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Cloud // Platform as a Service
09:06 AM
Reuven Cohen
Reuven Cohen
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Is The Cloud Platform Battle Over?

Iaas and PaaS platform distinctions will soon become irrelevant, as OpenStack's Solum project shows.

There's been a renewed debate recently over the various layers of cloud computing stacks. At stake is a fight for cloud computing market share and mind share -- and possibly, the future of cloud platforms.

Beyond a small group of technologists, cloud computing remains largely a mystery for most people. Ironically, I believe that's the point of the cloud: To act as an abstraction of the complexity found in more traditional data centers and application hosting infrastructures.

At the center of the cloud platform debate is a new reality: Cloud consumers no longer need to manage or worry about the underlying infrastructure. The question of platform occurs only when you ask who or what controls operating systems, storage, deployed applications, and networking components. Platform as a service (PaaS) focuses not on the infrastructure pieces, but on the deployment of applications and configuration settings for the application-hosting environment. For most PaaS offerings, the preponderance of infrastructure features has been removed, and the focus is on deploying a composable set of application components rather than controlling the lower-level components.

[Concerns over NSA snooping are driving some companies away from US-based cloud services. Read Foreign Businesses Flee US Cloud Computing, Survey Finds.]

But why does the distinction between IaaS and PaaS matter? Infrastructure as a service (IaaS) provides a lot of features and benefits when it comes to manipulating particular infrastructure components, although most remain unused. In PaaS, the majority of these infrastructure components have been removed, reducing complexity through improved automation, testing, and iteration of application components without the potential of introducing infrastructure-level bugs.

PaaS pundits will point to virtualization -- or the lack thereof -- as a key differentiator, with technology like Linux containers offering improved deployment speeds. But this seems like a red herring. Most IaaS platforms now support many types of virtualization. Startups like JumpCloud are bypassing the need for virtualization, instead opting for bare-metal hardware deployment. Recent improvements in traditional hypervisors have also reduced application deployment time to seconds, making the question of virtualization and its performance overhead practically meaningless.

The question is: Why are we, as an industry, spending so much time focusing on building two distinct environments for cloud deployments? Do consumers really care about the difference between IaaS and PaaS?

Gordon Haff, a cloud evangelist at Red Hat, points out some of the challenges in a recent blog post.

For most computing resource users, simply thinking of PaaS as a higher level of abstraction than IaaS misses an important distinction. PaaS presents an abstraction that is primarily used by -- and of interest to -- application developers. IaaS can also appeal to developers seeking more options and control. But a PaaS like OpenShift gives developers the tools they need and then gets out of the way. IaaS is infrastructure, and is therefore more focused on system admins who support developers (whether through a PaaS or otherwise) and other consumers of business services. This will increasingly be the case, Haff says, as IaaS -- or something like it -- develops into the standard way computing infrastructures are built, whether at a cloud provider or in an enterprise.

Others see the convergence of infrastructure and platform layers as inevitable. One example is the Solum project, which is natively designed for OpenStack clouds. According to the project's creators, Solum focuses on the intersection of the various parts of the cloud computing stacks, with a particular focus on vendor neutrality, open design, and collaboration. It utilizes existing solutions where possible, for example in its use of Docker for deployment of containers. Multiple language run-time environments will be supported with a modular language-pack solution so users can easily run applications written in the language of their choice. Although projects like Solum are just getting started, they could point to a converged future, with both IaaS and PaaS in cloud computing stacks.

I also believe that traditional approaches to IaaS are too complex. From installation to deployment, to the ongoing management of cloud applications, the process needs to be simplified. However, I'm not convinced that using two distinct cloud computing environments is the answer. The lines between infrastructure and application have already blurred. As cloud systems become ubiquitous, classifying unique IaaS and PaaS layers will become irrelevant.

At the end of the day, the only thing that really matters in cloud computing is the API. APIs form a roadmap to the elements that are most important to cloud service consumers. The question becomes whether or not you choose to use a particular API element. But even if you choose not to, it's nice to know that features could be potentially activated at a later date.

Some people say less is more. But in the world of cloud computing, I say more is more (more or less).

Reuven Cohen was the founder of Enomaly and creator of one of the first IaaS platforms in 2005. He is currently chief technology advocate at Citrix. (The views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the author's employer, Citrix Systems.)

Find Reuven on Twitter @rUv|Linkedin|Google+|Facebook|Podcast

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User Rank: Apprentice
2/6/2014 | 4:20:59 PM
Excellent article
Just wanted to let you know that we included you in our Monthly Resource Roundup
User Rank: Apprentice
1/17/2014 | 9:47:16 PM
Re: the real battle is ahead
Great insights. For those who don't know Khaz, he was one of the first employee's at Enomaly and helped launch our first IaaS platform back in 2005. 

RE: Battle. I don't think the battle is over. Even though people like Khaz and myself have been fighting it for almost 10 years, it's only just begun. The reality is the internet is the opperating system. The question is whether or not so called "enterprises" choose to embrace it. If they don't, they do so at their own detriment. 
User Rank: Apprentice
1/17/2014 | 12:38:18 AM
the real battle is ahead
PaaS is an intersection subset of IaaS and SaaS, targeting interests of both technical folks and business users. The barrier to entry is quite low for admins to transition a meaningful part of their IT assets or workloads to IaaS, because it doesn't require a lot of change and outcomes are immediately visible. Same thing with business users adoption of SaaS - the learning curve is quite steep and it's considered a part of revenue generation process. 

