Cloud computing has come a long way whether you mean the technology itself or the ways companies have adopted it over the past years. If your organization is making the leap or considering switching architectures, we at CMSWire thought it would be helpful to better understand the different offerings. 

Cloud computing architecture comes in many different flavors, three of which are popular among enterprises attempting to launch and manage websites, microsites and apps including, IaaS, PaaS and SaaS.

The acronyms stand for:

  • IaaS - Infrastructure as a Service
  • PaaS - Platform as a Service
  • SaaS - Software as a Service

But those titles only tell you so much, so we’ve spoken to the experts to get to the bottom of each cloud computing architecture type — and which of them you should opt for.

IaaS vs PaaS vs SaaS

According to Chris Park, Chief Technical Implementation Officer of Boston, MA.-based iboss, the three architectures take up different positions in the technology stack. The differences, says Park, are all about where they sit within a technology stack.

“IaaS sits at the very bottom of the stack [and] is all about the virtualization of your core network infrastructure like data center servers and storage,” he began. "PaaS moves a little further up your stack and is more focused on streamlining some of the more time consuming and redundant IT tasks like managing operating systems and application development. SaaS is at the highest level of cloud services and is essentially hosted versions of software which eliminates the need for IT to manage hundreds of different applications,” he said.

Now, let’s dig a little deeper into each of the three architectures.

Related Article: Top 10 SaaS Companies

What is Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS)

With IaaS, a brand essentially buys or rents server space from a vendor. They can then take advantage of the scaling potential guaranteed by the vendor while managing every detail of their applications — from operating system to middleware to runtime —  without any assistance from the IaaS vendor.  

IaaS or “infrastructure-as-a-service” is often used to describe “cloud services” or “managed infrastructure services”. IaaS involves providers offering dedicated or cloud based server and network infrastructure where the provider generally manages the hardware (swapping failed hard drives and that sort of thing) and sometimes the operating system of the infrastructure itself,” said David Vogelpohl, VP of Web Strategy at Austin, TX.-based WPEngine.

“Many IaaS providers provide additional offerings like easy deployment options, stand-alone products which can be used on the IaaS provider’s platform, and some application layer services and support. IaaS is generally a good fit for organizations looking for high levels of customization for their infrastructure. [Thus], IaaS normally requires a high degree of technical proficiency within an organization,” he explained.

Jonathan Whiteside, CTO of L.A-based Building Blocks, expanded on Vogelpohl’s definition, stating that, “IaaS gives you total control by managing your own infrastructure in a public cloud, but you'll need the resources and expertise to comfortably configure and manage your own infrastructure.”

IaaS Examples

  • AWS (Amazon Web Services)
  • Google Compute
  • Microsoft Azure

IaaS Best Use Case

IaaS solutions are best suited to brands with a highly skilled set of developers who can work to build applications and digital experiences from scratch, manage traffic loads and server maintenance and then scale when necessary. Paul Savage, VP Partnerships at Melbourne-based Coredna, summed it up like this “if you have a technical team, you may task them to spin up a service [or application] with IaaS, [which gives them] full control over everything that happens.”

Related Article: Cloud Service Models (IaaS, SaaS, PaaS) + How Microsoft Office 365, Azure Fit In

What is Platform as a Service (PaaS)

With platform-as-a-service or PaaS, the vendor gives its clients or customers the same server space and flexibility, but with some additional tools to help build or customize applications more rapidly. Furthermore, a PaaS vendor handles things like runtime, middleware, operating system, virtualization and storage — although the client or customer manages their own applications and data.

Learning Opportunities

PaaS describes [an offering made up of] both the infrastructure and software for building digital applications. PaaS providers generally specialize in creating certain types of applications, like eCommerce applications for example, Vogelpohl told CMSWire. He went on to explain how some PaaS providers offer dedicated or virtualized hardware, and some hide the infrastructure layer from the customer for ease of use. “PaaS is generally a good fit for organizations building a particular type of application which would benefit from the additional features and management offered by the PaaS for that type of application. PaaS can require a high degree of technical proficiency; however, PaaS providers often include products and features that make it easier for non-technical customers to create digital applications and experiences,” he continued

Whiteside also gave his two cents, telling CMSWire that PaaS is a, “good fit if you don't have the level of expertise in infrastructure needed for IaaS but still want your development teams to deploy their applications and websites themselves.”

PaaS Examples

  • Google App Engine
  • Heroku
  • OutSystems

PaaS Best Use Case

PaaS is best suited to a team of developers who want the freedom to build their own applications without having to worry about underlying tasks like runtime and traffic load management. “[With] PaaS, you give a bit of control away,” Savage said, indicating that developers won’t have as much freedom in a PaaS environment in comparison to an IaaS environment — although the vendor would take on slightly more responsibility.

What is Software as a Service (SaaS)

Software-as-a-service basically handles all the technical stuff while at the same time providing an application (or a suite of applications) that the client or customer can use to launch projects immediately — or at least, faster than they would do with an IaaS or PaaS solution, both of which require more technical input from the client or customer. Coincidentally, most, if not all, SaaS vendors use IaaS or PaaS Solutions to support their suite of applications, handling the technical elements so their customers don’t have to.

Whiteside told CMSWire that SaaS is the least hands-on of the three cloud computing solutions and is good if you don't have developer resources but need to provide capabilities to end users. "You won't have visibility or control of your infrastructure and are restricted by the capabilities and configuration of the software tools. This can be restrictive when you want to integrate with other systems you may own and run, but does allow you to get up and running quickly,” he continued.

WP Engine’s Vogelpohl chimed in once again, explaining that “SaaS providers allow customers to take advantage of the features of the software they provide without the customer having to purchase infrastructure or use IaaS or PaaS solutions.”

SaaS services are generally chosen based on the features and quality of the software. "Customers choosing server software on IaaS and PaaS providers generally do so over SaaS because of the need for high levels of customization to the core software or aggressive security requirements,” he said.

SaaS Examples

  • Google G Suite
  • Microsoft Office 365
  • Mailchimp

SaaS Best Use Case

SaaS solutions are the most popular of the three because they cater for non-technical companies and startups who wish to deploy their websites and applications rapidly, while the vendor takes care of hosting, security, server uptime and pretty much everything else on the technical side. Coredna’s Savage once again explained that, “with a SaaS solution, you can launch and scale faster and test the market [with pre-build solutions]. SaaS benefits really come into their own when you want to do multiple instances of a system.”

Which Cloud Architecture is For You?

Taking into account the definitions and explanations given above, it’s clear to see the differences between IaaS, PaaS and SaaS. An infrastructure-as-a-service, you get what the name implies, just the infrastructure. You’ll then need to task your technical team with building on top of that infrastructure, building applications and digital experiences largely from scratch. With platform-as-a-service, you get some additional building blocks on top of the infrastructure, giving developers the tools they need to build and innovate, without spoon-feeding them applications that they can launch with immediately. Finally, software-as-a-service solution gives the client or customer direct access to pre-build applications and solutions which they can use to rapidly deploy sites and apps. The technicalities are taken care of, and there isn’t the need — nor, in most cases, the possibility —  for developers to delve into the code and customize the solution.

Thus, the type of cloud architecture you should choose depends on the plan, team and timeline you have. If your product or service is too unique and complex for pre-built applications to support, and you have a technical team ready to build from scratch, then IaaS or perhaps PaaS is the solution. If, however, you want to launch a string of web publications or eCommerce websites — both of which are relatively straightforward projects — then a SaaS solution would probably be best suited.