’ll cover:
- what we mean when we talk about open-source and SaaS platforms
- how a managed service does (or doesn’t) work for open-source software
- why SaaS is often the preferred choice
What Is Open-Source Software?
With open-source software, the source code is freely available for anyone to download and use. Typically, it will be hosted on servers that your organization either owns or manages.
Some benefits of open-source software include it being more affordable and highly customizable. Your organization can alter the system to meet its needs. Plus, the communities of programmers who use it can create integrations, add-ons and plug-ins that enhance the core platform.
The Role of a Managed Service
Managed service models evolved to meet the demands of organizations that want the flexibility of open-source software without the hassles that come with in-house hosting and maintenance.
With this approach, your organization would outsource some or all the hosting and management responsibilities to a third party. This can alleviate some limitations with open-source technology, particularly by reducing the burdens on your internal teams and resources. But there are still drawbacks. It adds another layer of cost and may not be as scalable as a fully cloud-based solutions.
What Is SaaS Software?
SaaS software is cloud based and hosted by the provider. Organizations pay a subscription or license fee to use it and users access it via apps and internet browsers.
There are several benefits of a SaaS solution. To start, your organizations doesn’t need to buy and look after its own hardware. The platforms also allow for varying degrees of customization, letting your organization tailor everything, from what the interface looks like to how people interact with it, and integrate with your most used tools.
On top of this, cloud software is typically more reliable. The vendor is responsible for keeping systems running—handling security, disaster recovery, maintenance and upgrades—which can help take the burden off of your internal teams and resources. The systems are also more scalable, so your organization can flex usage when needed without investing in or holding onto additional hardware.
5 Reasons Organizations Choose SaaS Solutions
Although the initial costs may be lower, the supplemental and hidden costs of open-source software can add up quickly, including financial outlays on purchases such as hardware. You’ll also want factor in potential demands placed on your teams’ time, resources and expertise.
When choosing a platform, you’ll list your requirements based on user and organizational needs and prioritize must-have features such as mobile learning, multi-tenancy and e-commerce. Any SaaS provider you review as part of the process should be able to quickly clarify if their existing product can deliver on your requirements or suggest suitable solutions and workarounds for meeting them. In essence, a SaaS solution can give you confidence that your must-have needs will be met from day one.
With open-source software, you’ll need to get the code, install it on your primary hardware and may need to modify it until it does everything you need it to do, all of which involve specialist skills. If you have in-house staff with the knowledge to do this, the reality is that the level of work required will reduce their ability to carry out their day-to-day jobs. If you need to hire additional staff or contractors, the cost can add up through increasing budgets and asking more of human resources. This additional time and money could delay the point at which the software can deliver a minimum viable product.
There’s also the risk with building an open-source platform of developing a version that diverges significantly from the base code, which then becomes difficult and costly to maintain and upgrade when necessary. With SaaS software, the vendor typically carries out updates as part of the overall license or subscription package.
Lastly, it’s worth taking the time to ask yourself what your organization really does. Should you be serving your business and its learners or building and maintaining software? More often than not, choosing a SaaS platform gives your organization the ability to focus its attention and resources on what matters—applying its core competencies and advancing its mission.
One of the most notable drawbacks associated with open-source software can be a lack of available support at the time you need it. User-based communities and static frequently asked questions can play important roles in helping you grow your knowledge and proactively solve problems, but in the event of a crisis, you may find yourself tackling it alone.
Going with open-source software can often be described as a do-it-yourself experience. You may get instructions and guidance for installation, but that could be where it ends. Organization-specific configurations, third-party integrations—these will be up to the technical experts in your IT department to set up, troubleshoot and manage. As new features and functions are needed, these same people will need to oversee that process, whether they make use of plug-ins or build a solution themselves.
By comparison, ongoing support is typically part of a SaaS offering. You get continuous upgrades without having to do any development work, and access to customer support so the vendor can be notified of and solve issues that may arise. Additional services—from creating custom content to administering the environment and undertaking data analyses—may be available to help you get more out of the platform in targeted ways and areas that are core for your business.
