The platform-as-a-service cloud: Developers are in charge

Current PaaS offerings focus mainly on individual developers, but analysts expect enterprise-class offerings to emerge

Platform-as-a-service (PaaS) cloud computing, in which full-fledged application development and deployment capabilities are provided rather than just raw iron and compute cycles such as in Amazon Web Services, is set to gather steam as a deployment option for programmers. But the market is still in start mode, and developers are calling the shots.

Currently, PaaS is a $2.8 billion market, but "it will become over the next 10 years a $10 billion market," says Forrester Research analyst Stefan Ried, who recently published a report on PaaS. Microsoft's Windows Azure and's are currently the leading platforms for coders in the fledgling PaaS marketplace, according to Forrester. But the list of contenders is long, ranging from Google App Engine to services from companies such as Caspio, EngineYard, LongJump, OrangeScape, Tibco, and WaveMakers, Ried says. In defining PaaS, Forrester says it features a complete application platform for multitenant cloud environments, including development tools, runtime and administration, and management tools and services.

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User hails PaaS, but cloud exec not seeing much adoption WebFilings, a three-year-old company that offers Web-based assistance in filling U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission reports, has anchored its business to Google App Engine. "We looked at Google and its strong reputation for security and said, 'Well, instead of us having to manage and maintain all of that platform, we'll count on Google to do that,' and that just removes a layer of complexity and enables us to focus on innovation for our market," says Dan Murray, WebFilings managing director.

But Treb Ryan, CEO at cloud computing services vendor OpSource, has seen underwhelming adoption of PaaS so far: "It's been slow -- much to our surprise, actually." Although OpSource expected development to be the primary driver for PaaS, infrastructure as a service (IaaS) has seen "magnitudes more" adoption, he says. Issues holding back PaaS have included proprietary offerings at the outset and having to rewrite applications. IaaS "is much easier to adopt," Ryan notes, though he expects PaaS platforms to improve and ultimately succeed.

Forrester's report emphasizes that PaaS remains "an immature market with lots of potential risks for buyers," says analyst Ried. But he also believes IaaS ultimately offers less value: "You just get the virtualized hardware." Developers using IaaS offerings such as Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) must deal with virtual machines, storage blocks, execution threads, and network connections.

WebFilings does maintain 10 percent of its operation on the Amazon EC2 IaaS platform for some CPU-intensive processing, but if WebFilings had been launched formed today, Murray says Amazon EC2 probably would not be needed at all, thanks to App Engine's subsequent improvements.

Developers to drive the growth of PaaS -- individuals first, enterprises later PaaS growth will be driven in part by the frustration of application developers who do not want to invest much effort into putting together middleware components, Ried says. "Cloud computing is exciting for application development and delivery pros because it offers instant access to resources for development and testing; deployment in minutes; easy, even automatic scaling up and down; and pay-for-what-you-use pricing," he wrote in his report.

Today, the vast majority of PaaS users are individual developers turning to the cloud to build relatively simple applications, says Massimo Pezzini, a Gartner analyst. But enterprise adoption is growing at least for development and testing purposes, if not necessarily for deployment. The reason: Barriers still exist such as security, data confidentiality, and concerns over quality of service. "With a product like App Engine, you don't really have any QoS [quality of service] assurance," Pezzini says.

Programming languages abound Developers seeking a PaaS offering can probably find one that accommodates the programming language of their choice.

Google App Engine primarily supports Java and Python, and support for the experimental Go language is planned. Azure supports the .Net languages, PHP, Java, and Python. uses HTML, JavaScript, and Adobe Flash as part of the company's Visualforce UI framework, and it uses's own Apex code for database-stored procedures and triggers. Engine Yard's cloud is geared to Ruby on Rails.

The variety exists because no dominant PaaS language has yet emerged, Pezzini says: "At the moment, a Darwinian survival of the fittest [battle] is going on as far as programming languages for PaaS." Languages such as Java will likely be among the survivors, he says, as well as dynamic languages like Ruby: "However, brand-new languages, specifically designed to take advantage of multicore capabilities and cloud parallelism, like Scala, and model-driven environments, like BPMN, will also play an important role."

Integration PaaS is emerging Another variant of PaaS, integration PaaS (iPaaS) -- or more simply integration as a service -- is becoming important for connecting cloud applications with one another or to on-premise applications, Pezzini says. (He uses the term "application PaaS," or aPaaS, to refer to "traditional" PaaS.) He estimates there are between 2,500 and 3,000 organizations using integration PaaS.

Clouds such as Azure and the newly introduced MuleSoft Mule Ion offer integration PaaS. "The new problem that's emerging is we're creating cloud silos," says Ross Mason, MuleSoft's CTO, which the integration services are meant to connect.

Enterprise adoption of PaaS is inevitableThere are always instances where companies want control, and in that case they will opt for IaaS rather than PaaS, says WebFilings' Murray. But for building and deploying applications quickly, PaaS is the choice, he adds: "I definitely think more companies will start using PaaS [over time]."

Although PaaS has had some understandable growing pains -– with even Google and Microsoft still offering incomplete products, Forrester says -- its attractiveness to developers and Web businesses should make Forrester's growth prediction for PaaS right on the money. Why? PaaS plainly makes it easier to deploy applications in the cloud. "With good PaaS products, application development and delivery pros will quickly gain the cloud's benefits," says Forrester's report.

The current gotcha centers on "good PaaS products." As the Forrester report warns, "without good PaaS products, cloud development is simply too difficult for most enterprise developers and the benefits of cloud will flow slowly, if at all, to a broad range of shops." But Forrester expects there to be good PaaS products at some point, and thus a successful PaaS migration.

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