Blackboard Learn LMS Moving to All-SaaS Model by End of 2023

In our coverage of BbWorld last year, I described the difficult situation the company was in regarding a long-planned move to fully migrate to the cloud [emphasis added].

Two examples help to clarify the disconnect between company / product improvements and market results.

The first example came during the executive listening session at the end of the conference, where it was obvious that Blackboard as a company really wants its customers to move to Learn SaaS and Learn Ultra of their own accord. There is no better way to further simplify the company than to move to one code base and one deployment option, in other words to start reaping more of the promised benefits of cloud computing. But they just can’t say that customers need to move. The closest the executives got at the conference was to say that they’ll know a lot more by next year on how long non-SaaS and non-Ultra will be available, but that customers will have plenty of time to migrate. They did not say that non-SaaS and non-Ultra will be available indefinitely, and this quite honestly makes sense.

The first audience question, however, led to a very long discussion about long-term self-hosted customers who just don’t have the resources to migrate. They might buy the idea of SaaS and Ultra, but that doesn’t mean they are ready to move. One challenge Blackboard faces is that with their market losses over the years, this conservative type is a greater and greater percentage of their remaining customer base. By the way, kudos to the Blackboard executive team for taking the time to discuss this problem so openly at the conference.

In October I further shared data showing the progress of this migration of the Learn LMS to software-as-a-service (SaaS) hosting using AWS, noting that “the movement to Learn SaaS and then to the Ultra user experience remains the core of Blackboard’s corporate strategy.”

As expected, Blackboard is finally setting dates for when self-hosted (using client data centers) and managed-hosted (using Blackboard data centers) models are likely to end, or be unsupported. According to a post at the Blackboard Community site:

At BbWorld19, our leadership team shared our plans for becoming a fully-SaaS company. We committed to provide you with an update on our plans for Blackboard Learn within a year and also to give you enough runway to manage change on your path to SaaS. Today I’d like to share an update on the progress we have made in partnership with you over the past year and guidance on our path forward.

The notice then describes the current status of the SaaS migration (noting that they show roughly 50% already on SaaS).

A year ago, roughly one-third of our Learn clients were on our SaaS deployment. Since that time, we have seen incredible momentum in the move to SaaS. Today, the majority of our Learn clients have migrated to our SaaS deployment, and nearly 70-percent are either on SaaS or already on a path to SaaS. We are committed to working collaboratively to get you on a path to SaaS, yet still we recognize that some clients have unique policy requirements.

The key plans were then listed.

• Managed-hosted Learn deployments will receive Full Support through the end of 2022.

• Self-hosted Learn deployments will receive Full Support through the end of 2023.

The “end of 2022” and “end of 2023” statements are not technically end-of-life notices, but rather expectations on when full support will end. Or minimum timeframes for support. But at least now we have some clarity.

Blackboard current has 844 clients on Learn SaaS, which represents a slight acceleration from the linear progress made prior to last year’s BbWorld conference. According to Blackboard, they have “hundreds of clients who are engaged in our Path to SaaS planning process and have identified a migration timeframe.” Using our data on worldwide Learn deployments (which are not counted the exact same way as Blackboard internally counts clients), this leads to roughly 45 – 50% of Learn clients are now on SaaS.

Chart showing percentage of Blackboard Learn LMS clients on Learn SaaS over time, with projects through end of 2023.

As seen from the image above, if you assume the same rough progress in converting Learn clients to SaaS, it is reasonable to expect them to hit roughly 100% by the end of 2023. The company will likely lose some customers due to the migration, but at least from a high level these dates seem reasonable.

I think that Blackboard would have done much better had they been more aggressive in ending support for self-hosting and managed-hosting models. The company has had, and will likely continue to have for another 30 months, an albatross around their neck with the need to support different code bases and deployment models. In fact, Blackboard’s worst outage in years, with a large K-12 client in April, was largely attributed to software that had not been updated in two years. In that post I described the “risk of having your cake and eating it, too”.

This multi-year migration stands in contrast with LMS competitor Canvas – which was built in the cloud – and D2L Brightspace. D2L took a different path and has entirely migrated their client base from self-hosting and managed-hosting to pure AWS-based SaaS hosting over the past 3-4 years. D2L lost some clients along the way based on this approach, but they are now a true cloud-based LMS company.

Blackboard has not been willing to make the difficult decision to force clients off of older hosting models, meaning that the company has increased the number of deployment options they have to support. They will not truly benefit from the move to Learn SaaS until they can retire older models and focus on one code base and one deployment option.

I suspect that the outage played some role in getting Blackboard to take a stronger stand on migrations. We now have initial dates for the end of older self- and managed-hosting models, and this is a significant milestone for Blackboard. I suspect this will be a major topic of conversation at BbWorld over the next week. Stay tuned.

Disclosure: Blackboard, D2L, Instructure, and Moodle are subscribers to our LMS market analysis service.