Gone are the days when you had to have a team of programmers and system administrators to build and manage software. Now, more and more companies don't even need a server room as they run their operations in the cloud:
Rent infrastructure and data storage.
Piece them together into entire virtual platforms.
The training software can also be rented, and learning management systems have utilized the cloud for a while now. But should you opt for a cloud-based LMS, or is a self-hosted platform better? In this article, we will figure out what each option entails. Note that we are talking about buying a third-party platform rather than building one in-house.
A self-hosted LMS installation is a whole process: you need to ensure that it can be integrated into your systems, download and install it on your servers, set up APIs and connect it to your other systems and databases, configure the design, user roles, and permissions. Some LMSs are easier to install than others, but they still require some level of technical expertise and time to roll out.
A cloud LMS is a web-based LMS that is hosted remotely. It is already set up; you don't install it on your servers but access it online. That means you don't need to worry if your infrastructure is adequate for the task. You might still need to set up some integrations, e.g., to pull information from the learners' database, but overall, you can start using the platform practically the same day you purchased it. That's an obvious win for cloud-based LMSs.
Keeping the cloud LMS up and running is the vendor's responsibility, so in theory, it should relieve the customer of the need to maintain, update, and troubleshoot it. Moreover, this is a primary responsibility of the vendor's team, so the cloud LMS has constant uptime and tech support readily available. That makes the cloud a perfect solution for companies that don't have a development team available to upkeep the platform.
However, that also means that the client cannot control the direction in which the LMS will change over time or which issues the vendor will address. So the tradeoff is clear: you don't have to sweat over whether rolling out an LMS update will bring out major bugs, but there is no guarantee that the vendor will fix that one annoying minor bug any time soon.
On the other hand, hosting the platform on your servers gives you complete control over your learning management system and what you build on it.
Self-hosted LMSs also offer substantially more freedom to their owners regarding design and feature customizations. Whether you need to change the interface, integrate an extra third-party tool like Zoom, or develop a whole new feature — you can do anything with an on-premises platform as long as you have access to the source code.
Cloud-based LMSs, by definition, are out-of-the-box solutions and have much less room for customization. They usually support custom branding; however, the software design and functionality cannot be changed. Don't let it discourage you, though, as cloud LMSs are usually at the forefront of ed-tech developments and cover all the primary use cases, so you might not even need custom developments.
When it comes to infrastructure, cloud LMSs score another undisputable win. No company could spend so many resources on only one of their many operations as cloud LMS vendors do. So instead, companies can realize all the benefits of the vendors' heavy investments in data centers and computing hardware and software, ensuring smooth experience, robustness, and scalability.
Also, off-site computing means that users don't depend on their devices' characteristics and can enjoy advanced technologies like virtual and augmented reality.
Deploying and managing an LMS is a fully-fledged IT project, and many factors can play into its costs on top of the license, like buying necessary hardware and software, recruiting a technical team, paying for electricity, etc.
Suppose you already have a development team, regardless of the L&D operations. In that case, the majority of on-premises LMS expenses will consist of a license and developers' paycheck and be paid upfront.
The recurring cost of hosting an LMS per se comprises server hosting, maintenance, update, and support which is usually much smaller than paying for a cloud LMS subscription. However, in case of a surge of usage, hardware failure, or a cyberattack, you will be the one to bear the externalities, and these situations are hard to predict.
A cloud-based LMS, on the other hand, doesn't require much investment, but the subscription fee can be substantial. Some platforms charge for the number of users or instances or per feature, month, or year, and none of the options is objectively more cost-effective. Finding a reasonable payment plan is tricky as everything depends on the usage style. But then again, you don't have to pay for putting out fires, so that's a plus.
As a web-based solution, cloud LMS can be accessed from any device connected to the internet and is as easy to use as it is to set up — the learning curve is relatively low. This accessibility facilitates adoption and ensures the user experience is seamless and consistent across different devices. It also suits different learning approaches: microlearning via mobile, on-demand learning for onboarding, or peer learning via online video chat.
While self-hosted LMSs may require installation on a user's device, they can be web-based too, so the same advantages apply here.
Cloud LMS vendors comply with industry security standards and undergo regular audits, encrypt and backup the data, enforce SSLs for all connections, password access to certain admin features, firewalls, intrusion detection systems, etc. Just as with infrastructure and maintenance, security is cloud vendors' top priority and one of their business cornerstones, so they are the first to implement cutting-edge security measures.
Obviously, all of the above can be done in-house, and no level of the vendor's security doesn't change the fact that you entrust them with your and your users' data, which is a risk in itself. When you host an LMS on your servers, you retain complete control over the platform and data it operates with. However, full control goes hand in hand with full responsibility, so if your platform gets compromised, you'll have to bear the consequences on your own. Plus, you will need a security engineering team to implement all these measures.
Choosing the right LMS: a checklist
Now that we've covered the main aspects of utilizing a learning management system let's summarize.
What solution is perfect for one company can be an absolute flop for another. It depends on your organization's needs, budget, and resources. However, you can start your analysis by answering these questions:
1. Do you have a full-time technical team? Can they shoulder more tasks to install, deploy, and maintain a self-hosted LMS?
If the answer is yes to both questions, then you have already covered a big part of recurring costs, so buying a license over time can be cheaper than paying a regular fee.
2. What level of control over the platform do you need?
If it is critical for you to have inseparable access to data and all the systems and processes, then cloud LMS might not be for you. However, cloud vendors are generally able to provide a much higher level of security and are more strict when it comes to cybersecurity and handling data.
3. Do you need extensive customizations?
The default functionality of LMSs is similar and catered towards an average customer: you can create and upload content, manage users, and track their progress on any LMS there is. But if your case is unique and the average functionality is insufficient, you can customize the platform.
Cloud LMSs can be reconfigured — you can opt out of specific features and change the design according to your brand. You can also integrate it with other tools and services, though it can be problematic.
Self-hosted LMSs, by contrast, can be fully customized — you can change the source code, develop brand-new features, and change the interface completely. The question is whether you truly need to alter the platform to such an extent or whether reconfiguration is enough.
4. Is your LMS workload steady? Do you expect any spikes in the number of users?
Scalability is a cloud LMS's first and foremost advantage, so if you plan to grow your operations, it might be a perfect solution.
With a self-hosted LMS, you will need to upgrade your data storage and hardware, which takes time and money. However, with a cloud-based LMS, you only need to switch a payment plan to the one that provides the necessary infrastructure, and you can use it right away.
Cloud LMS is an excellent choice for a growing organization. They are secure, scalable, and robust. And self-hosted LMSs are ideal for big organizations because they are flexible, highly customizable, and fully controlled by the owner.
Opigno LMS is an open-source self-hosted LMS, meaning you don't have to pay for a license to use it. However, we are also working on a cloud-based platform that will be out later this year, so stay tuned!
Published on March 28, 2023