How do you determine if a SaaS solution is best for your library's integrated library system? What pros and cons should we be mindful of when exploring options?
One of the major issues in the implementation of any major technology product, such as an integrated library system, concerns whether it should be installed on equipment located in the library or if it should be hosted by the vendor. Both options have been available, in some fashion, since the earliest times of library automation.
The locally hosted option, where the library licenses software that is then installed on servers housed on its premises, has been the dominant way until recent years. These servers might reside in the library itself, but they are more likely to be placed in the data center of its parent institution. Academic libraries usually have some type of agreement with their university information technology department to colocate servers within the institutional data center, as would a public library with their local government. Regardless where the servers are physically housed, the library would assume at least some degree of responsibility for its technical operation. This arrangement comes with the need for technical expertise to properly maintain and secure the server and manage a wide variety of tasks associated with operating a complex business application. The budget model of a locally operated system includes costs for technical personnel, server purchase and support contracts, software licenses, facilities fees, as well as other direct or indirect costs.
Operating an integrated library system in this way comes with a mix of advantages and challenges. On the plus side, the library has considerable control in its technical operation, in its configuration, and in any interactions with other systems within its environment. Data can be transferred to and from the system within the organization's own network without having to traverse the internet. This model also comes with some disadvantages, including the need to allocate personnel to its technical upkeep, the need to repair and replace hardware periodically, and the need to continually monitor and address security and other aspects of the operating environment. There may be limited redundancy of hardware and network components due to the cost of acquiring and maintaining multiple copies of each component.
Local hosting might be the favored approach for libraries that have
- a strong in-house technical support team;
- suitable facilities for the responsible housing of computer infrastructure, including uninterruptible power support, fire suppression, and cooling;
- specific needs for local control; or
- complex interoperability with other business systems within the enterprise network.
Software-as-a-service (SaaS) divides the roles and responsibilities in a much different way between the library and the vendor. The library configures and operates the system at a fairly high level but does not need to be involved in dealing with the hardware, operating systems, database management, or other lower-level technical details.
Integrated library systems can be implemented in a configuration where the vendor provides hosting services for the servers and assumes responsibility for their technical management. In some cases, library staff will access the system via Windows or Java-based client software installed on their computers. Alternatively, some integrated library systems offer web-based interfaces that avoid the need for special client software. Many of the developers of ILS products are creating new web-based interfaces to eventually replace the client software.
Library services platforms are based on multi-tenant platforms with all aspects of functionality accessed via web interfaces. For these products, local hosting may not be an option. Like the vendor-hosted integrated library system, libraries using these platforms do not have to concern themselves with the lower-level technical infrastructure but rather focus their efforts on their operational aspects.
In recent years, vendor-hosted integrated library systems and library services platforms have become the dominant model chosen by libraries for new implementations. Even when retaining the same integrated library system, many libraries are shifting from locally-hosted to vendor-hosted implementations. Libraries increasingly prefer this trend for many reasons:
- fewer technical personnel employed by the library and the need to make best use of these individuals for higher value services rather than maintaining local server infrastructure;
- availability of robust internet connections that are essential infrastructure for other aspects of library services and content offerings;
- higher levels of reliability can be expected on less redundant local servers;
- predictable annual subscription fee without the need to budget for equipment replacement; and
- price incentives offered by vendors to move from local to vendor hosting.
It is important to be aware that SaaS has become the norm for almost all technology-based products. We expect to access social networks, e-mail, and other business and consumer applications entirely through our web browsers. Core desktop tools, such as word processors and spreadsheets, are increasingly operated via web interfaces. Even those installed on desktop or laptop computers are increasingly offered only through subscription services with automated updates and built-in cloud storage rather than purchased standalone software, such as with the Microsoft Office 365 Suite.
Given these considerations, there are ever fewer downsides to acquiring major library products through SaaS subscriptions. We are well into the era of webbased systems and cloud computing. While there may be some circumstances where a library will have solid reasons to implement a new system on local infrastructure, this option will become increasingly rare.