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There is an overwhelming view among the pundits that PaaS is the future of cloud services and IaaS will slowly go into the background. In fact, in my opinion, PaaS is the idea of cloud computing that comes closer to the utility comparison made by Nick Carr in his book “The Big Switch”. In this series I am going to dig deeper into the future of PaaS and how various companies are positioning themselves to meet this future. In this first post of the series, I am going to dig deeper into the general idea and then take a look at how different players from the entire cloud stack, IaaS to SaaS, are playing the game. In the next post, I will talk about one of the interesting companies in the mix, Heroku, and briefly touch upon a recent news that came out recently.

Why PaaS and Why Not IaaS?

The poster boy (girl) of cloud computing is Amazon Web Services and they are basically an IaaS player offering compute and storage services. Their huge success is one of the reasons why cloud computing is gaining so much traction with everyone from individual developers to small businesses to enterprises. They completely altered the way we do computing by cutting down the costs drastically empowering the startups and small business to have IT similar to that of enterprises. Their success has lead many more providers to jump into the infrastructure game making IaaS the pretty girl (handsome boy) in the cloud computing block.

IaaS completely changed the way developers deployed their applications. Instead of spending big with their own datacenters or managed hosting companies or colocation services and then hiring operations staff to get it going, they can just go to Amazon Web Services or one of the other IaaS providers, get a virtual server running in minutes and pay only for the resources they use. With cloud brokers like Rightscale, enStratus, etc., they could easily grow big without worrying about things like scaling and additional security. In short, IaaS and other associated services has enabled startups and other businesses focus on their core competencies without worrying much about provisioning and management of infrastructure. IaaS completely abstracted the hardware beneath it and allowed users to consume infrastructure as a service without bothering anything about the underlying complexities.

Even though IaaS made it easy for developers to go to the market fast with their applications and other services, it still required them to have some operational expertise. In the case of startups and other small companies, the use of IaaS still required the developers to know a bit about managing the virtual servers, OSes, middleware stack, etc.. If the developers didn’t have much expertise, they had to hire sysadmins who could take care of managing the infrastructure. On the enterprise level, it needed significant investments in operations workforce. In short, it was not the cloud which Nick Carr made us all to imagine.

This is where PaaS came in handy. PaaS is one layer above IaaS on the stack and abstracts away everything up to OS, middleware, etc.. This offers an integrated set of developer environment that a developer can tap to build their applications without having any clue about what is going on underneath the service. It offers developers a service that provides a complete software development lifecycle management, from planning to design to building apps to deployment to testing to maintenance. Everything else is abstracted away from the “view” of the developers. In short, PaaS takes operations out of the picture and gives the developers a complete peace of mind. With IaaS, a developer with no help on operations from people with sysadmin skills is very likely to botch up the application either at its inception or while scaling. PaaS makes developers succeed even if they are completely “operations blind”. This makes PaaS ver attractive for the future of cloud computing.

The advantages of PaaS are

  • Complete abstraction all the way up to development environments and other middleware components, taking the operations out of the picture
  • Considerable cost savings and faster time to market
  • Better security. As Chris Hoff pointed out,  one could enforce sanitary programmatic practices across the derivate works built upon PaaS

Does it mean end of road for IaaS?

Not really. PaaS will not kill off IaaS. Rather, it pushes IaaS completely into the background. Even in a PaaS dominated world, IaaS is still important because

  • PaaS will not be dominated entirely by big players like Google or Microsoft. There will be many smaller level players, some of whom offer some niche platforms. For example, PaaS companies like Heroku and Engine Yard can’t afford their own datacenters. Such players will run on top of IaaS
  • There are other component services that extend core PaaS platforms. These players will run on top of IaaS while integrating with PaaS players
  • There may be many developers who want custom platform stack for their needs. Such developers will always need IaaS

There are many other reasons why IaaS will exist in the background ceding limelight to PaaS.

The Future Of IaaS Vendors Are Gloomy. Huh?

Not exactly. Many IaaS vendors are understanding the PaaS based world in the future. That is why they are already planning to move up the stack. Whether it is public cloud providers like Amazon or players who are strong in the private cloud space like VMware, they are already moving up the stack. We will continue to see this trend where these originally IaaS players differentiate themselves in the PaaS layer. It is not just the IaaS vendors who are moving up the stack but we are also seeing SaaS vendors moving down the stack. For example, we have seen how Salesforce is trying to make their Force.com platform attractive for the developers. SaaS vendors are also seeing a PaaS future and are repositioning themselves to take advantage of such a future.

In the future posts in this series, I will take individual providers and dig deep into their offerings, strategies, etc.. The next post in this series will feature Heroku and I will follow it up with other players in the coming weeks.

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Krishnan Subramanian

Krish dons several avatars including entrepreneur in exile, analyst cum researcher, technology evangelist, blogger, ex-physicist, social/political commentator, etc.. My main focus is research and analysis on various high impact topics in the fields of Open Source, Cloud Computing and the interface between them. I also evangelize Open Source and Cloud Computing in various media outlets, blogs and other public forums. I offer strategic advise to both Cloud Computing and Open Source providers and, also, help other companies take advantage of Open Source and Cloud Computing. In my opinion, Open Source commoditized software and Cloud Computing commoditized computing resources. A combination of these two developments offers a strong competitive advantage to companies of all sizes and shapes. Due to various factors, including fear, the adoption of both Open Source and Cloud Computing are relatively slow in the business sector. So, I take it upon myself to clear any confusion in this regard and educate, enrich and advise users/customers to take advantage of the benefits offered by these technologies. I am also a managing partner in two consulting companies based in India. I blog about Open Source topics at http://open.krishworld.com and Cloud Computing related topics at http://www.cloudave.com.

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