Software as a Service (SaaS) at McGill

What does it mean to you?

It sounds like tech jargon, but you’re probably more familiar with the concept than you think. SaaS is a delivery model used with most apps on your mobile devices and home computers. McGill also takes advantage of the SaaS model to deliver many services throughout the McGill community.

Back in the early 2000s when you purchased software, such as Adobe Photoshop, TurboTax, or Microsoft Office, you bought the rights to use that particular version. When a new version was released from the vendor, you would weigh the pros and cons of upgrading, read reviews, and research whether your other apps would all still work together.

Today most apps are subscription-based. Your subscription gives you access not only to the version you initially install, but to all updates and upgrades down the road.

The software vendor checks periodically to see if your subscription is still valid. As long as it is, you get to use their latest and greatest versions – but as soon as you stop paying, you no longer have access to the software. That’s Software as a Service.


Benefits to you

  1. New features and improvements – You don’t have to wait for a major product release; the software company pushes out bug fixes, security patches, enhancements and new features on a more frequent basis.
  2. More reliable software – With the SaaS model, software companies cannot afford to release a buggy product because all their customers would be outraged. They usually make incremental changes, so there is less risk – lower chance of bugs -- with each release. In addition, most companies put into place a rollout strategy in which groups of early adopters test out beta releases before they are pushed out to all their customers.
  3. Improved interoperability & collaboration – Nearly all companies and institutions will be on the same version of the software at all times; this makes it easier for people all over the globe to share files and collaborate with each other. And software companies are working more closely together to ensure their new releases will work with other popular apps.
  4. Simple, streamlined installation – Frequent software update cycles give the software company plenty of opportunities to perfect the process and make it seamless and straightforward for the end user.


Benefits to McGill

Software as a Service is very efficient and cost-effective for large institutions, like McGill. We manage thousands of computers and hundreds of software licenses, and the cost of licenses is much lower when purchased in bulk.

Updates are also simplified, so that they can be user-initiated, or, in the case of web-based apps, they just "happen" when the user accesses the software. This greatly reduces the need for IT system administrator intervention.

The following McGill-provided software and services, are based on the SaaS model:

  • Office 365 (the Office app suite, Email, OneDrive cloud file storage, Skype, Yammer, Sway, MS Forms, Video, etc.)
  • myCourses Learning Management System
  • Windows 10 operating systems (automated feature updates are coming in 2019 for computers supported by central IT Services)
  • PurelyHR – the new time management service for McGill employees
  • Adobe Creative Cloud suite



To be fair, there are some drawbacks to the SaaS model:

  1. Lack of control over release timing: Individuals and organizations don’t have much control over when updates are pushed from the software company. This makes it nearly impossible for IT communications teams to provide advance notice, or to keep training and documentation in sync with new features.

    Luckily, with installed apps and operating system updates, such as iOS and Windows 10, users can schedule updates to install at their convenience.
  2. Computer/device no longer supported: You may run into problems if your computer/device is too old and is no longer supported by the software company.
  3. Adjustment to new look & feel: We can all relate to situations when your favorite application gets a facelift and you suddenly don’t know where anything is. This is a common occurrence with websites and social media applications like Facebook.

    Thankfully, most software companies are proactive, providing quick guided tours of new features the first time you use the new version.


Bottom line

Software as a Service is here to stay, at least until the next big innovation. We will adjust and adapt along the way. Let’s enjoy the benefits and let the software companies take care of the nitty gritty.