Intro to Cloud Computing: IaaS vs. PaaS vs. SaaS

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Learn about the rapidly growing subject of cloud computing, and explore the uses and differences between its three main services: IaaS, PaaS, and SaaS.

[Featured Image]:  Cloud Engineer working on building and maintaining cloud infrastructure.

Cloud computing has grown in popularity and relevance over the past few years, gaining prominence in public and private markets because of the speed and flexibility it provides for organizations, boosting innovation and productivity. As a result, the number of jobs in this space has increased, making them some of the most desirable. Organizations of all sizes and types utilize cloud computing services for many reasons.

Projections show the global cloud computing market growing over 110% in the next five years, with a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of around 16 percent [1]. With this growth, the market size for cloud computing services should rise from around $445.3 billion in 2021 to approximately $947.3 billion in 2026 [1]. Current students may gain a competitive advantage by understanding how cloud computing works, its uses, and the differences between the three primary cloud computing services (IaaS, PaaS, and SaaS). 

It can be helpful to familiarize yourself with the most common jobs in the industry, their annual salaries, and educational pathways for candidates seeking these positions when evaluating whether to pursue a career in the cloud computing industry. 

What is cloud computing?

Cloud computing enables you to access various computing and IT resources, such as data storage, applications, servers, development tools, and more, all through the internet. A Cloud Services Provider (CSP) maintains a remote data center that hosts the resources included in the cloud. You typically pay a monthly fee to access these resources based on your specific services and how much you use them. The services and resources offered by cloud computing are fully on-demand, promoting faster innovation, increasing productivity, and improving economies of scale.

Read more: What Is a Cloud Engineer? Building and Maintaining the Cloud

Types of cloud computing

There are three common types of cloud computing services: IaaS (Infrastructure-as-a-Service), PaaS (Platform-as-a-Service), and SaaS (Software-as-a-Service). Companies may use all three services or a combination to address their needs. Understanding each type of service and how they are different can help you successfully find a solution to your problem and accomplish a goal for your business. 


IaaS, also known as Cloud Infrastructure Services, allows you to rent IT infrastructures, such as physical and virtual servers, storage, and networking. You rent these resources from a cloud provider on a pay-as-you-go basis.

IaaS grants you the flexibility of utilizing specific resources when needed without owning the infrastructure and paying a large amount of capital up-front. IaaS makes computing resources on-demand and available for you to rent to address periodic shifts in usage.

If you are a part of a young and growing company, you can use IaaS to your advantage to avoid paying high up-front costs for computing resources. It can also save you from maintaining and managing your own IT infrastructure saving your company valuable time and money. 

As your business grows, you can change the specific hardware and software you rent to address your evolving needs adequately. Companies experiencing rapid growth will also greatly benefit from IaaS because of the flexibility to change the resources used as the business grows. 

The most notable IaaS Providers typically offer reliable Cloud Infrastructure Services and can build a sense of trust with their clients. Top providers have many resources available to address every business need you may have to help your company grow with minimal friction. The most commonly used and trusted IaaS Providers are:

  • DigitalOcean

  • Amazon Web Services (AWS)

  • Google Compute Engine (GCE)

  • Linode

  • Microsoft Azure

  • Vultr


PaaS is a cloud computing service that allows you, as a developer, to have complete control of an on-demand platform without having to worry about managing and maintaining the underlying infrastructure of the platform on-premises. For example, you can build your own web application to suit your business using the platform provided by PaaS.

In the PaaS model, you are only responsible for managing data and the application resources, while the third-party cloud provider maintains servers, networks, storage, databases, and operating system software. The main advantage of PaaS is that it allows you to quickly create fully customized applications without the hassle of managing the underlying infrastructure on which you are working. 

Developers tend to use PaaS because it can help them organize the workflows of multiple developers who may be working on the same project. PaaS grants you the ability to fully customize your applications to the exact specifications you are looking for. 

Overall, the development process benefits from greater speed and flexibility under PaaS, making it perfect for developers who are quickly creating, editing, and deploying new applications. Since you do not have to manage your underlying infrastructure, PaaS tends to be cost-effective. You pay for this type of cloud computing service on a per-use basis. 

