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Charles Babcock
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Are Docker Containers Essential To PaaS?

Platform-as-a-service is changing along with the rise of next-generation applications, but is Docker crucial? Interop panelists debate.

Virtual machines and Docker Linux containers are changing the way applications are run, architected, developed, and deployed. During a panel I moderated at Interop 2014 in New York Tuesday, spokesmen for leading platform-as-a-service suppliers addressed the question of how next-generation applications are changing PaaS.

Panelists at the hour-long session, part of a half-day Cloud Applications workshop, were: Brent Smithurst, VP of product management at ActiveState, makers of the Stackato PaaS based on open source Cloud Foundry; Carl Meadows, VP of product management at Engine Yard, an independent PaaS system using open source code modules; Krishnan Subramanian, director of strategy for Red Hat's OpenShift PaaS, another open source project; and Mark Russinovich, named CTO of Microsoft Azure, with its PaaS offerings, on Sept. 15.

Platform-as-a-service is the combination of tools, code workflow, change management, and code libraries that are provided as a shared service through a PaaS system.

[Want to learn more about one firm's departure from PaaS? See CloudBees Drops PaaS, Shifts To Continuous Integration.]

The session kicked off with each panelist answering the question: What is a next-generation application? Their descriptions broadly overlapped: Next-generation applications are more likely to be composed by teams working on a PaaS system than by talented developers working alone or in pairs, the panel agreed. They are composite applications built up from independent, modular services. In some cases these might be micro-services, each running in its own Linux container and tied together by the middleware and network connections supplied by the development system. Next-generation applications are often written in one of the dynamic languages, such as Ruby, Python, PHP, or Node.js. And they are portable across different infrastructures, such as different brands of cloud.

All of that sounded like a tall order. In the interest of a lively discussion, I asked each panelist whether their PaaS system meets all of those demands. Meadows, Subramanian, and Smithurst answered, "yes," with qualifications, for Engine Yard, Open Shift, and Stackato, respectively. "No," answered Russinovich, saying there were still too many gaps and unfulfilled functions to match all the requirements. The latter was the more honest answer, I said, stepping out of my neutral moderator's role momentarily to take sides.

Interop 2014 PaaS panel in New York.(Source: Cloud Applications workshop chair Bernard Golden on Twitter)
Interop 2014 PaaS panel in New York.
(Source: Cloud Applications workshop chair Bernard Golden on Twitter)

Several speakers had mentioned Linux containers, so the panel discussed whether a workload file formatting and packaging system is essential to PaaS. The ease of deployment and the portability gained for the workload make containers an essential part of PaaS, the panelists agreed. That included Russinovich, although Microsoft's Azure PaaS does not currently support Docker containers. But containers can run on Azure infrastructure-as-a-service inside a Hyper-V virtual machine.

In an interview before the panel convened, Russinovich mentioned an engineering partnership with Docker that's been underway for several months. He also noted Microsoft's early participation in the Kubernetes container orchestration project, founded by Google, as a sign of Microsoft's interest in Linux containers. Russinovich didn't say so directly, but my interpretation is that Microsoft appears to be moving toward direct support of Docker on its Azure PaaS in the near future.

Russinovich also noted that Microsoft has developed its own Windows container system for its internal operations which imposes greater security and isolation in container operation. The system is called DrawBridge, he said.

Engine Yard and Active State's Stackato already support Linux containers, their spokesmen said, but the panelist making the most emphatic statement was Red Hat's Subramanian. "Offering PaaS that doesn't support Docker Linux containers is the equivalent of selling snake oil," said Subramanian, invoking the name that the late Kenneth Olsen of Digital Equipment Corp. used in describing how Unix was sold.

All four panelists agreed that PaaS would have to become a platform for app configuration management and deployment as well as development, and doing so would push it toward becoming the system that helps the IT staff move toward closer cooperation between development and IT operations.

In moving closer to DevOps, PaaS will also make greater use of open source code modules like the configuration and deployment managers Puppet, Chef, and SaltStack, and the Jenkins continuous integration server. Engine Yard is a firm supporter of open source, said Meadows. ActiveState's Stackato is based on the open source Cloud Foundry system, Smithurst said. And Red Hat is one of the world's largest companies basing its existence on creating and selling open source subscriptions.

Russinovich, noting Microsoft's history as a strongly proprietary company, said his firm has been selective in its support of open source code in the past. But Azure PaaS users should look for it to liberalize its acceptance in future products. It currently supports use of open source Python, PHP, and Java on its PaaS, Russinovich said.

