SaaS vs Customizable E-Commerce Platform

When you are picking an enterprise level eCommerce solution you have two major choices: Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) or a customizable Platform. Each has several pros and cons. And there may be a way to get the best of both worlds!

SaaS eCommerce solutions targeted at the F1000/IR500 include GSI (eBay) and Demandware. Leading Platform solutions targeting the same market are Oracle ATG Commerce (Oracle), Websphere Commerce (IBM), and Hybris (SAP).

SaaS

Benefits

The primary benefits of a SaaS based eCommerce solution are focused around out-sourcing all of the technical burden of building and running a major eCommerce site, and allowing your business to focus on your business, instead of a bunch of IT. By having a standard multi-tennant storefront application, a SaaS solution can allow you to build and launch your site more quickly and cheaply than building a custom application on a platform. All of the hosting work is covered, including data center selection, server procurement, racking, networking, software installation, configuration, upgrades and updates, monitoring, 24×7 pager coverage, DBAs, sys admins, PCI/security experts, and so on. And many SaaS offerings price based on a percentage of the gross revenue from your eCommerce site. This means that if you are starting out small, and growing, your eCommerce web site costs start out small, and grow only as your business grows.</>

Pain Points

There is a lot to like with a SaaS solution. So what are the pain points? First since you’re using an existing storefront application that’s setup for multi tenant use, you have very limited options around custom features, integrations, and logic. If you need something that isn’t an available feature on the SaaS platform you are largely out of luck.  So with that quick time to launch, and lower TCO, you also lose a lot of power and flexibility with the website features and integrations. For many smaller sites this isn’t a big deal, but for larger eCommerce sites and larger companies it can lead to a great deal of headache, a loss of competitiveness with other companies in your market.

Secondly that multi tenant shared architecture that gets you the cheaper cost and easier deployment can also lead to performance and stability issues. I believe that all of the major eCommerce SaaS providers have had significant multi client impacting outages. Unfortunately these often happen during peak traffic times for multiple clients, like Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and the holiday season at large. So through no fault of your own, you can suffer major downtime due to the shared “cloud” infrastructure.

Thirdly, as you grow, the cost model being based on a percentage of your revenue, which sounded so good when you were smaller, now means you’re paying much MORE than you would be if you’d gone with a Platform option. And that cost just keeps going up as you grow your business.

Platforms

Benefits 

Now let’s talk about Platforms. The benefits are that you get total flexibility and customizability. Even with a great platform, you (or your system integrator) are still going to be writing a lot of custom logic and pages. This means you can have ANY look and feel you want, any checkout flow, any features, any integrations, omni-channel with your POS systems, custom shipping and tax logic, special promo types, custom bundles, anything you like. You want ship-from-store, or in-store-pickup? You can do that!  Do you need to change shipping options and costs based on the contents of the order (volatile perfumes) or the shipping locale?  You can do that.  Do you need to do complex pricing and and bundling for existing customers buying a phone, mobile plan, accessories, data add-ons, all priced based on their long term customer history? You can do that!  You can also make sure you have enough infrastructure to handle your biggest days, so you can control your performance and uptime directly, typically leading to much better results than relying on a shared multi-tenant infrastructure. Also, while the initial costs can be high (more on that below), the ongoing costs are usually relatively fixed and are largely under your control.  This means that as you grow your revenue, your website costs stay the same, increasing your margins!