3. Integrations and Development
Who are the audiences you serve? What unique needs do the different groups have? Are all your users part of the same organization or are they spread across different ones? One supposed drawback of SaaS platforms is that they struggle to deliver a bespoke solution in the ways open-source platforms can. Scratch beneath the surface, however, and you may find that this challenge doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
Most SaaS platforms offer robust and varied configurability options. Organizations can customize interfaces, create common templates and set up specific rules that make their instance unique. A SaaS system can also allow for a single instance multi-tenancy solution that caters to dispersed groups of users, whereas an open-source platform may require multiple instances and plug-ins to satisfy the same need.
The problem with having all these independent components is that sometimes the function of one might interfere with another. Issues could also arise if you fail to properly track or update them as new versions and upgrades become available. There are also cost impacts of having multiple instances of an open-source platform—requiring multiple installations, maintenance plans and support structures.
With SaaS platforms, ongoing upgrades, enhancements and maintenance are simply part of the product or solution. Plus, they’re built and vetted by expert teams to make them as bug and error free as possible. If issues come up with the platform, the vendor will take accountability for resolving them.
Complexities could also be introduced when organizational needs change to the extent that your current platform is no longer fit for purpose. With a SaaS provider, your focus is on creating content and perfecting processes, not building new technology. This makes it easier to lift and shift your environment when you need to make a change. With an open-source solution, you’ve already invested considerable time developing and customizing the tech, making it challenging to make big changes
Open-source systems tend to be combination of source code, added plug-ins and custom developments. Sometimes the problems this patchwork approach introduces—like a temporary glitch in the interface—can be inconvenient. Other times, they’re more serious. This is especially the case if the concern touches on security. According to a survey of 5,600 IT professionals from 31 countries around the world, the number of organizations hit by ransomware attacks grew from 37% in 2020 to 66% in 2021.
This is where the reliability we touched on earlier becomes so important. With a SaaS, cloud-based solution, security is the vendor’s responsibility. They likely have a host of measures—secure transmission, single sign-on (SSO), vulnerability management and endpoint threat protection to name a few—built into the platform. They also keep on top of upgrades and maintenance. Plus, if something does go wrong, they handle disaster recovery. With open-source, however, these duties rest with you.
Leveraging managed services can help address security risks and fix problems as they arise, but it won’t resolve the issue entirely. The root of the problem is likely with the nature of the open-source model itself. Preventing issues from happening in the first place may require custom developments and updates—an expensive and time-consuming undertaking when it’s done on an individual basis.
5. User Experience
People expect more from the technology platforms they’re using, particularly those from younger generations who grew up accessing information via mobile devices and using AI-curated content channels. This is why an LMS must do more than simply launch and track eLearning modules and manage reporting. An engaging user experience and user interface, flexible mobile learning, and dynamic personalized learning are all paramount features for an LMS to have. These factors are also contributing to a growing gap between what you can achieve with an open-source LMS compared to a SaaS model.
An open-source solution gives you the foundations for your LMS, but it will require time and money to create an experience that’s up to the standards of today’s learners. If you don’t have the expertise in house, the costs associated with accessing it will only add to your investment.
A SaaS platform can offer a high-quality user experience straight off the shelf. You can configure it to suit the needs of your organization and learners—creating branded templates for your content and setting up unique learning paths—but the development work is done.
The Benefits of SaaS Over Open-Source
Although an open-source solution can work for some organizations—particularly for those that either require a relatively simple option or have in-house expertise to build off the original code—for the great majority a SaaS platform will be the best way to go.
SaaS options tend to be more cost effective and generate greater returns on investment over the long term since organizations don’t need to routinely spend additional money on hardware and system updates. Organizations can also access a greater array of support and services when needed, and vendor-developed upgrades and integrations means the technology grows and evolves with your business and users. Finally, SaaS platforms are built to keep people, systems and data safe and secure and be easy and intuitive to use.
Whatever way you decide to go, take your time to understand the options and select a vendor and partner that best suits your needs—both now and into the future.