Do premium LMS hosting solutions actually save you money?
It’s the first question most of us ask the first time we are looking to host a system. Where should I put it?
We thought it was a difficult question to answer 10 years back, when technology was not very user friendly. It seemed you needed a degree only to understand the terminology involved.
Fortunately, we’re a decade into the future of ten years ago. Is hosting an LMS a matter of pressing a button?
Don’t get me wrong. In the past few years, the universe of hosting solution exploded. High performance architecture, automation and security have evolved several generations over in just about five years. The fight between local and cloud hosting is not over, despite what it seems (the key is where you look), and now ideas of hybrid cloud, federated or even “fluid” and agnostic hosting flip the conversation upside down. And don’t get me started on virtual environments, containers, orchestrators, serverless hosting (???) I could go on.
So yes, choosing a host for your LMS is tricky. Hopefully the following guide will make it less so. Get acquainted with the state of the art in terms of the options and features, and build the perfect checklist for a setup that delivers.
We’re in the AWS game now
There is no doubt about it. Amazon changed the game and owned it ever since. As we enter another year of AWS market domination, there is little doubt the response by the rest of the industry is shaped by AWS. Often up to an obvious, feature-by-feature extent.
While analyst believe Amazon has years worth of a leg up, nothing is guaranteed. Microsoft is managing to revive its Azure offering, as Google ups the ante with mobile and machine learning platforms. Then there’s Alibaba Cloud, leader in China and surrounded by up-for-grabs markets.
Hosts, Platforms, Partners: Getting some things clear first
One of the interesting —if from time to time infuriating— things about our current stage of hosting technology, is the many layers needed for a “simple” LMS to open on a student’s browser.
When it comes to hosting providers, you need to realize the level of “abstraction” they are offering. The elementary trade-off, as usual, is simplicity versus freedom. The easier a solution is built for you, the larger the number of choices have been made for you.
Here is a non-exhaustive illustration:
- MoodleCloud could be the most abstract LMS solution there can be. Sign up, and you have a Moodle site ready to go!
- A step below, there are LMS-ready solutions, even if they offer Moodle preinstalled, but you would still need\be able to configure several elements of the systems.
- Next there would be the hosting providers, which leave you the job of installing your LMS, as well as the bundle of supporting applications (example: LAMP). Of course, this gives you a lot more room for optimization and performance management.
- And the extreme would be an empty computer. You would need to deal with operating systems, maybe even hardware drivers. Nowadays, it feels unnecessarily difficult to deal with this much details. If it were not for the fact that the ability to address these roadblocks in a scalable way is a core feature of the most radical innovations created throughout history.
For now, let’s just focus on the approachable parts of it.
MaaS (Moodle-as-a-Service)? Free LMS hosting alternatives
MoodleCloud (Moodle only)
Few solutions are as approachable as MoodleCloud. Starting with a free, 50 users max classroom, you can get a good enough taste of Moodle, evaluate its core activities, and with the paid account, a couple of plugins as well.
If you think you are ready for Moodle prime time, it might be time to move up from MoodleCloud. Fear not, as you can easily package your whole site for export to a fully-fledged Moodle system.
MoodleCloud is continuously up to the latest Moodle version, upgraded to the latest release a couple of weeks later, at no effort from the user.
Gnomio (Moodle only)
True to principles of openness, and catered mainly to the US community (GDPR-laden users beware), Gnomio provides free, unlimited Moodle hosting on an ad-based model which you can remove upon payment, unlocking several extra features.
The first thing you will see is the claim that Gnomio “is not a company. We are just a few Moodle fans offering free tools for the e-learning community.” It means organizations might not find the level of support that might suit large installations with a vast userbase.
Freemium LMS trials
Most LMS feature free trials that allow you to experience a full or partial LMS experience. They usually limit time or size of courses, and allow you to eventually move your coursework and data onto a paid solution. It’s worth it if you have content ready to deploy and are shopping for. We all know about the perils of free.
- Instructure Canvas. Teachers can have a single-course system for free, forever. Canvas Pulse
- Blackboard Open LMS. Get a 30-day trial with pre-configured content. BOLMS Pulse
- Sakai by Longsight. The Sakai LMS partner keeps an up-to-date version of the platform, ready to try. Not only it lets you test drive the LMS, but Longsight service. Sakai Pulse
- Totara. Simply put, there is no known way to try out Totara using your own content and coursework. To know more you would need to contact them directly.
The Premium landscape: What to pay for
Established education providers can take advantage of a dedicated LMS hosting solution for reliance and flexibility. More hands-on solutions can also adjust properties of the servers to optimize according to personalized demands.
Cost is, of course, a key factor in the selection process. But what are you really paying for? While some vendors package features of varying quality and relevance into one flat fee, ultimately cost and features are correlated.
The features are broad, have different names, and their usefulness depends on the case. Here are some that you should consider:
- Software: Starting with the Operating system (Linux or Windows), then the “Stack” or supporting applications for the LMS (LAMP for Moodle, Ruby on Rails for Canvas LMS for example).
- Physical resources. Storage, RAM, bandwidth are the key. Determine your needs. A rule of thumb: One user needs 300Mb on average, and 1GB RAM will serve about 30 concurrent users.
- Security. Cloud-based vendors tend to offer better protection, as they can deploy resources into solutions that benefit all their clients. A competent vendor is one that understands that attacks will only keep on rising and be more indiscriminate. Cybersecurity is no cure. It requires constant management.
- Integrations and extensibility. So you managed to find a sound cloud solution for your LMS. But chances are you also have other systems: A Student Management System, a productivity or analytics suite, perhaps your learning strategy is heavily focused on video.
Self-Managed Cloud or a Corporate Partner?
As the demand for further control and flexibility arises, new ideas begin to populate the space.
The idea to be able to move between solution is not new. Before companies had information available to evaluate the cloud offering from different vendors, an essential feature as portability. In other words, customers had an interest in “Agnostic” solutions that would allow them to move back and forth the cloud as they pleased.
Of course, cloud providers like AWS double down on their customer retention efforts by providing computing solutions for which they are exclusive, and that are difficult to commoditize. Competition is helping avoid technological lock-ins. But this will only be successful if customers demand adherence to a common language.
And the best common language already available today? Open Source.