Software as a Service (also known as SaaS) is a popular choice for display network operators, corporate users and small business owners. SaaS leverages cloud hosted services to provide cost efficient and reliable software infrastructure to those who don’t have sufficient resources, financial or otherwise, to set up and manage the required back-end server.
What are the main components of a typical digital signage network?
Most digital signage networks have three components:
- Content Management Server
- User Dashboard
- Media Player
The Content Management Server
Your typical digital signage software network relies on a back-end server, also called content management server, or CMS. This software performs many critical tasks. It stores the content and metadata, manages the schedules, and publishes content to the network Media Players. The CMS server must perform all these tasks as efficiently as possible, and it must be sufficiently reliable for 24/7 operation. It’s true… digital signage is a full-time job.
The User Dashboard
End-users who oversee content and schedules use a dashboard to interact with the CMS. This can be a locally installed software application, or preferably an application accessed via the web. These web-based dashboards require no local software on the end-user’s computer. Users simply connect to the system by entering an URL in their web browser and the best products support HTML5 for greater flexibility.
The advantages of this type of software are many:
- No local software to distribute, support and maintain.
- Users can login from any location, using any connected device like a smartphone, tablet, desktop PC or laptop.
- New software versions and patches are easily deployed in the field. Once the server has been updated, everyone gets access to the most current version. This feature helps significantly reduce IT support requirements.
The Media Player
Reliability is essential to the stability of any digital signage system because some displays need to run continuously. Think of displays in airport lounges that show departure and arrival information, or similar installations you find in bus and train stations. There is simply no place for blank screens in these locations because passengers need reliable access to travel information. This explains why it’s better to pick media players that are designed for continuous use in commercial applications.
Digital signage media players come in various types.
PC based Media Players continue to be extremely popular for digital signage use. They offer many advantages over the other types of devices currently on the market.
- You can drive multiple displays off a single PC and show different content and information on each display.
- Windows PCs can be accessed remotely for routine maintenance and to resolve technical issues.
- Microsoft Windows continues to be the most popular PC hardware operating system with global support.
- Windows expertise is easy to find so technical resources are always available, if needed.
- Windows PC hardware can be purchased anywhere. PCs come in many different sizes and form factors, including sticks that plug directly in a display’s HDMI port.
Android tablets and media players
Android has made great strides in digital signage. The Google operating system conceived originally to compete with Apple iPads and iPhones has become an essential platform for digital signage.
- Android is included with most tablets and media players. There is no additional cost associated with installing, and updating the Android operating system on a device or tablet.
- The Google OS is very reliable and supports the most useful digital signage features.
- Interactivity is supported on compatible tablets and touch screens.
- Remote access software developers have recently launched Android compatible versions which makes the OS much more interesting when managing large numbers of players, or when deploying digital signage in remote locations.
- Android media players come in many sizes and form factors, from “sticks” to “pucks” that can be mounted behind displays.
System on Chip displays
System on Chip (also known as SoC, or Smart TVs) integrate the media player hardware right inside the display frame. Smart TVs have become extremely popular since their launch.
Smart TVs offer many interesting advantages over other media players.
- You get a complete solution in a single display.
- No exposed media player hanging off the back of the display. No exposed wires either makes for a more professional installation.
- Cost of the media player hardware is included in the display price.
- Smart TVs are manufactured by some of the most reputable brands in the industry.
- Better service and warranties.
- Costs less than buying all the components separately (PC or Android media player + display + cabling).
The Software as a Service advantage
Software as a Service based solutions offer many advantages over on premise software alternatives.
For starters, SaaS digital signage software doesn’t require a big, up-front capital investment. With SaaS, you essentially lease your software, and someone else handles all the technical and maintenance tasks on your behalf. There is no server hardware to buy and no data backups to perform. Your SaaS provider handles all the complexity for you while you concentrate on your business.
Usually, you will find SaaS solutions are priced affordably, based on a monthly fee per player. You simply pay for the number of licences that you need and costs are calculated annually. Need to deploy more players? Get the more licences, and start deploying screens.
Who can benefit from SaaS digital signage software?
- Start-ups that are growing rapidly.
- Companies who can’t predict how many displays they might need, and who are unable or unwilling to commit to an on premise solution.
- Enterprises that want the flexibility to add more displays over time without dedicated IT support staff.
What do SaaS providers bring to the table?
SaaS solutions are operated by professional companies who manage the technology behind the scenes. This will usually be the software developer working with a commercial hosting partner. A good hosting provider will make sure servers are load balanced and use server mirroring to safeguard against service interruptions. Redundant systems will be in place. For example, uninterruptible power supplies and generators will be ready to take over in the event of a power failure. Commercial air conditioning systems will ensure environmental factors won’t impact performance. Physical access to server cabinets will be restricted with key cards and biometric systems. Support personnel will be ready to respond in case of emergency.
What about on premise solutions?
Just like everything else, Software as a Service isn’t for everyone. There are some applications where SaaS isn’t practical. So, when should you consider an on premise digital signage solution?
- When data cannot be routed through a third-party cloud server due to regulatory requirements.
- When monthly fees are undesirable.
- When you require total control over your digital signage network
- When you already have a substantial investment in server hardware, and you have the required technical staff who can install and manage the equipment.
A “hybrid” approach
Some on premise software owners install their CMS servers on equipment hosted by a third party. This isn’t quite the same as a full SaaS offering because the server software licence and individual player licences still need to be purchased outright. However, fewer IT resources are required since most of the day-to-day server maintenance is assumed by the hosting partner. We’re talking about server backups, anti-virus scans and other regular maintenance tasks. Software owners can order a dedicated, physical server but most people simply rely on virtual servers. The determining factor being the capacity of the virtual server based on forecast usage.