Managed Services, Cloud

As-a-Service Explained: Here's How IaaS, PaaS, and SaaS Compare

Chaz Hager August 03 2022

Most Technical folks understand the sea of IT acronyms above, but if you're leading a small company, you might not have the years of technical training under your belt, and, like many presidents and CEOs, you might be a bit confused. That's where we come in.

If you're looking to build a sound business strategy, technology will be at the heart of it; and any good Managed Service Provider (MSP) or IT support partner should be right there with you. To get the most value out of your MSP relationship, you need to engage with them regularly; while you're evaluating tools, software, and technology. Every tier of the "-aaS" hierarchy can offer measurable benefits that your small businesses might desperately need, but these benefits aren't self-evident. 

Most MSPs don't offer IaaS, PaaS, or SaaS management and monitoring services alone—they offer a mixture of all services, usually in tiered offerings that provide increased service levels. When business leaders understand the acronyms that make up MSP service offerings, you better understand the value you're getting. You know the importance your MSP is providing.

SMBs are Often Starting Out On-Premises (Sort of)

On-premises will be the starting point (in a loose sense that we'll explain in a moment) for most SMBs. Technically, an on-premises deployment means that:

 • There's an in-house IT department

 • The IT department manages a data center, server room, or server closet

 •  They own all of the hardware in their server closet and all the       
    machines connected to it.

 • The server closet is located on property owned or leased by the            

 • IT performs all maintenance and upgrades themselves.

The Difference Between IaaS, PaaS, and SaaS – Where Does a MSP Fit in?

As it turns out, most companies don't have a genuinely on-premises IT implementation anymore. Even among small businesses, 80% of companies with 1-99 employees now use software as a service (SaaS).

With that said, there's a difference between having a few SaaS applications and having an overall cloud strategy. Businesses might have a few SaaS applications—but they may still be hamstrung by on-premises applications that could benefit from an IaaS deployment. Companies might have a few SaaS applications—but they may be wrong-sized for the company, or the company might be using consumer-grade SaaS technology for enterprise-grade tasks. 

In short, even though you may be in the cloud already, a MSP will partner with you and likely show immediate value by recognizing and correcting early mistakes and help fill in the gaps in your overall cloud strategy.

IaaS—the First Steppingstone Into the Cloud

 If you're starting to investigate the cloud, you'll probably start by looking into IaaS, primarily if you rely on older systems of record that resist software updates and patches. Even if you can't buy a SaaS version of your legacy software, you can still lift and shift these applications into the cloud using an IaaS approach.

For example, many of the clients we work with at Northriver are in the construction industry, using Viewpoint, an essential business software application. Viewpoint users always complain that the application hogs a lot of memory, storage, and compute power, which means that it either runs slowly or slows down the rest of the company. We often hear it's hard to extend Viewpoint functionality to users in remote sites or those who use mobile applications.

People access Viewpoint from multiple locations, such as branch offices and construction sites. They need Viewpoint to run as fast as possible —mainly because they may be using Viewpoint to deliver mission-critical items such as payroll. For context, construction companies pay their employees as often as once a week, which means that there is no room for downtime or unexpected application slowdowns. If payroll is delayed, then the workforce will simply put down the tools and move on to the next job at a different company.

One way to accomplish the necessary performance is to build out the server room, but small companies may not have the space or the budget to acquire the required hardware. Therefore, these and other companies are seeking out infrastructure as a service (IaaS) offering.

IaaS functions thanks to the interaction of four different technologies—networking, storage, servers, and virtualization. Using these technologies, IaaS providers can offer a level of uptime, reliability, and speed that small businesses can't necessarily replicate on their premises. Uptime means that applications in an IaaS environment don't unexpectedly crash, leaving applications to function as intended, and speed means that there are no unexpected slowdowns that can make applications frustrating or difficult to use. Uptime and reliability are most important, but speed can be the difference between making payroll and not.

The Difference Between IaaS, PaaS, and SaaS

How can IaaS guarantee these critical performance metrics? 

Under the IaaS model, service providers give businesses access to servers, storage, networking, and a hypervisor—everything they'd be able to access in their server room at the office, but with several advantages. The first advantage is scalability. Applications like Viewpoint often need more hardware to support them than a small business can physically store. With IaaS, however, all of the hardware you need is in a massive data center somewhere else, and adding a new server means clicking a button.

