We are going to cover the main ways install web to print in your business (although in the summary you will see that it is not a critical issue unless your particular circumstances require a specific installation type). We also cover some other important topics regarding the technology of your Web to Print solution.
Anyone who has used a PC for a few years will be most comfortable with this type of installation, however for web based software solutions it forms the smallest part of the market. The easiest way to think of this type is to think of buying Microsoft Office. Microsoft tell you the specification of the PC you need, sell you a DVD with the software on and make you agree to a licence agreement when you first use the software (you may never have read it but you have agreed to it!).
With web applications such as Web to Print the PC is usually a server and the installation is normally done by downloading the software to the server from another server but the theory is the same.
Basically you (or someone you pay) is responsible for setting up and maintaining the hardware required for running the application. If you are already using hardware that meets the minimum requirements then in the long term this could be the cheapest solution for you.
With this solution you are probably buying a licence outright to use the software on your hardware. If you make no further payments to your software provider you will still be able to use the software. It is important to note that we have never seen Web to Print sold this way that includes any rights other than restricted use of the software, i.e. you do not own the code, cannot modify it or use it in any way excluded in the licence agreement.
In addition to purchasing a licence agreement you are probably going to have to pay a monthly / annual maintenance fee which should also cover software upgrades and support. We talk about this a little bit more in detail in the Versioning section below but this type of installation can be the purchase of a licence agreement for a specific version of the software. Back to our MS Office example, if you buy MS Office 2016 then you are entitled to all the software upgrades released for MS Office 2016 but there is no free upgrade path to MS Office 2018, nor is there any obligation to upgrade.
Although probably the most expensive way to get up and running it builds on the self hosted installation type. The software supplier will, either directly or through a third party, maintain and update the hardware (this is why it is typically the most expensive solution, you are now paying a hardware and software maintenance fee). Who owns the hardware will be defined in your agreement with the software supplier, as will what happens if you decide to not pay your maintenance fees going forward.
We have covered a lot about Software as a Service (SaaS) on this site already and we don't want to go over it again too much here, only to say this is by far the most common way to get access to your Web to Print system. In fact many web based applications are based on this model and we are increasingly seeing desktop software being moved over to the model (for example Office 365 or Gmail).
Typically all resources (hardware and software) are centrally shared (don't worry, they are still segregated!) between you and the other customers of your supplier and it has taken over because it allows for historically very expensive software to be supplied to the end user at a much lower cost. Furthermore SaaS is usually supplied on the basis of a monthly licence fee so that the cost is spread out instead of requiring a large investment at the outset.
It is fair to say that when some software providers didn't have SaaS versions of their software they would spread various mistruths about SaaS. Now that most providers have converted to SaaS these myths are no longer perpetuated. Read our About SaaS section for some myth busting truths.
The cheapest option in the short term is probably to go with a supplier that sells you a version number of their software. Why short term? Well you will have to pay again for the next version and you will need the next version. You might think that you will not need any more features than those included in the version you are buying, which might be the case. However online technology (especially browser technology) is moving fast. Your customers' web browsers are being constantly upgraded and eventually your version of the Web to Print software will not work with those browsers. It could be months or years before your platform becomes obsolete, but it will happen sooner or later.
Obsolescence is not necessarily a reason to not buy a solution sold by version number, but you should be aware that it might not be the cheapest route in the long term.
One of the big benefits that came with the move to the SaaS model is that many software providers moved to constant version upgrading where all their customers are on the latest version of the software all the time. This is great for getting the latest and greatest features all the time but there is a downside, especially if the supplier does not have a proper procedure in place. Upgrades offer the biggest chance of introducing bugs into software. Of course software developers should (and normally do) spend a lot of time testing before release, however there are so many variations in how different parts of the software interact with each other that it would almost be impossible to perform a bug free release.
It is therefore vital that you select a supplier that includes one more steps between internal testing and releasing updates to go live, there needs to be some form of User Acceptance Testing. An example of this is a developer finishes a new feature and wants it released to live code, hopefully it will go to internal testing first for pre-release feedback and approval, then it should (in fact we would say must) be released to you in such a way that you can test that your current sites and products without having any impact on your end users. If no one reports a problem (or even suggestions for improvements) back to the supplier then they can make the new feature fully live on your end users sites.
It's very simple when it comes to back-ups. You need them, you will make a mistake or something will go wrong and you will need to be able to recover from that. If you are on the Self Hosted installation type then it will be your responsibility. Still do it! Both the others are likely to come with some form of automated backup procedure. Hopefully it is documented but ask what it is in your demo so you know what you are going to be able to retrieve and for how long.
Upgrades are only slightly more complicated. Self Hosted installations may have to do this themselves or it is more likely to be part of the maintenance contract and done on your behalf by the software provider. You are looking to find out what the procedure is and how it will affect your service. Two common methods, both acceptable in our opinion, scheduled upgrades in your low usage periods (i.e middle of the night or at the weekend) and our preferred and more modern method of multiple mirrored servers in high availability configuration that can be upgraded one at a time meaning no downtime for upgrades at all.
Remember that it is not just the Web to Print software that will need updating, the underlying software packages on your server will need constantly updating (just like the Windows updates on your PC). It is vital that your servers are constantly updated, especially with security updates.
Adobe Flash was, and to some extent still is, used in a lot of the front ends of Web to Print solutions and up until recently we wouldn't even have mentioned it here. Most people are aware that nearly all mobile devices (phones and tablets) do not natively support flash based websites but that is only a small percentage of users that place orders, especially for templates that need some good screen space to get the best out of them.
In 2016, Google announced that its desktop browser Chrome would begin phasing out support for flash based sites. So instead of maybe losing access to a few percent of mobile users, now you are looking at between 30 & 40% of all internet users. As a side point here Google have also made some other web technologies that could be used in Web to Print software unusable, they are very fringe cases though and not covered here. It is always worth asking about browser support in your demo though, make sure it is a well defined policy that meets your needs.
Our advice has therefore changed from doesn't really matter to:
DO NOT BUY OR INVEST YOUR TIME IN ANY WEB TO PRINT SOFTWARE SOLUTION THAT CONTAINS ANY AMOUNT OF ADOBE FLASH.
So you are in a demo and just remembered to ask about Flash and they say "we are converting our software over to HTML5 now", should you ignore our warning above. Short answer is no, it is in bold and red, it has to be important right! Slightly less in your face advice, if you feel you must have that software (remember the functionality can change in the move from Flash to HTML5) then get the date that it will be complete and what will happen (compensation or the right to leave etc) if that date is not met written in the contract.
This is only important for the super advanced users who are going to build on the functionality of the software with their own programming. Everyone else, just move along to the summary! If you are going to do your own integrations, or build apps around your web to print software or to change functionality within your web to print software then ask the provider to provide you with their API to make sure it meets your needs. Finding this out after you have signed up for a solution can lead to all development needing to be done by the software provider rather than being able to take on work you can do yourself.
So this is the end of the first part of our Pre Demo Preparation Guide. Hopefully it was jargon free enough for you but we also know that it is a lot to take in. Welcome to the summary, your tl;dr (too long; didn't read if you are not into text speak) summary to this part.
Simple right? Just 3 points, one that is not even that important, to start your comparison checklist for your demos.