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What Is Going on with PaaS?

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Despite huge investments and years in development, PaaS has not managed to attract many customers so far. This article digests what several analysts are saying regarding the current status of PaaS and its future.

For many years, PaaS has been seen as the needed “glue” between the application/service/software layer and the cloud infrastructure layer, as Paul Miller remarked in his article, Is PaaS dying?:

The role of the platform is clear, compelling, and powerful. It should be the fundamental piece, far more important and interesting than a bunch of cheap virtual machines running on commodity hardware. It should be the driving force behind cloud; the reason cloud can continue to transform businesses and business models around the world.

But “PaaS as a category falls far short of this promise,” added Miller. And some have been wondering lately if we really need PaaS, if PaaS is a dying breed or if it is being absorbed by IaaS? Indeed, discussing the recent Application PaaS (aPaaS) Magic Quadrant from Gartner, Nancy Gohring noticed that the number of customers is surprising. While Google has some 30,000 customers, most of them are small websites, with several big names such as Snapchat and Khan Academy. Without providing actual numbers, Gohring believes that Salesforce has “potentially many more customers than Google’s App Engine” because “Google is ranked behind Salesforce,” but that’s where good news stops:

Where the Gartner report gets more interesting is among the vendors with fewer customers. That’s because some of them are very big names. For instance, Gartner wrote that IBM’s SCAS offering is estimated to have fewer than 50 customers worldwide. SAP, Gartner said, has fewer than 100 customers. Red Hat, which is front and center talking about its OpenShift offering, has “few paying customers,” according to Gartner.

Things get a bit brighter for new entrants: “CloudControl, a German company serving the European market, says it has 400 paying customers. And Docker has 500 paying customers.”

After seven years (the PaaS term appeared on the web first in March 2007, according to Google trends), PaaS is not mature as IaaS (see Amazon AWS) nor SaaS (see Salesforce). The 451 Research group is wondering if PaaS is being absorbed into IaaS, according to a recent article titled Is PaaS becoming just a feature of IaaS? (subscription required). Indeed, after starting as PaaS providers, both Google and Microsoft have extended their offerings with some IaaS specialties, CPU and storage.

What’s happening with PaaS? Why? And is it PaaS going to survive? Krishnan Subramanian considers that PaaS has just passed the hype maximum and has “reached a new level of maturity,” and in spite of its shortcomings, an important development took place in the PaaS space in 2013: the separation of 2 flavors:

  • PaaS by service orchestration – “This flavor of PaaS, offered by early providers like Google App Engine, built the platform by composing different services needed for application deployment.”
  • PaaS by container orchestration – “Docker is a perfect example of fast, lightweight Linux containers that make it easy for users to port their applications across different cloud providers. Unlike virtual machines that abstract only raw compute, containers can encapsulate entire applications and application environments.”

Mike Kavis outlined three reasons why he believes companies are slow to adopt PaaS:

  1. Confusing marketing message – “There are public PaaS providers like Heroku, Google, and Microsoft; there are private and hybrid PaaS solutions like Apprenda, OpenShift, Pivotal, WSO2, and many others; and then there are domain-specific PaaS solutions that focus on very distinct areas like mobile, big data, social, etc.” … IaaS providers are offering many PaaS-like services, such as AWS’s Elastic Beanstack and others. To make things more confusing, both Google and Microsoft now have IaaS offerings along with their PaaS offerings. Not a day goes by when I don’t see people trying to compare Microsoft Azure, a PaaS, to AWS, an IaaS solution. To make matters worse, even “experts” can’t get it right.”
  2. Lack of maturity – “The challenge for PaaS is that both SaaS and IaaS are already enterprise-worthy in the eyes of many customers, and they much more trusted within the enterprise (or at least AWS is). PaaS is where AWS was back in 2008, when most consumption was coming from startups and SMBs. There are some impressive enterprise success stories, but not in large numbers.”
  3. Limitations – “There is a perception that you simply jump on these PaaS solutions and start cranking out code. That may be true, but if you want code that works, you must have a deep understanding of PaaS limitations and architect around them. For example, Heroku has dynos, which you can think of as virtual containers holding all of your infrastructure and your stack. Heroku randomly recycles dynos when it feels that it is appropriate to do so, and it gives you a whole ten seconds to deal with the error code. … Well, all of a sudden, your code starts to get very specific to the target PaaS platform, creating a form of lock-in that you probably were not expecting. … The amount of work required to work around the limitations of most PaaS architectures and the costs of consuming so many abstracted resources often makes it difficult, too expensive, and sometimes even impossible. At most times, extremely high-volume applications are better served on an IaaS solution for which resources are not throttled like they are on a PaaS.”

Writing for Forbes, Ben Kepes remarked that there are too many players, the PaaS market not being consolidated yet:

It’s a strange time for PaaS in general. Pivotal One’s flavor of Cloud Foundry seems to be sucking up the vast majority of the mindshare leaving other Cloud Foundry vendors scratching their heads over how to differentiate. At the same time RedHat is trying to achieve some kind of breakout velocity for its own version of PaaS, OpenShift. Stalwarts Heroku (now owned by and EngineYard keep turning the PaaS wheel also. Add to that the fact that some of the OpenStack players have decided to create their own PaaS initiative, Solum, and you have for a confused and confusing market. Throw the monsters from Seattle, AWS and Microsoft, on top of that and seemingly there is one vendor for every one of the half dozen companies in the world that have actually made a decision to buy PaaS.

When it comes to its future, opinions are varied.

Brandon Butler (Is the PaaS market as we know it dying?):

“A lot of people want to say PaaS is DOA – dead on arrival,” says Tim Crawford, a CIO strategic adviser at his independent firm AVOA. PaaS, as a standalone hosted platform, he agrees has a “challenging” road to enterprise adoption given moves by much bigger IaaS and SaaS vendors.

Kepes: “Now’s the time for PaaS to really prove itself in the marketplace as more than a really fantastic concept.”

Kavis: “PaaS is not dead: in fact, it is just in its infancy, waiting to take the market by storm. The problem is that in its current form it is not quite what many enterprises are willing to put their chips on yet.”

Subramanian: “a premature obituary for PaaS will end up hurting an industry that could otherwise derive great value from ongoing development.”

It remains to see if 2014 will be the year when, after leaving hype behind, PaaS will mature and consolidate enough to represent a solid proposition for enterprises, which in turn will embrace and propel it to success.

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