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Is PaaS Dying?

The ‘platform’ tier in the middle of cloud computing’s architecture is being squeezed

The ‘platform’ tier in the middle of cloud computing’s architecture is being squeezed, folded and reshaped beyond recognition. Even with continued investment, can it survive the transformative pressures forcing down upon it from the software/application layer above, or the apparently inexorable upward movement from the infrastructure layer upon which it rests?

To look at recent investments and enthusiastic headlines, it would be easy to assume that Platform as a Service (or PaaS) is on the up. RedHat recently trumpeted the launch of OpenShift Enterprise — a ‘private PaaS,’ whatever that might be. Eagerly tracked super-startup Pivotal pushed PivotalOne out to the world, strengthening the position of the Cloud Foundry PaaS offering upon which it sits. Apprenda, a PaaS that almost predates wider recognition of the term, secured an additional $16 million to continue expanding. And, more tightly integrated into Salesforce’s latest vision for world domination, Heroku continues to attract enthusiasts.

457px-Nuremberg_chronicles_-_Phoenix_(CIIIIv)And yet, the role of rich PaaS ‘solutions’ is under increasing pressure. More lightweight approaches such as Docker are attracting attention and, perhaps more importantly, the other layers of the cloud architecture are adding capabilities that look increasingly PaaS-like. The orchestration capabilities of Amazon’s Elastic Beanstalk, for example, mean that many (but by no means all) AWS users no longer need the PaaS tools they might previously have integrated into their toolkit. We’ll keep needing PaaS functionality, but it may not be long before the idea of a separate PaaS solution no longer makes good sense.

For many years, some of the most basic explanations of cloud have broken it into three layers;

  • at the top, Applications, Services and Software. The things most people see and interact with. The GMails and Salesforces and Boxes of the world;
  • at the bottom, Infrastructure. The nuts and bolts. The engine room. The servers and routers and networks. To paraphrase former colleague Ray Lester, the stuff;
  • and, in the middle, the Platform. The piece that assembles bits of network and bits of infrastructure and bits of code, and simplifies the process of knitting them all together in order to deliver one of those apps or services. The glue, if you will.

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. It should be all that and more, but PaaS as a category falls far short of this promise.

In early planning for VentureBeat’s second CloudBeat conference, in 2012, Ben Kepes and I argued for PaaS, PaaS vendors and PaaS customers to be given real prominence. We knew that the story of the glue was where this whole industry needed to shift. That’s still true today. The glue remains important, but maybe it’s less clear that we need — or that the market can sustain — glue companies. Instead, those capabilities are increasingly to be found across a range of loosely coupled components, or in the offerings of Applications and Infrastructure providers both above and below the PaaS layer. CenturyLink’s recent acquisition of Tier3 is a clear attempt to address exactly this, moving up from the Infrastructure layer.

I’m far from alone in asking questions about PaaS in its current form. My friend René Büst, for example, argued this week that PaaS is typically used for prototyping work but that it doesn’t permit sufficiently granular control for the most efficient delivery of enterprise-grade applications. Possibly an over-simplification, but it’s still a sentiment that is increasingly repeated. Over at Gigaom, Barb Darrow has been asking the question too, most recently with So… do you really need a PaaS? For now, Barb appears unsure about how to answer her own question… but the comments on her post are pretty conclusively in the affirmative. Matt Asay offers his own take on the Twitter conversation which inspired Barb, writing a more up-beat piece for ReadWrite;

The ‘platform as a service’ market—or PaaS, in which cloud companies provide developers with hardware, OS and software tools and libraries—is starting to heat up. IDC predicts it will $14 billion by 2014, and competitors are angling for enterprise wallets.

Matt closes by stressing the importance of solid, sustainable customer adoption; a very different thing from the froth, page views, and jockeying for popularity that seem to underpin much of the conversation today.

Another friend, Ben Kepes, has been tracking the PaaS space closely for several years, and recently commented;

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 Salesforce.com) 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.

From here in sunny (and, for once, it actually is) East Yorkshire, the various PaaS vendors appear hard-pressed to tell a truly compelling story right now. Bits of their product offering resonate with customers, but only really around those functions that are increasingly aped by other providers from beyond the PaaS world.

The broader story, of deep integration and easy orchestration, raises as many red flags as it does smiles of welcome. Is it about simplicity or loss of controlintegration or lock in? At a time when public, private and hybrid cloud implementations are becoming more mainstream, more mission-critical, and more capable, I hear far more concern expressed about relying upon PaaS than I do about relying upon a cloud infrastructure provider or a SaaS product vendor. Which isn’t to say that those cloud builders don’t need PaaS-like capabilities. They do. They’re just (increasingly) looking elsewhere to find them.

And proponents of PaaS are evolving, too, perhaps faster than the companies with which they were once associated. One of my meetings during a trip to San Francisco earlier this month was with Derek Collison. Formerly CTO Cloud Platforms at VMware (and intimately involved in the incubation of Cloud Foundry), Collison is now CEO of Apcera. Barb Darrow commented as Apcera emerged from stealth last month,

The company describes Continuum as an IT platform that ‘blends the delivery models of IaaS, PaaS, and SaaS’ but overlays (underlays?) them all with technology that handles policy. PaaS is great for developers, according to the blog post, but it’s not enough to deliver applications for grown-up companies that must deal not just with technology but with with compliance and regulatory rules and regs.

(my emphasis)

Collison talks compellingly about the need to move beyond separate consideration of infrastructure, integration and deployment capabilities, and the application. Instead, he sees a continuum of capabilities with different levels of abstraction suited to meeting the real (and complex) requirements of an enterprise and its hybrid IT estate. Policy, Collison argues, “must be a core part of the DNA” in order to truly meet the business needs of an organisation. It’s early days for Apcera, and it remains to be seen whether this is a truly new take on the space or simply a more enterprise-friendly reframing of the problem.

So, is there a future for today’s PaaS companies? It sometimes seems unlikely that they can keep doing what they’re doing and make enough money to grow sustainably. Will they be rendered irrelevant by the increasing capability of offerings above and below them in the stack? Will new and more integrated offerings such as Apcera’s eat their lunch? Or can they rise, Phoenix-like, from the ashes of current business models to meet a broader set of business requirements? If they do, how recognisable will their new incarnations be?

Image of a Phoenix from the 15th Century Nuremberg Chronicle. Public Domain image shared with Wikimedia Commons.

More Stories By Paul Miller

Paul Miller works at the interface between the worlds of Cloud Computing and the Semantic Web, providing the insights that enable you to exploit the next wave as we approach the World Wide Database. He blogs at www.cloudofdata.com.

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