In introducing the overall Cloud Applications workshop, chair Bernard Golden, VP of strategy for ActiveState Software, cited Marc Andreessen's comment that "software is eating the world" in establishing the importance of next-generation applications. But platforms on which to build them have suffered a variety of fates, with few owning a commanding view of the marketplace. AppFog was acquired by CenturyLink in mid-June for an undisclosed -- but considered to be low -- price. CloudBees recently dropped its runtime PaaS, [email protected], to focus on a phase of DevOps: continuous integration. bought Heroku for $212 million in 2011, a figure later declared to be "a false positive" that has not been repeated with other PaaS startups.

Meanwhile, the two open source PaaS systems, Cloud Foundry, which is productized by Pivotal as Pivotal CF and by ActiveState in Stackato, and OpenShift, a Red Hat product, continue to move in competing ways toward broader developer use. Cloud Foundry works to provide fuller Docker support, while enjoying backing from a wide variety of companies. Red Hat's Open Shift, early to market with Docker support, is looking for a way to broaden its list of official company backers.

PaaS is becoming increasingly important as the need for software applications grows in an economy that is more and more dependent on software. PaaS suppliers are bringing different languages, workflows, and systems to produce those applications and extending their reach in the direction of DevOps. They still have functions to provide and gaps to fill, but over the next few months one or more of these PaaS platforms is likely to gain traction and become a springboard to a next generation of applications.

You've realized the easy gains from SaaS. Now it's time to dig into PaaS, performance, and more. Get the new Your Next Cloud Move issue of InformationWeek Tech Digest today. (Free registration required.)

Charles Babcock is an editor-at-large for InformationWeek and author of Management Strategies for the Cloud Revolution, a McGraw-Hill book. He is the former editor-in-chief of Digital News, former software editor of Computerworld and former technology editor of Interactive ... View Full Bio
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User Rank: Apprentice
10/3/2014 | 10:46:35 AM
Re: You Get What You Pay For
I agree that PaaS should make the deployment choice up to you to use containers or deploy on bare metal.    The point of PaaS to me is to reduce the headaches associated with deploying and managing complex applications.   As much as possible it should understand the performance requirements, the QOS SLAs, the architecture of the application to help engineer the best fit for the hardware and software.   Ultimately I see PaaS as being able to make recommendations about what services to use to deploy, what containers and what the deployment architecture of the application should be in terms of the fault tolerance, load balancing design of the application.   We are a long way from that.  

I don't think any of this is related to the lack of adoption of PaaS short term.  I think that has to do with the stumbling of key players, the complexity of the technology and enterprises realizing that adoption of PaaS has implications they hadn't at first understood.   PaaS requires changes in the organization to support it.  There are personnel issues, training issues and also compatability with existing applications.

However, saying all that I believe that PaaS is a critical part of a digitization, agility, modernization strategy of any modern organization.  PaaS simply has too many benefits for most organizations in terms of costs of operation and time to delivery.  PaaS can mean cutting time to market in half and cutting costs to a fraction of what they would be without it.  The intermediate point to PaaS is devops which is "build your own" PaaS and is not sustainable.  

Some organizations such as mine (WSO2) know that PaaS is a big but important step and that customers need help in understanding and deploying the technology.   We are committed to PaaS long term because it is an critical part of the disruptive Platform 3.0 that is sweeping over IT.  I have a blog called CloudRamblings that I discuss the Virtuous Circle and Platform 3.0 and why it is critical enterprises understand how the industry is changing and why you need to get on board or face disruption.
User Rank: Apprentice
10/3/2014 | 8:58:41 AM
Reservations about modular services
"Next-generation applications are more likely to be composed by teams working on a PaaS system than by talented developers working alone or in pairs, the panel agreed. They are composite applications built up from independent, modular services."

This is pretty much how CMS systems like wordpress, drupal, and joomla work.  It's great when it works, but it can really feel like pure chaos trying to keep things running when one small change in a module can break your whole setup.
User Rank: Apprentice
10/1/2014 | 4:05:27 PM
You Get What You Pay For
Or in this case, your responses are going to be most advantageous and positive to the group of panelists, who in this case are all vendors. Of course no PaaS vendors are going to represent that the PaaS industry is struggling at the moment. And while it may be bad form, my recent blog entry "PaaS Stumbles" here jpmorgenthal (dot) com/2014/09/11/paas-stumbles/ represents a real accounting of what is going on and the importance and role of containers.

The reality is containers are not needed for PaaS and in fact are a distraction from the real value add. PaaS should be an abstraction that hides the need for engineers to ever need to touch a container. In fact, the best PaaS platform would decide based on Service Levels if it's best to deploy in a container, on a VM, or bare-metal if that is available. 

Containers represent a middle ground that allows engineers to continue to keep their fingers in the sausage instead of just buying completed sausages. 
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