Side view of female manager assisting her staffs in a call centerThis approach means that your application will always be correctly resourced, preventing application slowdowns and solving the reliability problem. As for speed, data centers will usually have superior connectivity when compared to office buildings, giving users better bandwidth and lower latency when connecting from branch offices, home offices, construction zones, or anywhere else.

Lastly, IaaS takes care of the reliability piece because, once again, it's the service provider who's in charge of servers, storage, networking, and virtualization. So, when a server experiences unplanned downtime or someone trips over a network cable, it's the service provider's job to fix it. The MSP is watching and waiting for any changes in the date or notifications to signal a problem. Then the SLA (Service Level Agreement) they have with you will either catch it before it happens or fix it within the time limits you've set for your business. As a result, IaaS offerings are designed to be much more robust than on-premises implementations and will remedy downtime faster.

Platform as a Service (PaaS) Frees Up Critical Workloads

PaaS providers deliver both hardware and software to you, but they don't offer software as a service. That being said, there is some definite overlap between PaaS and SaaS providers.

Let's start by pointing out the difference between IaaS and PaaS. We mentioned that if a server breaks or the network crashes, it's incumbent on the service provider to fix it. If the payroll application that's running on top of this infrastructure experiences unplanned downtime, however, then it's still the customer's job to get that application up and running again.

Here's how you decide between PaaS and IaaS: can your in-house IT department get the payroll program back up and running again before your employees miss their paycheck? If they cannot, then the PaaS might just be the answer to your problem.

What you need to know: getting an application to run in the cloud—especially if it's not designed to be run in the cloud—can be tricky. You need to essentially fool the application into thinking that it's running directly on a server, when in fact, it's being run on a virtual machine. In addition to the hypervisor (i.e., the virtual replica of your server) provided under IaaS, you also need a server operating system and middleware (which means any dependent applications that your operating system (OS) or your application needs to run).

Maintaining a payroll application—or any application—is a lot of work on its own. Maintaining the constellation of applications and operating systems that an application needs to run is a lot more work. What's important to note here is that these operating systems are crucial to the application's security. They need to remain up to date; otherwise, attackers will spot vulnerabilities and exploit them along with whatever mission-critical application happens to be running on top of them.

Patching and configuring operating systems, middleware, and runtime environments can be a laborious job, as evidenced by the fact that almost 55% of vulnerabilities go unpatched for longer than three months after discovery. Under IaaS, the service provider can't help you with these patches. Under PaaS, operating systems and other critical applications are patched automatically.

PaaS and SaaS have some overlaps because PaaS companies provide operating system management, and operating systems are technically applications. Once you move over to a SaaS model, the transfer of responsibility becomes entirely on the service provider—not just operating systems and dependent applications but also the primary application.

The Difference Between IaaS, PaaS, and SaaS

What is SaaS from the MSP Perspective?

We mostly hear about SaaS when the application is provided directly by a software developer. Service providers have a valuable role to play in the SaaS ecosystem as well, however. 

When a MSP offers SaaS, what it usually means is that we are being asked to administer the entirety of an application that now sits in the cloud. In other words, you have migrated your formerly on-premises application to a cloud environment, and you'd like an MSP like Northriver to run it. 

Now, your MSP administers the entirety of the application, the operating system that the application runs on, the virtual machines, and the physical infrastructure. The MSP maintains the application, ensuring that it is continually patched; if the application crashes, it's the MSP's job to fix it. If any users have tech support questions, they go to the MSP's help-desk. Lastly, suppose you want to extend your application's functionality, add a new feature, or integrate with another service? In that case, your MSP will help you develop the integration/implementation plan and manage and monitor the process. 

(FYI: There are some caveats here; mainly around security and who will onboard/off-board users, but we suggest you review this with your MSP)

A MSP Can Play Multiple Roles for You

At Northriver, for example, we like flexibly working with our customers because we realize that many of our customers are taking a couple of different approaches to their infrastructure and data housing, and one size doesn't fit all. Suppose you want to run one of your applications with an IaaS approach but have critical SaaS applications you need to be managed. In that case, we'll discuss the pros and cons with you and develop a solution that makes good business sense. 

To help you understand the nuances and abbreviations that accompany the journey to the cloud architecture, we've created this infographic: aaS to MSP: How MSPs Help Support Each Step of the Application Housing Process. Open it here.

Journey to the Cloud

aaS to MSP

How MSPs Support Each Step of the Application Housing Process

Open the Infographic

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