What Is SaaS?

A clear explanation of Software as a Service

The meaning of SaaS is software-as-a-service. It is a delivery model in which software is provided on a predetermined subscription basis; usually monthly or yearly.

This method of software delivery has risen to prominence alongside cloud computing. Even if you aren't clear on what SaaS is, you probably use programs that fall under its definition. Some examples include Google Drive, Dropbox, and Microsoft Office 365. Here's everything you need to know about SaaS, including how it works, why it won't replace all of your software, and some of its risks.

What Is SaaS
Lifewire

What Is SaaS?

In SaaS systems, the software that runs on your computer—assuming it exists in that form—ties to a centralized host in the cloud. This system handles tasks like saving your work, sharing items with collaborators, and archiving old chat conversations.

Just because most of the action happens in the cloud, however, you may still download a program to use a SaaS service. For example, you might primarily access Google Drive and Slack through their websites. But you can also grab an app from a marketplace like the App Store, Mac App Store, Google Play, or the Microsoft Store to give it a home on your computer, phone, or tablet.

Even if you have an app for a SaaS platform, however, it just provides a means for you to interact with the service. All of the important work is still happening in the cloud.

Another common element among SaaS applications is that you'll often pay a subscription fee to access them. In the past, you'd typically buy a copy of the software and then install it onto your computer. With SaaS, however, you may pay a monthly or annual fee and then access the service through a web browser.

Slack is one example of an SaaS platform
Slack

Advantages of SaaS

Because a software-as-a-service platform exists in one, centralized location instead of thousands (or even millions) of computers, it's more efficient to run. Most users may access the platform through a web browser, so SaaS platforms are compatible with almost any device that can connect to the internet.

Maintaining an SaaS platform is also easier. Information technology professionals only have to ensure the central system works instead of troubleshooting each user individually. It's faster, simpler, and cheaper to keep SaaS running than a traditional software platform.

SaaS systems are more efficient to update. When new features or bug fixes become available, administrators only need to send them to one place to ensure all users are accessing the most current, stable version.

Risks of SaaS

The SaaS system has some drawbacks, however. Keeping everything relatively local makes it easier to run and maintain a platform, but if the centralized system goes down, it affects all of the users simultaneously.

For example, if Google Drive goes down, millions of people can't access the documents they store there, and they won't be able to until the system goes back up. Meanwhile, if one person in an office loses access to their copy of Microsoft Word, everyone else can keep working, and the affected user can move to another computer until IT resolves the problem.

A MacBook running Google Sheets
 unsplash

Another major drawback of SaaS is that it takes issues of network security out of users' control. Companies need to trust that their vendors are doing everything necessary to keep the information they put on the platform secure and private, and they don't have much control if a data breach happens.

SaaS also presents a drawback for users who like to know exactly what's in the software they're using. It isn't easy to examine the code of programs that run entirely through the internet, and security-minded users prefer to see what they're running, what it's doing, and how much access it has to their computers.

The limited visibility of SaaS programs makes this information more difficult to find. However, some open source SaaS options, like WordPress, make their code available for users to examine.