When reviewing mobile data collection solutions that exist, you will come across solutions that require or allow you to deploy your own instance of the software on your own hardware; and others that only allow you to run your projects from their instance in the cloud.
Open source software such as ODK and Kobo Toolbox have variants that you can download and install on your own server. Both also have versions that you can use online on their own servers. Others such as ONA and SurveyCTO only have versions that can only be used from their servers.
Both approaches have their own advantages and shortcomings. In this article, I will outline all the different considerations that must be borne as you decide which route to follow.
Before we dig deep into the advantages and considerations of the 2 approaches, let’s look at what it means by self-hosting or managed cloud software.
Difference between self hosted solutions and managed services
Self-hosting software means installing the application on your own server. You can either install the software in computers on your own premises or deploy it on leased servers online.
The main implication here is that you are responsible for managing everything from the IT infrastructure (such as computers and networks) to security and updates.
Managed cloud software means that the software exists in servers provided by the software developers. All you will do is create an account on the platform and start using the software.
All the responsibility of managing IT resources and updating the software rests in the hands of the software developers.
Perhaps the most basic consideration you must put in mind when you choose to self-host is whether you have the IT infrastructure that will make it possible to do so. This is especially if you plan to install the software in computers on your premises.
First, you will need a computer strong enough to act as a server. Then you need a power source that will ensure the server is on at all times. Lastly, you will need a good internet connection to make receiving data submissions to mobile devices possible.
For applications that allow offline data collection like KoboToolbox however, you may need to have the server connected to power and internet only at the times you will be uploading the data to the server. This can also be done through a local network that doesn’t have internet access.
If you choose to run your own instance on leased servers online, you will not have to worry about having and maintaining IT infrastructure.
Similarly, when you choose managed cloud services, all IT infrastructure will be managed by the service providers and hence you do not need to worry about it.
Having IT infrastructure goes together with having expertise to manage it.
If you choose to run your own copy of data collection software whether on a server within your premises or on leased servers online, you will need expertise to install and manage the instance as well as the server software itself.
On the other hand, if you use a managed cloud instance, all the software and server management will be done by the service providers.
Security and privacy
When choosing between a self-hosted mobile data collection solution and a managed one, security and privacy should be at the center of the decision.
You gain more control of the security of the data when you have the software deployed on your own servers than when you deploy it on leased servers and much less when you use a managed service in the cloud.
If you will be storing extremely sensitive data, consider deploying your own instance in your own servers. Perhaps this is the main reason you will want to choose this option.
However, this choice also comes with the responsibility to backup the data frequently and to update the software to the latest and more secure versions.
Providers of server-leasing services usually bundle automatic backups and other enhancements together with their offering. This means that you get stellar performance without sacrificing on cost as compared to a self-hosted service. However, the responsibility to update the instance still falls in your hands. Although online server-leasing providers promise security and privacy, it is hard to guarantee that this is true.
When you go for a managed cloud service, you get the advantage of always running the latest and best version of the software. The service providers also invest in serious security measures and also promise data encryption.
Flexibility may not be an important consideration to some, but it sure is to those who require a highly customized service or would like to integrate the mobile data collection software with other services.
Self-hosting means you will be able to make code changes to the software, adding features and integrating with other software when you need to. f course this comes at a cost and requires expertise.
With a managed cloud service however, you are limited t the features provided by the developers.
All the considerations outlined above culminate into the cost of each approach.
Installing your own instance of data collection software come at a really steep cost. If you are installing on a server on your premises, the costs will include:
- Buying and maintaining a server computer
- Maintaining a good internet connection on your premises
- Buying and maintaining other server software such as server operating systems (like Ubuntu or Windows Server) and database software (like PostgreSQL)
- Paying IT expertise for installing and managing the software instance and server software
If you are going to lease a server online, you will just have to pay the rental fees for the server in place of buying it yourself and the other server software. To cut costs, you may consider buying a Virtual Private Server (VPS) which is cheaper than a Single Tenant Server but provides similar performance. However, you will still need to pay for the expertise to install and manage the deployed instance.
On the other hand, the costs for using a managed cloud server are straightforward and easily predictable. You will only be paying a consistent monthly fee depending on the features and volume of submissions you need.
Your choice of the solution you will go fall boils down to your specific needs. I have summarized the differences below:
|Self-hosted on premise||Self-hosted on leased server||Managed|
|You need to invest in IT infrastructure such as a server computer, dedicated internet connection and power||IT infrastructure provided by server leasing company||IT infrastructure provided by software provider|
|You need expertise to install and manage the software instant and other server software||You need expertise to install and manage the software instant and other server software||Software already installed and managed by provider|
|You have total control over the security and privacy of your data||Security and privacy is in the hands of the hosting company. You have some control over the security and privacy.||Security and privacy is in the hands of the software provider|
|You have full ability to add features and integrate with other systems||You have full ability to add features and integrate with other systems||You are limited to the features provided by the software provider. Integrations may be limited.|
|May be costly due to cost of ongoing management and maintenance in addition to cost of IT infrastructure||May be costly due to cost of ongoing management and maintenance||You only pay for the features you need and volume of submissions. Very cost-effective option|
To summarize the summary above, if you are looking for better privacy, security and more flexibility, choose to deploy your own server or a leased server online.
If you need a cost-effective solution that will still do a great job, choose online managed mobile data collection software like Kobo Toolbox.