Four-Five Years

March 31, 2009

Within the tiny world of SaaS executives, there’s a little-known rule of thumb. I call it the Four-Five Years Rule. The rule is this. “When comparing the cost of SaaS offerings against an equivalent perpetual license offering, the break-even point comes in four-five years.” That is, when you add up the total cost of leasing a SaaS offering and the total cost of a perpetual license offering, the latter including hardware, the software license, and maintenance, and even the cost of money, the SaaS offering is cheaper for four years-plus; after five years, you’ve spent less on the perpetual license offering.

Did you know that? Bet you didn’t.

So is that an argument for SaaS, or is it an argument for perpetual license? After all, most installations last longer than 5 years. So maybe you should bite the bullet and pay up front, right?

No. You see, there’s a big, big difference between the two at the break-even point. With a perpetual license application, the application you’ll have is four-five years old. (You see, I’m not including the cost of upgrades.) But with a SaaS application, the application you’ll have is brand new and up-to-date.

It’s sort of an inversion of the old automobile lease-vs-buy conundrum. At the three-year breakeven point, if you buy you have a car, but if you lease, you have an empty parking space. With software, if you lease, your installation stays new. If you don’t, it gets old.

It’s also an inversion of the standard idea about SaaS, that it’s cheaper, but you get less. Not at all, after five years, it’s more expensive, but maybe worth it, because you’ve got a superior product, one that’s been kept up to date.

Not necessarily worth it, mind you. If you don’t need all the stuff they put in to keep the software new, or if you need to customize, you’re definitely better off with perpetual license. A lot of it depends on what you think the useful life of the old software will be.

One last argument for perpetual license, of course. If you do think the old software will have a long useful life, you can plan to save a boodle by going off maintenance sometime after those five years are out. If you do that, perpetual license can be way cheaper.

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