The Rise of Open SaaS and its Implications for Digital Asset Management
It doesn’t seem that long ago that computer software could only be obtained via CD-ROMs. You’d purchase your copy from the vendor, install the program on your local machine and, if it didn’t quite do exactly what you needed, look forward to next year’s release.
The internet, and in particular the proliferation of broadband, made it possible to download error patches, but if you wanted to take advantage of new functionality you’d need to buy the next version of the software.
Software as a Service (SaaS) changed the game for both business and consumer applications.
Unlike CD-based programs, SaaS is centrally hosted by the vendor, with the software licensed on a subscription basis. This might be monthly, annually or another payment schedule, but the key difference between the self-hosted software of old is that you never ‘own’ a licence—your access to the software ends as soon as you stop paying the vendor.
SaaS offered huge benefits for vendors who no longer needed to rely on physical distribution or middlemen, while the user no longer had to wait for the latest version of the software.
The open-source SaaS model takes this flexibility and freedom a step further, but what is Open SaaS, and what does it hold for the future of Digital Asset Management?
What is Open SaaS?
Coined in 2011 by the creator of the Drupal content management system, Dries Buytaert, Open SaaS refers to web-based software as a service applications that are based on open-source code.
This software is hosted, supported and maintained by the service provider. Upgrades and enhancements are also controlled by a central provider, but the roadmap for an Open SaaS application’s development is often led by its users.
One of the best examples of Open SaaS is the content management system WordPress.
WordPress was created by Matt Mullenweg and Mike Little, and continues to be closely associated with Automattic, the company founded by Mullenweg. However, the platform is open source, with developers all over the world constantly improving WordPress, both in terms of the CMS’ codebase and through plug-ins. Automattic doesn’t receive any money from these developers, and vice-versa.
Open-source Digital Asset Management is more common than you think
While many DAM vendors continue to provide on-premise solutions, the trend for the industry is very much skewed towards the SaaS model.
By contrast, Open SaaS remains the exception rather than the rule – at least from the user’s perspective.
However, many vendors are using open-source software to deliver their services to some extent. Image and video conversion libraries, the database software and the web server software are typically built on open-source platforms as building their own would be prohibitive. There’s no need to pay for commercial licenses when the open-source versions are so complete.
With this in mind, the concepts behind open SaaS for Digital Asset Management is more prevalent than it would seem – it’s just that the final ‘presentation’ layer of the software is closed.
What the Open SaaS model means for Digital Asset Management
While there are many reasons an end user might want to implement an open-source DAM, there are also limitations it’s important to be aware of. With that in mind, let’s consider what the Open SaaS model means for different aspects of DAM software provision.
Because the source code of Open SaaS Digital Asset Management platforms is freely available, there are no licence costs or annual fees for the software itself. Indeed, it would not meet the definition of open source if they charged for access to the source code.
In fact, if you’re hosting the DAM on your organisation’s servers and have a skilled internal IT team, you might not have to pay a penny to the vendor.
If that’s not the case it’s likely there will be costs involved, for example for cloud hosting or technical support, but not having a software licence fee will make a difference. Typically, all of the features will be available too, so you won’t be faced with charges for additional functionality.
Of course, unless you have the internal resources capable of adapting the source code, you need to think about the functionality different DAM platforms offer and whether they’re going to be right for you. Cost will be a factor, but suitability for your use-case will always trump that.
Another factor you’ll need to consider when it comes to DAM choice is around vendor lock-in.
With proprietary software you only have access to the platform while you pay for it, and you won’t be able to switch vendors easily.
Open source software doesn’t tie you to any single vendor, and if you’ve got an internal IT team capable of managing the platform you won’t need to work with the supplier on an ongoing basis anyway. Note that if you did want to switch to a different DAM platform you would still need to undertake a migration project.
One of the benefits of SaaS over the traditional model of software licensing is that updates can be rolled up as they’re developed. You no longer have to wait 12 months for the next version of the product, or download and install patches manually. This ensures you’re always working with the latest version of the software.
Both Open SaaS DAM providers and proprietary software vendors will periodically release minor and major updates of their platforms, but with open source software you also have a whole community of users who are also developing functionality and making it available. This means the pace of innovation is significantly faster with Open SaaS.
However, if you do implement functionality developed by the community, or make changes to how the DAM works, it’s unlikely the original vendor will be able to continue offering support. Make a change that breaks the platform? You’ll have to resolve the problem yourself, or seek help from the community.
While customising the DAM platform might mean you can’t be 100% supported by the vendor, you will have an entire community of Digital Asset Management experts to lean on should you need it – and you won’t have to pay for their time, either.
The downside is that there can be a steep learning curve with open source software if you’re not working directly with the vendor, and not taking advantage of any training or onboarding they provide.
Liabilities and warranties
With proprietary software the vendor will typically provide indemnification and warranty as part of the standard licence agreement. They’re able to do this with confidence because they have 100% control over the source code and the copyright of the product.
This isn’t necessarily the case with open source software.
If you’re making edits to the code of an Open SaaS platform the vendor won’t take responsibility for anything that goes wrong as a result.
There’s a common misconception that open source software is inherently less secure than proprietary software.
This comes from the belief that the ‘secrecy’ of proprietary software code makes it harder for attackers to exploit vulnerabilities. However, although the code of open source software can be studied by hostile parties in theory, this isn’t how hackers looking to exploit bugs work anyway.
“If I look at how people break software, they don’t use the source code,” said Dr Ian Levy, technical director of CESG, a department of the UK’s GCHQ intelligence agency.
“If you look at all the bugs in closed source products, the people that find the bugs don’t have the source, they have IDA Pro, it’s out there and it’s going to work on open and closed source binaries.”
“I’ve done a lot of work on this, and there’s no objective evidence either way. On average, good open source is about as good as good proprietary, and [bad] about as bad as bad proprietary.”
While there are pros and cons of Open SaaS and open source Digital Asset Management, digital asset managers won’t typically choose a DAM platform based on whether or not the product is open source.
Ultimately, organisations should consider the functionality of each product based on their requirements, as well as the technical support level required from the vendor.
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