Like IaaS Providers, the top PaaS providers have a reputation for offering reliable and trustworthy products and services. Other characteristics used to evaluate providers include overall cloud capabilities, breadth of workflow tools, design flexibility, and ease of use. The most commonly used and trusted PaaS Providers are:

  • Google App Engine

  • AWS Elastic Beanstalk

  • Oracle Cloud Platform (OCP)

  • Microsoft Azure

  • Salesforce aPaaS

  • Red Hat OpenShift PaaS


SaaS is a cloud computing service that allows for the on-demand use of application software. You typically pay for SaaS on a subscription basis, giving you the flexibility to try different software and alter the tools you use based on what you need at a given time. You access the application software hosted in the cloud through a web browser, a dedicated desktop client, or an API. An example of SaaS is using Zoom or Cisco WebEx to host video meetings for your company.

Most application software under SaaS can be downloaded directly through a web browser. As a user, you benefit from not having to work through lengthy installation instructions and not having to wait for the software to download on your computer. 

Updates to the software, security patches, and routine maintenance are all handled by the cloud provider, saving you time and effort. The cloud provider hosts and fully manages the software applications and their underlying infrastructure. 

Start-ups or smaller companies that may not have the human capital, time, or money to create and manage personalized software applications for themselves can effectively use Saas. SaaS will enable you, as a start-up, to quickly pick and choose what tools you need to use to begin to grow your business. Additionally, any short-term project would benefit from SaaS because it provides a fast, affordable, and flexible solution to many problems.

Since SaaS is usually paid for through a subscription model, you will only have to pay for application software when you need it for short-term projects. This will reduce the up-front cost that startups or smaller companies will need to get their business off the ground. SaaS is also a beneficial option for applications that are not used frequently, such as tax software. 

Beyond providing reliable and trustworthy services, the top SaaS providers can advance their products to meet the changing needs of you and your business. They offer on-demand services that eliminate the need for installing and updating software, giving you a frictionless experience. The most commonly used and trusted SaaS Providers are:

  • Salesforce

  • Google Workspace

  • Cisco WebEx

  • Concur

  • Adobe Creative Cloud

  • Dropbox

What educational options exist in cloud computing?

If you are interested in pursuing a career in cloud computing, you have multiple educational options to achieve this goal. Becoming a cloud developer requires you to be proficient in traditional programming skills and attain specialized knowledge in one of the prominent cloud platform development environments.

You will likely need a bachelor’s degree to be accepted into cloud development training, ideally in a major related to software, data, or computer science. The most common majors for pursuing cloud computing are software engineering, data science, and computer science. Any other related discipline can be sufficient as long as it still covers the computer programming languages commonly used for cloud development. These languages include Java, PHP, NET, Python, Golang, and Ruby.

In addition to programming languages, you may find it helpful to gain exposure to artificial intelligence, machine learning, database development, and DevOps. These can help you boost your candidacy in the cloud computing space. 

If you have not completed a bachelor’s degree, you could alternatively pursue an associate degree to become a candidate for entry-level positions in cloud computing. An associate degree typically requires two years of schooling, compared to four years for a bachelor’s degree. However, you will need relevant certifications to increase your hiring likelihood.

Read more: What Is an Associate Degree? Requirements, Costs, and More

The top certificates for pursuing a career in cloud computing are:

• CompTIA Cloud+

• Google Professional Cloud DevOps Engineer

• Certified Cloud Security Professional (CCSP)

• Microsoft Certified: Azure Administrator

• AssociateAWS Certified Solutions Architect - Associate (CSAA)


Earning one or multiple certifications can increase your odds of attaining a high-paying starting position in cloud computing. Candidates unsure precisely what they want to specialize in could pursue vendor-neutral certifications, such as CompTIA Cloud+. The skills and knowledge learned from a general certificate like this can apply to many jobs with cloud providers. In general, you should compare and contrast the benefits of attaining each top certification and choose the ones that will help further your career.

You can earn a popular Professional Certificate in cloud computing, such as the Google Cloud certification on Coursera.

Careers in cloud computing

Becoming a cloud computing professional can lead to many different jobs within this space. Some common positions are listed below with their average annual salary:

  • Cloud Administrator: $73,633 [2]

  • Cloud Security Analyst:$84,955[3]

  • Cloud Network Engineer: $101,480 [4]

  • Cloud Automation Engineer: $102,669 [5]

  • Cloud Consultant: $89,682 [6]

Read more: Cloud Computing Salary: Your Guide

Next Steps

Whether you're just beginning to explore cloud computing or already have experience working with the cloud, you may want to explore the field more and expand your skills. Consider taking a specialized class in a programming language like Python to build the programming skills necessary to land a job in cloud computing. Or, you may earn a popular Professional Certificate in cloud computing, such as the Google Cloud certification on Coursera. If you are unsure about what route you should take in advancing your cloud computing knowledge, you can start with an in-depth introductory course like Introduction to Cloud Computing.

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