Looking ahead: The future of cloud apps in 2014 and beyond
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Platform as a Service has generated buzz this year and adoption may grow in 2014, but long term, the category will become increasingly difficult to define as the lines between cloud service types blur.
Recent surveys of the cloud market showed increased interest in Platform as a Service (PaaS) adoption as IT pros look to the New Year.
Of 97 survey respondents to a July 2013 study by TheInfoPro, 18% predicted their spending on PaaS would be higher in 2014 than it had been in 2013. Only 2% predicted a pullback on PaaS, while 9% said spending would stay the same.
Of 119 respondents to Tech Target's Fall 2013 Cloud Pulse Survey, 31% noted that 1% to 25% of their infrastructure is on PaaS. Among a smaller group of 56 respondents, 50% predicted that 1% to 25% of their IT infrastructure will run on PaaS in the next six months.
A consistent set of vendors was favored by respondents to both surveys, though their order of preference differs between reports. Generally, IT pros prefer Microsoft's Azure, Salesforce.com's Force.com and Amazon Web Services.
PaaS adoption stems from developer productivity
At a high level, IT pros search for a way to offer developers a highly automated environment in which elements like patches, service packs and upgrades to servers are abstracted away, and libraries of application services are available for easy plug in to a newly developed application.
There will be very few players that last in the Platform as a Service space.
Michael Skok, general partner, North Bridge Venture Partners
"There can be substantial overhead to managing multiple servers and administering a database, and that cuts into developers' time to write software," said Dan Sullivan, principal of DS Applied Technologies LLC, a cloud computing consulting firm based in Portland, Ore. "Given the choice between coding and administering servers or databases, most of the developers I know would rather be coding."
Mobile development will be another big PaaS driver, Sullivan said. Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Rackspace, to name a few, are all pushing suites of services specific to mobile apps with features such as push notifications and geocoding.
"These are the kinds of functions that are commonly needed in mobile apps but don't really help developers distinguish their products," Sullivan said. "That makes mobile-specific PaaS a tempting option."
Developers' time is a common measure of the value of PaaS adoption, but cloud consultants said the financial savings can also be substantial.
“We had a client that did a proof-of-concept on a particular application last year on Force.com,” said John Treadway, senior vice president at Cloud Technology Partners Inc., a Boston-based cloud consulting firm. The customer compared developing a new Java app using a stack of hardware and software on-premises to Force.com. “Instead of six months and several hundred thousand dollars, it was up and running in two weeks and proven out in four weeks, and it cost them $80,000.”
Differing models of PaaS delivery muddle the picture
In any discussion about PaaS, however, an agreed-upon definition of the term can be tricky.
Take two of the three top PaaS vendors mentioned in market surveys, for example. Force.com is aimed at rapid developers -- those who want to work with visual tools, define workflows through diagrams, and do a minimal amount of coding. Conversely, Microsoft's Azure PaaS offering is heavily code-oriented, intended for programmers that work in Visual Studio.
"It’s still a very immature market,” Treadway said. “There are no standards.”
Pushing past the general sentiment that PaaS is probably a good idea, pushing into exactly what functions it will offer and what workloads it will serve becomes a much more complicated discussion, analysts said.
"The picture remains really confused in all this talk about PaaS generically -- where is the spending actually going to go?" said John Rymer, analyst with Forrester Research Inc. based in Cambridge, Mass. "There are very different options."
'IaaS-plus' and SaaS further muddy the waters
As services like Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) are added into this conflicted picture, another discussion emerges about how to define PaaS and the future of PaaS adoption. EC2 is Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), but it offers auto-scaling, load balancing and a number of other services often associated with PaaS. Still, customers still have access to -- and responsibility for -- the underlying servers, which is not generally considered a characteristic of PaaS.
Forrester Research has come up with a term for this: "IaaS-plus" -- and it only complicates the current discussion around PaaS adoption. In fact, some industry watchers predicted that the PaaS market will be "squeezed" in coming years between IaaS-plus as IaaS vendors look to add value and more Software as a Service (SaaS) vendors -- a la Salesforce -- expose their application platforms for developers.
"This is already happening," said Bill Wilder, a Windows Azure MVP and principal consultant for Needham, Mass.-based Development Partners Software Corporation. "Cloud platform services are evolving into a toolbox you can use as you see fit -- in PaaS or IaaS -- or with API-enabled SaaS," Wilder said.
Venture capital has been pouring into PaaS this year, but one VC is hanging back due to this blurring of the lines between cloud service categories.
"There will be very few players that last in the Platform as a Service space,” predicted Michael Skok, general partner at North Bridge Venture Partners, located in Waltham, Mass. “Platform as a Service will become part of either the SaaS applications or the Infrastructure as a Service players.”