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PaaS, Present, and Future

Platform as a Service is more than just the buzzword of the day – it’s the development & deployment approach of our dreams

Recently large numbers of consumers in the US were understandably upset and angry when online purchases that they made in the days just prior to Christmas were not delivered in time. Yet it was not so long ago that online (and traditional mail order) purchases almost always took a very long time, often weeks, to arrive. Order-to-delivery times of a few days, now considered normal, were unheard of and overnight was almost impossible to achieve.

This is just one more example of the many ways in which instant gratification has become the norm rather than the exception. People expect answers and results immediately, whether they are online or operating in the physical world. In information technology, Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) is another evolution toward faster, "instant" gratification. PaaS offers a new way to support and deliver applications, leveraging cloud technology. It is still enabling the same activities involved with development and deployment that we have always practiced in IT, but with the cost, agility and scalability benefits of the cloud.

However, PaaS is faster - getting ideas to market quicker and opening new, cloud-based delivery options for existing applications. Because of the power it provides, it is clearly the "next big thing" for the developer community.

Understanding PaaS
Service is the key word in the PaaS acronym. Empowered by cloud computing service options, a PaaS computing platform can deliver a solution stack of services. PaaS service providers, in turn, offer up tools and libraries that support development, testing and instant deployment. It sounds simple and it is. To use an automotive analogy, it's like the development of electric starters... early Model Ts and other silent-film-era vehicles needed to be started by hand - like giant lawnmowers. At best it was unpleasant. At its worst, it could be dangerous.

But good engineering and new technology made electric starting systems affordable for everyone. No one missed the old way of doing things - people could concentrate on the task of driving and getting some place rather than the tricky art of simply starting the car.

PaaS is similar. It takes the familiar design-develop-deploy process and eliminates a lot of the cost and unpleasantness so you can concentrate on innovating, getting to market, and making money.

While there are many flavors of PaaS vendors, the common thread of offering application hosting services and deployment options is pretty much universal.

To make those concepts more understandable, I like to put PaaS into a visual structure that contrasts traditional on-premise practices with Infrastructure-a-a-Service (IaaS) and Software-as-a-Service (SaaS). In my simplified schematic (see illustration), the orange color denotes the functions that you need to worry about yourself. In the on-premises world, storage, server, networking, virtualization, the operating system, middleware, data, and applications all "belong" to you. It's a craft industry model where almost everything is procured, operated, managed, and customized by you and your organization. There are broad similarities from organization to organization, but there is always a lot of "reinventing the wheel."

For example, if performance is suffering due to storage limits (or even backups that are getting out of hand), you need to think about acquiring more hardware, refining tiering schemas, data management policies, retention goals, and more. Or if you need to bring remote users into the mix, it's up to you to provide the infrastructure.

For some organizations, that's fine. Maybe you are big enough that you can afford to be expert in every aspect and every layer of the stack. But for most organizations, simplifying the picture and focusing more on areas where they can better add value makes sense. Thus, IaaS - typified by services like Rackspace and AWS - has become a hugely popular option for deploying new or supplemental capacity and capability, and even providing a total replacement for on-premise investments.

The cloud-based IaaS providers offer physical or virtual machines and storage and the ability to scale services up and down according to customers' varying requirements (a so-called utility model).

PaaS Is the Next Step
PaaS takes the proven approach of IaaS and adds value - the expertise and the specific technology of the operating system and middleware layers - so that you can focus on your data and your key applications. While IaaS provides the elements of cloud computing to those with the capabilities to build their own platforms, PaaS goes a step further, delivering complex and highly labor-intensive middleware technology patterns.

PaaS is flexible and powerful - allowing self-service and self-provisioning of resources to support cloud architectures.

With PaaS, you bring your application, and the PaaS provider takes care of everything else, including:

  • Internet connectivity
  • Power
  • hardware
  • Operating systems
  • Databases
  • Web servers
  • Application servers
  • Monitoring
  • Backup
  • Restore
  • Failover
  • Scaling

Choices and the Market
Although PaaS is new, it's rapidly gaining momentum, with growth projected at 48 percent annually by Technavio, the research firm, and topping $6 billion in value by 2016.

As with any new technology or approach to doing business PaaS will appeal to different groups for different reasons. For example, PaaS can help ISVs extend the availability of a traditional software product or enable organizations to add new capabilities to their existing IT spectrum. It's also helpful to anyone wishing to achieve productivity gains, speed time to results, or reduce their capex costs.

Productivity PaaS offerings are often a model-driven approach to development and deployment that invoke high level programming languages, or even template-based software to help users, including those with little or no coding background, to create functioning business applications. Deployment is greatly simplified through PaaS because developers don't have to think about architecting, managing, or scaling the virtual machines that support the application.

PaaS offers a rapid route to SaaS if you want to be able to offer your application as a service and reach customers wherever they are. Likewise, if you are developing a new application, you want to eliminate boundaries. By choosing the right PaaS provider you can avoid concerns about development language or database technology. The PaaS provider can abstract those things in a way that allows you to focus on delivering functionality and value.

In the past, building an application required a commitment to a language or a database technology. With PaaS you don't need to be concerned about those issues. You only need to worry about your business domain expertise and usability.

Likewise, if you are aiming to modernize or use code you already have, PaaS will help expedite the trip to the cloud. It obviates the need to think about middleware and infrastructure and makes use of wizards and templates to update your application and even deliver new features quickly.

There are both public and private deployment options for PaaS. Many organizations love the idea of PaaS but, for a variety of reason, still balk at putting their mission-critical capabilities into a shared, public, environment. If that is the case for you, choose a PaaS that can be deployed in your own cloud environment where you can maintain some control, such as security and where data gets stored. This affords you the simplicity of PaaS and ensures future portability while providing the sense of security and ownership that many organizations still prefer.

Understanding some more about PaaS is the first step to selecting a provider. In addition, you should consider factors such:

  • Programming languages,
  • Database servers
  • Availability
  • Support
  • Ease of deployment and options
  • Portability
  • Security
  • Pricing

PaaS Now
PaaS technologies are so compelling because they have the potential to accelerate software development while recasting the way IT supports application development.

As you adopt PaaS, be sure to maintain a balance between the desire for speed and the necessity of planning and control. Tooling can help, but people are crucial too. As with any technological shift, PaaS adoption requires changes in how people work and demands collaboration if it is to be as successful as possible.

Last, but not least, PaaS should be viewed and acted upon as a substantial strategic opportunity - a chance to align agendas across IT and across the business. Development, operations, security, and infrastructure choices are all part of the mix with PaaS, providing a "once in a generation" opportunity to clarify, improve, and strengthen everything you do.

More Stories By Karen Tegan Padir

Karen Tegan Padir joined Progress Software in 2012 as senior vice president and business line executive for application development and subsequently moved into the CTO role. Among her previous experiences, she was a member of the Java Platform, Enterprise Edition team at Sun, helping to create one of most important “next big things” for developers.

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