Microsoft, cloud companies pushing platforms on hosters

Despite nudging from the likes of Google and Microsoft, hosting providers aren't keen on adopting application platforms.

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Cloud computing bigwigs came to deliver a message that many HostingCon 2009 attendees weren't ready to hear.

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Google, Microsoft, Salesforce.com and Rackspace appeared in force at a keynote session on Tuesday, but audience reaction was more quizzical than receptive. By a show of hands, hosting companies made up the great majority of attendees, but pitches and predictions about the state of cloud computing focused on Platform as a Service as the way for hosters to stay ahead the curve.

But hosters at the conference drew a clear line between Infrastructure as a Service, which lets users run any software they want, and Platform as a Service, which restricts users to the provider's proprietary code and operating system.

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"That was the disconnect in the room," said Steven Rodin, CEO of hosted storage provider Storagepipe Solutions Inc. Rodin said that hosters are well aware of the rise of cloud computing in the marketplace, but most aren't interested in going whole hog into developing an application platform: They want to stay in infrastructure -- or at least retain the clarity of definitions -- whereas HostingCon speakers seemed to be trying to blur them.

"The Salesforce guy says his cloud is the same as the Rackspace cloud -- and they argue about it," said Sean Charnock, vice president of business development at Plano, Texas-based hosting company SoftLayer Technologies Inc. Charnock said that SoftLayer has been in the cloud provider business since 2006 -- "before cloud was cool." Charnock also said that blurring the lines between platforms and infrastructure created unwelcome ambiguity.

Speaker Zane Adams, Microsoft's director of virtualization, pushed hard for melding what he called Microsoft's "shrink wrap dynamic data center" products and Azure, the company's "operating system in the cloud", saying that hosting companies of all shapes and sizes would have to offer application development platforms, like Azure or Salesforce.com's Force.com to stay competitive. "The companies that succeed will know when to pull the plug" and move to platforms, Adams said. Those that do it too soon will die quickly, and those that wait, he said, "will become dinosaurs."

Hosting providers resist vendor-hosted applications platforms
Do traditional hosting customers want application platforms? "No, not at all," said Sal Poliandro, a senior Linux administrator at DedicatedNOW, a hoster exhibiting at the show. He said his customers want the support and redundancy he can give them by properly maintaining and managing the company's Clifton, N.J. datacenter. He's not oblivious to cloud computing, but said that his customers are interested in high availability, not convenience or cost.

I think every service provider is going to have to look seriously at providing application platforms.
Nathan Day, CTO, SoftLayer Technologies Inc.,
"All we have to do is build a bad-ass cluster," said Poliandro, and DedicatedNOW can offer a conditional 100% uptime guarantee for the company's managed hosting offerings, along with the security afforded by top-of-the-line hardware. He said that's all his customers want. While his company plans to add a Web interface for customers later on, it will not move away from its core business of dedicated hosting. Others believe that the shift to providing an application platform was inevitable.

"I think every service provider is going to have to look seriously at providing application platforms" like Azure, said SoftLayer's CTO, Nathan Day. He said the opportunities would simply be too hard to ignore, and he saw the big cloud competitors, such as Google App Engine and Azure, as moving to offer compatibility and sales through hosters.

"Why wouldn't customers just buy directly from platform providers?" Day echoed Google's Stephen Cho's words at the keynote. The director of channels for Google Apps, Cho said that platform providers can't provide local, small customers "with the care and feeding they need."

Day said, speaking separately, "They don't have the touch to customers. They need the channel."

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