While it looks nice and dandy with IaaS and SaaS, the stakeholders for PaaS are not that numerous and influential in majority of companies. For more mature enterprise environments, with established ecosystem to handle hundreds of applications, PaaS is a natural choice, but the integration and transition are still a challenge, holding off mass adoption.

Less sophisticated IT environments are still cautious to dive deep and still use less risky ways to migrate workloads without significant modification and ability to rollback to previous (tried and tested) state if something goes wrong. I can understand that conservative approach of tech folks and reluctance of business decision makers to invest resources in something that doesn't expose its benefits for their business.

What should be done in order to preserve PaaS for future generations of IT?
  • vendors need to clarify differences of their "cloud platforms" from traditional definition; 
  • standardization bodies need to classify a galore of cloud platforms;
  • business users need better understanding on efficiencies of PaaS vs IaaS;
  • some IaaS vendors should not call themselves a PaaS, just because it sounds cool

Hope this helps.

User Rank: Strategist
1/16/2014 | 10:08:55 PM
PaaS an evolving story
Good observations, Joe, but I don't agree that you've formulated the right question either. Nor do I worry about whether PaaS is "winning" vs. IaaS or some other form of cloud computing. Rather, I see PaaS as remaining a distinct form of cloud and becoming the platform for next generation applications. Someone bringing either an application already developed or ideas for a traditional enterprise application to platform as a service -- well, yes, I can imagine the complaints and protests against arbitrary decisions made. But that doesn't mean PaaS won't evolve into a high level platform available for both development and deployment. I think Microsoft and Google understand this, and I think Amazon understands the value of the PaaS vendors that have been attracted to its IaaS. At multiple sites, PaaS is rapidly evolving, not fading from the scene.
User Rank: Ninja
1/15/2014 | 1:52:55 PM
Re: Poor PaaS, where is the love?
Actually, if you read PaaS forums (like Heroku, OpenShift, Azure), you'll see scores of customers who aren't able to fit their applications (often quite standard ones) into the arbitrary decisions that have been made by PaaS designers.  (To be fair, both Java and .NET PaaSes tend to do better because of the VMs they run on, but even still, you can see complaints about implementation).

I don't think the column here asks the right question.  The open question today is whether the PaaS model (Docker, OpenShift, Azure, Heroku, etc) will be the predominant one, or whether the configuration-management model (Chef, Puppet, Ansible, SaltStack, etc) will.  The benefits to the latter are that you don't run into implementation issues; you can implement whatever you want.  The benefits of the former are around simplicity.

Today, it's hard to argue that the PaaS side is winning.  The overwhelming adoption of Chef by essentially everyone (AWS's OpsWorks, CMPs like RightScale, even Netflix OSS) combined with the relative silence from the startup community on using PaaS (who exactly uses it?  RapGenius used to... single digits of well-known companies, right?) indicates to me that the future isn't PaaS merging into IaaS, but rather IaaS with a configuration management layer (which I guess you could call PaaS, but certainly isn't considered PaaS by any PaaS vendor I know).

The enterprise side is more in the PaaS world, but it's really hard to tell how much, given that they don't do much sharing.  But even there, from anecdotal evidence, I believe config mgmt is winning.
User Rank: Strategist
1/15/2014 | 12:56:31 PM
PaaS is 'irrelevant' but Red Hat, VMware, Google,didn't get memo
If PaaS is to about to become irrelevant, Microsoft, Google, Red Hat and VMware have all failed to get the memo. They are heavily invested in producing a better PaaS, with VMware and Red Hat seeing PaaS as one of their few direct avenues into the cloud. Get developers to use your PaaS and then make it easy to deploy from it to your preferred public cloud platform. I would submit that first generation PaaS is being absorbed into IaaS. But Red Hat, VMware, Google and Microsoft understand very well that a second generation PaaS, working at a higher level of application composition and deployment, is being born. Check out our next contributor on PaaS, Red Hat's Krishnan Subramanian, soon to appear in the InformationWeek Cloud section. He says "PaaS is dead. Long live PaaS!"
User Rank: Apprentice
1/15/2014 | 12:28:39 PM
JumpCloud correction
Just a small correction here... "Startups like JumpCloud are bypassing the need for virtualization, instead opting for bare-metal hardware deployment."

Actually, JumpCloud is really designed first and foremost to support the cloud, but can be used seamlessly with bare-metal hardware. To use JumpCloud, you just install our agent with a one-line command, or easily integrate the agent installation with your configuration tool (like Chef, Puppet, etc.).
User Rank: Ninja
1/15/2014 | 11:34:02 AM
Poor PaaS, where is the love?
This raises a good point. I think the initial love for IaaS is that it was one of the earliest traditional cloud services offered.  Providers rented out server space for customers to build their own environments.  Ofcourse, as the cloud model matured, many IT professionals realized that all they were doing was configuring O/S builds, which could be done for them with a traditional PaaS service, saving them time and effort.  It's much like buying a barebones computer and doing everything yourself, but if you are just installing a standard O/S, why not buy a pre-built with the O/S already installed?

I think everyone overestimated the requirement for custom environments and are now seeing that across the board there are a lot of similar requirements for cloud.  If this is the case, why not leverage a PaaS service which already has some security and configuration in place instead of starting from scratch with IaaS?
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