Pain Points

So what is the cost of all that power and flexibility? Cost is a big one. There’s a large initial investment in purchasing the software, and typically either paying a system integrator to build your initial site, or hiring and building an in-house team with the skill set to build it. Then you need to host it. If you host it yourself, or if you have a typical hosting company who provides servers for you, you still need to have a large in-house team of experts to provide 24×7 coverage for application, database, CDN, security, and performance issues.  You need to manage things like backups, PCI compliance, monitoring and alerting systems, server health, two-factor VPNs, mail servers, LDAP servers, IPSEC tunnels, SSL certs, proactively responding to emergent security issues like BEAST, CRIME, and Heartbleed, anti-DDOS measures, disaster recovery (DR), RPO/RTO, and much more. Doing this poorly means performance, availably, and security issues. Doing this well, means a large skilled team, and a lot of focus on IT.  Aside from the dollars involved, this is a large focus on something that ISN’T your core business. You also have on-going annual costs related to Platform software maintenance and support, hosting and infrastructure management, and ongoing development. Time to market can also be longer, since you’re building a complex custom storefront instead of just loading product data into an existing store front engine.

Inflection Point

One of the major differences, aside from flexibility and customizability, between SaaS and Platform approaches to eCommerce is cost. With Platform, there’s a high up-front cost, and a semi-fixed annual cost. With SaaS there’s a variable annual cost that grows with your revenue.  So where does SaaS start getting more expensive than Platform?  Obviously this inflection point depends on your SaaS vendor, your site size, traffic, complexity, and many more factors, so the cost analysis is something you should look at very seriously. However, based on my experience the average ballpark break-even point is probably around $150 million per year of revenue through the online channel. So if you’re that big or bigger, or if you plan to be that big in the next 5 years, you should almost certainly choose a Platform option.  Even below that, the differences in customizability and risks around shared infrastructure may mean that a Platform is the right fit for you. This is borne out by Demandware’s 2013 financials where they reveal they only have 17 clients doing over $100 million in annual revenue out of 820 sites. Their focus is absolutely sites that do much less than $100 million/year, and those are the sites their future features will target. So if you’re a bigger site, SaaS is probably not the best fit.

Best of Both Worlds?

What if you’re doing, or planning on doing, more than $150 million a year through your website, and/or you need the power of customization that you cannot get from a SaaS platform, BUT you also don’t want to build a huge IT team of ATG developers, ATG hosting experts, 24×7 coverage from Oracle DBAs, etc…? You want to focus on your business,

By picking a powerful customizable eCommerce platform, and partnering with a great system integrator AND an expert managed hosting provider, you can get the best of both worlds. You can get a custom application, meeting your exacting requirements built and maintained by the SI, and hosted by the hosting company. Many SI’s also have pre-built “accelerators” which allow for a quicker launch and more affordable development, bringing some of the transitionally SaaS benefits to the Platform solution. This lets you focus on your business, while getting the site you want, with the best possible uptime, performance, and security, without you having to cultivate a huge IT organization focused on your eCommerce platform.

Working here at Spark::red, providing top tier Oracle ATG Commerce managed hosting, I get to see our clients reaping those benefits everyday. By leveraging our world class global data centers, our team staffed with ATG experts, Oracle DBAs, sys admins, load testers, performance tuners, and more, our clients don’t need to worry about or spend internal time or staff positions on the technical support of their website. By working with our great SI partners, they get the site they want, built right, and updated when and how they want, without distracting our clients from their core business.

Your team should be filled with experts in your industry, focused on making and selling the best products you can. Let your partners bring their industry expertise to your website implementation and hosting needs.

2017-12-12T01:10:28+00:00April 22, 2014|All, Web Performance|

About the Author:

Devon has worked with Oracle Commerce for nearly two decades, and is also considered an expert in JBoss open source platform development. Since building one of the first well known Seam-based sites, 10minutemail.com, he has been repeatedly called upon to review manuscripts for Seam development books. Devon’s Oracle Commerce history traces back to 1998, when he worked at ATG as a senior ATG architect (later rebranded as Oracle Commerce) for both Professional Services and Sales Engineering. With all those years under his belt focusing on Oracle Commerce technologies, including work done for AT&T Wireless/Cingular, People’s Choice Awards, Scotts, and Ulta Cosmetics, Devon has proven his expertise in creating and maintaining high-volume Oracle Commerce implementations.

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