In the spirit of this month’s editorial theme on all things cloud, I thought I’d ponder about cloud/SaaS web content management on the premise that SaaS Web CMS cannot save the world or cure your WCM illness, despite the much-spread hype you may hear in the marketplace generated by vendors. There’s no perfect storm for cloud WCM.

Cloudy with a Chance of Service

Vendors call it cloud WCM, or Software-as-a-Service Web content management system, but the idea is the same -- you, the user, don’t really own the software (even though you’ve paid a licensing fee for it), nor do you usually own the hardware that software is installed on. What you get is a service.

Keep in mind the technical details and differences among the following options:

  • Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) -- e.g. CrownPeak CMS, OmniUpdate, Limelight Dynamic Site Platform (former Clickability)
  • Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) -- e.g. Windows Azure
  • Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) -- e.g.: Rackspace, Amazon EC2
  • Managed hosting providers -- this can be any data center around the corner from your office, really.

Compared to traditional, on-premise Web CMS, you own the software and usually put it on your own infrastructure. Additionally, many traditional CMS vendors are now offering their systems as a hosted solution housed in a third-party datacenter.

Will You Be Better Off In the Cloud?

Some SaaS vendors will promise you three things:

  1. Lower cost
  2. Higher service levels
  3. Greater agility

In most cases, this is not entirely true. SaaS WCM products do not cost a fraction of on-premise web content management systems. If you look at total cost of ownership, depending on the size and complexity of your implementation, SaaS CMSs sometimes end up to be more expensive than on-premise CMSs.

As for higher service levels, there are at least two things to consider here. The quality of services you get from a SaaS vendor are not that different than those you get from a traditional CMS vendor -- it just really depends on who you get as part of your implementation team. You are assuming that a SaaS vendor will be more responsive than your own IT group -- this may or may not be true. Your SaaS vendor team may or may not understand your particular context. Your SaaS vendor team may or may not be more cost-effective than your internal IT organization. In the end, it is not the most effective thing to call up your vendor every time you need a new template. Ideally, you’d want to have an internal IT resource to “own” your CMS -- from implementation to ongoing enhancements.

Agility is not entirely defined by infrastructure. Cloud or hosted CMS is mainly an infrastructural inflection point. If you don’t have any (or enough) agile developers on your IT stuff, it is not guaranteed that the SaaS CMS vendor will be able to fully support you. Agility comes from within, but not from a technology tool that you use.

Finally, you have to live with whatever changes your SaaS vendor makes. Let’s say they decide to completely redo their new UI. Guess what? Sooner or later, you will have to retrain your team and switch to that new UI. You cannot linger for extended periods of time on a platform that a vendor will phase out eventually and stop supporting. Even though those vendors will tell you they never push customers to change their way of doing things….

Advantages and Disadvantages of Cloud WCM

There are plenty of minuses and pluses going for SaaS CMSs. Organizations with small IT departments quickly get enamored with SaaS. On the negative side, your IT folks may not be as excited about coding in a browser and losing data while they’re doing it. While many SaaS vendors provide plugins for common IDEs like Eclipse, it is still a different way of programming than you see with on-premise systems. Amazon has taught us a great lesson (or two): occasional outages do occur and it is probably not very realistic to expect 100% uptime from a SaaS vendor. At least, not at this point in time. Security holes in cloud CMSs is mainly a myth that has dissipated with time, but you may want to keep in mind that not all SaaS vendors can accomplish an integration with Active Directory/LDAP or utilize single sign-on.

In the end, the benefits of the cloud can be summed up in the following three notions:

  • scalability
  • elasticity
  • service

In a nutshell, the forcing function here is that many IT organizations really don’t have a choice; they either need to act like a competitive internal service provider, or their internal customers will go outside to find better solutions.

For fluctuating traffic levels on your website -- seasonal, campaign-related, whatever -- being able to power up additional instances of a WCM to handle the traffic during Christmas sales can be a great thing. In this sense, cloud and virtualization can be a way to scale your infrastructure and reduce costs when needed. The cloud is transforming content management; I agree with Laurence Hart.

However, I want to leave you with two important (in my opinion) points:

  1. Yes, the cloud is having a major impact on the practice and technology of content management in general,
  2. No, you don’t have to eliminate traditional, on-premise vendors in your pursuits of WCM happiness.

And no, before you jump to the conclusion that I am a cloud/SaaS WCM hater and basher, let me tell you this: I think SaaS/cloud WCM is appropriate for certain organizations in certain scenarios. To make an analogy: if I look in my shoe closet and the first pair that catches my eye is my Costa Rican flip-flops, it doesn't necessarily mean that this shoe is suitable for my night out at the opera. There are many different kinds of options in the WCM closet -- from the flip-flop types to the mid-priced Nikes to the luxurious Louboutins.

When selecting a WCM system, it's all about the fit: to your organization, to your business goals, to your needs and objectives. It is not about lesser or better known product names, SaaS or on-premise -- buying software is not a popularity contest. Do not take vendor marketing hype for granted and do your homework before elevating to the cloud.

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