Guest Post: Sean Matthews, Visix
The old saying goes “All roads lead to Rome” and if “Rome” is an informed, engaged audience, and digital signage is your vehicle, it’s really just a matter of which path you want to take to get to your destination.
There are two options for any organization considering digital signage:
- Premise-based or on-site: the content management server and software sit on a hard drive on a machine you own
- Cloud-based or Software as a Service (SAAS): the content management server and software sit on a hard drive owned by someone else, accessed through the web
These are both viable options for organizations of any size, but how can you choose which one is right for you? As is so often the first answer when talking about digital signage, the answer is “It depends”.
There are many factors to consider, and every environment is different. One is not necessarily “better” than the other – they’re two different approaches to deploying technology for visual communications. Taking a closer look at features and requirements is the only way to make an informed decision.
Hosting your own digital signage system can have higher upfront costs but pretty low ongoing costs, at least in terms of cash outlay. It’s all in your hands – all the hardware, all the software, everything. For one thing, you don’t technically need an internet connection, since it’s all locally networked. However, many premise-based solutions use web-based content management software in order to allow more people to manage and deliver content to multiple locations. It’s fairly easy to get it up and running, and you have maximum control over every component. Everything is 100% yours and as secure as you want to make it, since it all resides behind your firewall.
But that means you are responsible for getting and applying all updates (for both hardware and software), replacing old equipment, all maintenance on screens, players, servers and so on. You might also have a small cash outlays for occasional tech support, or regular payments for a support subscription to help with service and maintenance.
If you choose this path, you want to look for a vendor with a release record that shows they update their software regularly, keep up with new operating systems, and have trade-in policies for servers, players and other associated hardware. And make sure they’re still willing to provide support and services, even if you want to keep your system local.
- Maximum control over deployment
- Lower cash outlay over time
- Higher cash outlay at purchase
- Responsible for all software and hardware updates and maintenance
With hosted systems, the upfront costs are often much lower than a premise-based solution. The data is hosted elsewhere, so you don’t need to have on-site servers. (You may still need on-site media players, however.) And since server updates and maintenance are the responsibility of the hosting company, you don’t need a lot of local IT support.
Your software is always up to date and running the most current version. You do need a reliable internet connection with good bandwidth and speed to access your system. Don’t worry, though. Most companies that offer a cloud-hosting version of their CMS cache the playlists, so you’re still running content even if there’s a brief interruption in internet service.
You pay a regular subscription fee that can, at first glance, be fairly reasonable. But these fees are ongoing, and often exceed the cost of ownership in around 36 months. So, while you’re paying less at first, over time you can end up paying more than if you’d gone with a premise-based solution. However, if you prefer a fixed monthly cost, this is an advantage.
When it comes to security, even though the hosted software resides outside your firewall, you have access to the vendor’s security professionals and infrastructure, so it might be even more secure than your homegrown solutions. However, cloud solutions can make it more difficult to integrate data or other media sources into your digital signage. For example, you might have an on-premise event management system, and it needs to speak to a cloud-hosted data source – in some environments this can be challenging and result in limited functionality.
When thinking of going cloud, you want to look at the vendor’s support and flexibility. You want to think about upfront cost vs. total cost of ownership and lifetime maintenance. A vendor with a history of frequent new features or modules could end up costing you in downtime or learning curves.
- Lower upfront costs
- Not responsible for server software updates or maintenance
- Higher overall cost, over time
- Data integration over firewalls can be tricky
Any web search will yield lots of companies that offer digital signage solutions. Some of these even offer it for free. Well, the old saying goes that “you get what you pay for.” That’s not to denigrate what companies that offer free digital signage are doing, but nothing is really “free.” Ads are the most common form of monetization, and do you really want someone else’s ads showing up on your digital signs?
Many free solutions offer a very basic version for free, but then features that you want cost money to add. Support is also a consideration. Is that also free? How responsive are they? How often do they change available features? And all the pros and cons of cloud-based systems apply to free ones as well – they are hosted on the web, outside your firewall.
Going the free route could end up with a lot of trial end error before finding one that works for your specific needs and environment. And there’s virtually no free enterprise solution. For organizational communications, you want a customizable, robust enterprise platform that works just as well on day 750 as on day one.
- Free basic service
- Good for single-screen deployments
- Limited features
- Not good for enterprise communications
What about a mixture of all these? Some organizations go the hybrid route, with some things on site, some in the cloud. It’s even possible you could use a free cloud-based solution but then work with a vendor who can supply other elements, like a stand-alone alerting system.
The fact is that a person who is really into cloud will tell you all the reasons why you should do cloud, a premise-based person will do the same, and someone who loves free solutions will be a cheerleader for them. What you really want is the most robust, consistent solution for your specific communication needs, organizational structure and budget.
An AV/IT integrator can certainly help you decide what’s best for you. Probably the main things to consider will be the number of screens you want to run, number of software users, budget, and the software’s compatibility with the various data sources you’ll be integrating with.
The first step is a comprehensive plan that outlines exactly what you’ll use your digital signs for, how you’ll expand the system in the future, and where the money will come from. This will help you be better informed when it comes time to actually make your purchase, and give you a great foundation to decide on the best platform for you.