SaaS vs. traditional software business models: How are they different?

SaaS Management

Explore the evolving landscape of the software business, from traditional models to SaaS. Understand the unique characteristics of each software business model.

People working at a software business
Written by
Vendr Team
Published on
May 30, 2023
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The world of software has evolved dramatically over the past couple of decades. From box software to downloadable applications, and now to the cloud, the transformation has been significant. This evolution has led to the emergence of two primary models of software delivery: Software as a Service (SaaS) and the traditional software business model. Each has its own unique characteristics, advantages, and considerations.

Knowing these differences is key to gaining a comprehensive understanding of the current software landscape.


SaaS and traditional software business models: Starting with the basics

Before we delve into the differences, it's important to understand what each model entails.

SaaS is a model of software delivery where the software is hosted on the provider's servers and accessed via the internet. It operates on a subscription basis, meaning users pay a recurring fee to use the software. Examples of SaaS include tools like Google Workspace, Salesforce, and Dropbox.

Traditional software, on the other hand, is a model where the software is installed directly onto the user's hardware. This could be on individual PCs or on servers for network-wide access. Traditional software is typically purchased through a one-time license fee, though maintenance or support may incur additional costs. Examples include Microsoft Office (pre-Office 365) and Adobe Creative Suite (pre-Creative Cloud).


Key differences between software business models

Deployment and access

Deployment and access are a main area where SaaS and traditional software models differ. For SaaS solutions, the deployment process is usually quick and straightforward because the software is hosted on the cloud. Users can access it via a web browser or a lightweight client application. There's no need for time-consuming installations on individual devices. This makes SaaS highly accessible as users can tap into their software from anywhere with an internet connection, making it a flexible choice for remote or distributed teams. SaaS is also highly scalable. As your business grows, you can easily add more users or adjust the functionalities without worrying about the complexities of server capacity.

On the other hand, traditional software requires installation on each user's device or on a central server. This deployment process can be complex, requiring more time and technical resources. Access to the software is typically confined to the devices on which it's installed. While this might seem restrictive, it does offer benefits in terms of performance and security, especially in environments where high-speed internet access isn’t always guaranteed.

Cost structure

The cost structures of SaaS and traditional software are fundamentally different. SaaS operates on a subscription basis, which means users pay a recurring fee to use the software. This subscription model can make it more affordable upfront, as there's no need for a large initial capital expenditure. However, over an extended period, these costs can accumulate. Businesses need to ensure they're getting value from the software on an ongoing basis, taking into account the total cost of ownership over the software's lifecycle.

Conversely, traditional software typically involves a significant initial investment to purchase the software license. This upfront cost can be substantial, but once the software is purchased, it can be used indefinitely, potentially making it more cost-effective over the long term. Of course, there may also be ongoing costs for maintenance, upgrades, or support, which need to be factored into the total cost of ownership.

Maintenance and updates

The responsibility for maintenance and updates also differs between SaaS and traditional software. With SaaS, the service provider takes care of all maintenance tasks, including releasing updates, fixing bugs, and applying security patches. This offloads the technical burden from the users, who always have access to the latest, most secure version of the software without having to worry about maintenance or downtime.

In contrast, with traditional software, the user is responsible for maintaining the software. This includes installing updates and patches, troubleshooting issues, and ensuring compatibility with other systems and hardware. While this offers more control over the software environment, it also necessitates a higher level of technical expertise and resources. Businesses using traditional software need to ensure they have the right personnel and support in place to manage these tasks.

Customization and integration

SaaS solutions generally offer a range of customization options, allowing users to tailor the software to their needs within predefined parameters. These parameters might include branding elements, user roles and permissions, workflow settings, and more. However, because SaaS solutions need to maintain a consistent framework for all users, the possibilities for customization may be somewhat limited compared to traditional software. On the integration front, many SaaS providers offer APIs and prebuilt integrations with other popular SaaS applications, making it easier for businesses to create a cohesive software ecosystem.

On the other hand, traditional software often permits a higher degree of customization, because the software resides on the user's own hardware. This flexibility can be a substantial advantage for businesses with unique needs. However, significant customization can also increase complexity and may require more technical expertise to manage. As for integration, traditional software can generally be integrated with other systems, but this might require additional programming or custom development, which could increase costs and complexity.

Data security and compliance

In the era of data breaches and stringent regulations, data security and compliance are critical considerations in any software decision. With SaaS, data is stored on the provider's servers, making security primarily the responsibility of the provider. Reputable SaaS providers typically have robust security measures in place, including data encryption, secure data centers, and regular security audits. They also usually comply with relevant industry standards and regulations, such as GDPR or HIPAA, providing a level of assurance to their customers. However, the trade-off is that businesses have less control over their data and must trust their provider to protect it. It's essential to carefully evaluate a SaaS provider's security credentials and compliance certifications before making a commitment.

In contrast, with traditional software, businesses have direct control over their data and its security. This can be a benefit, especially for businesses operating in industries with specific security or compliance requirements. However, taking full responsibility for data security means the business needs to invest in the necessary security infrastructure and expertise. This includes data encryption, firewalls, regular security audits, and compliance with relevant regulations. The cost and complexity of data security should not be underestimated and should be factored into the total cost of ownership for traditional software.

The decision: SaaS or traditional software?

The decision between SaaS and traditional software depends on a variety of factors, including your business's specific needs, resources, and strategic goals.

If your business values flexibility, low upfront costs, and ease of use, and is willing to trust a third-party provider with your data, then SaaS might be the right choice. If your business values control, customization, and long-term cost-effectiveness, and is willing to invest in the necessary infrastructure and expertise, then traditional software could be a better fit.

In many cases, businesses may find that a hybrid approach, using a combination of SaaS and traditional software, best meets their needs. This allows you to take advantage of the benefits of both models, while mitigating their respective drawbacks.

The world of software delivery is not a one-size-fits-all landscape. By understanding the key differences between SaaS and traditional software, you can make an informed decision that aligns with your business's unique needs and sets you up for success in the digital age.


Vendr Team
Vendr Team
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Vendr's team of SaaS and negotiation experts provide their curated insights into the latest trends in software, tool capabilities, and modern procurement strategies.

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