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5 IT Service Terms Small Businesses Should Know

All Blogs, Business IT

Written by Robert Pinder, Digicon Cloud Technology Specialist


To understand what you can gain from certain IT services, what your small business needs, and what it doesn’t need, you need to understand the terminology that IT experts use. When you understand the jargon, you’re empowered to make the best decisions and choose the best providers for your business.

Being a long-running IT company, Digicon deals with government speak, Department of Defense acronyms, health and scientific terminology, and “high tech” double-talk. Recently, a lot of new terms are also being thrown around: this-as-a-service, that-as-a-service, Agile, DevOps, and so on.

So what does it all mean? I’m here to explain a few key terms you should know as a small business that’s looking for IT services. Often, these terms are used wrong, which is why I’m also here to tell you a secret—a very badly kept secret, but one you should keep in mind.

Everyone gauges your knowledge, relative to their own, by how you use those terms.

To hold your own in an IT conversation, here are 5 terms you should recognize and understand.

1. Managed Service Provider (MSP)

An MSP is a company that remotely manages a customer’s IT infrastructure or end user systems, typically on a proactive basis and under a subscription model. Today, the terms “cloud service provider” and “managed service provider” are sometimes used as synonyms when the provider’s service is supported by a service level agreement and is delivered over the Internet.

The evolution of MSPs began in the 1990s with the emergence of application service providers (ASPs), which offered remote application hosting services. ASPs helped pave the way for cloud computing and companies that would provide remote support for customers’ IT infrastructures. MSPs, for the most part, initially focused on the remote management and monitoring of servers and networks.

The next three terms—infrastructure-as-a-service, platform-as-a-service, and software-as-a-service—are the three available service models for anything that can be called cloud computing or as-a-service. Together, these three form a “full stack,” as illustrated below. Virtually any technology service can be modeled and operated using this stack. In most cases, you can assume that the higher you get in the stack, the greater the efficiency gain and the better the return on investment that can be expected. The trade-off is either less customization or less granular control over the underlying infrastructure.

Graphic showing the services stack and its relation to financial benefits or control + responsibility

2. Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS)

Anything that falls into the IaaS group is considered the most basic building blocks of any technology. Just about everything within IaaS is a virtualized version of a real, physical technology component. For example, virtual CPU is typically a combination of a physical CPU and some amount of physical RAM being run in a virtualized compute cloud. It could be VMware, Zen, Hyper-V, OpenStack, or any number of other hypervisor technologies. Similarly, virtual storage represents a hard drive, but it could be a storage area network (SAN), network attached storage (NAS), iSCSI device, database table, or data warehouse. It may not even be in the same data center.

For the most part, when you are working with services at this level, it requires similar skills to working with the physical equivalents. You must still put the server together, install an operating system, connect it to the network, patch the server, and manage it just like any other physical server. The efficiency gain is all in the fact that resources are available and don’t need to be physically ordered, shipped, and racked. This often saves weeks of time on related tasks.

3. Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS)

PaaS is one step up the stack. At this level, you can expect to be working with server-level tools or web interfaces. An example of a PaaS item is database-as-a-service, which you might use traditional Microsoft SQL, MySQL, or Oracle tools to manage. You should expect this level of service to operate at a higher, typically data center-level of redundancy. For databases, you’re running on a database cluster with no concern of physical component failure, although you’re still vulnerable to site-level issues.

Many commercial applications are offered as PaaS. Other common examples include backup-as-a-service (Backup Exec), load balancing-as-a-service (F5 BigIP), firewall-as-a-service (Cisco ASA Firepower), or directory-as-a-service (Microsoft Active Directory).

It’s common for entire development and operating stacks to be provided as a PaaS. If you use common tools, this is great for application developers to operate without any system- or infrastructure-level concerns. There is always some level of trade-off with what tools you’re able to use, but most operational concerns are removed.

4. Software-as-a-Service (SaaS)

SaaS is yet another level up the stack. It’s often thought of as on-demand software. In the SaaS model, providers install and operate applications in the cloud, and users access the software from cloud clients. Users do not manage the cloud infrastructure and platform where the application runs. This eliminates the need to install and run the application on the users’ own computers, which simplifies maintenance and support.

Cloud applications differ from other applications in their scalability. Load balancers distribute the work over the set of virtual machines. This process is transparent to the cloud user, who sees only a single access point. To accommodate a large number of cloud users, cloud applications can be multitenant, meaning that any machine may serve more than one cloud-user organization.

You’re much less likely to find commercial applications being offered in the SaaS model. Applications in the SaaS model are more likely to be specialized. Examples of SaaS applications include, .Office, Dropbox, or limited/alternative versions of off-the-shelf software like Microsoft Office 365 and Google Drive.

5. IT-as-a-Service (ITaaS)

Under an ITaaS model, the IT organization of an enterprise has a business-centric focus. It places great emphasis on the needs and the outcomes required by the lines of business.

The benefits to the enterprise using the ITaaS model include standardization and simplification of products delivered by IT; improved financial transparency with more direct association of costs to consumption; and increased IT operational efficiency, resulting from the need to compare the price of internally produced products to those available from external providers.

MSPs are essentially commercial providers and operators of ITaaS products. MSPs provide the same benefits to the enterprise using the ITaaS model, but as a product.

For more information on “as-a-service” models and what characteristics define them, you can read more here.

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