Microsoft, Google, IBM and SalesForce.com heat up PaaS

But they all agree it's still in its early days

What do you get when you get four of the biggest Cloud vendors in a room to talk about one of the hottest emerging trends in the industry? Not a whole lot of agreement for one thing.

At last week's Cloud Leadership Forum, which was sponsored by IDC Research and IDG Enterprise, officials from IBM, Google, Microsoft and Salesforce.com came together to discuss their Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) offerings. PaaS is a way to develop and deliver applications in the Cloud, but it's the least mature of the three major cloud delivery models compared to Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) and Software-as-a-Service (SaaS). And pretty much one of the only things all four companies agree on is that PaaS is still in its early days.

BACKGROUND: A World of PaaS-abilities 

While PaaS is still a developing market, some experts predict that PaaS could become the most important Cloud model. PaaS lets companies build customized applications and designed from the start to run in the cloud. In the near term companies that embrace PaaS have a market differentiator compared to competitors, says Steven Hendrick, an IDC analyst tracking the PaaS market. As the IaaS and SaaS offerings continue to gain widespread adoption, the real differentiators for companies will be applications they have tuned to the specifications of their business needs, he says.

PaaS has some technology advantages as well, he adds. A PaaS environment sits between the software and infrastructure layers, which gives applications designed in a PaaS space insight into the supply and demand of the Cloud environment. "That uniquely positions them to understand the workload demands of the applications and the system resources of the infrastructure," Hendrick says.

There's a growing marketplace of vendors attempting to stake a foothold in the PaaS arena. In addition to some of the big-name players like Microsoft, Google and Salesforce, emerging players such as EngineYard, CloudBees and AppFog are also in the market. VMware has an open-source PaaS offering named CloudFoundry, while Red Hat has its own PaaS offering named OpenShift, which is expected to be brought out of developer preview later this year. Amazon Web Services, the dominant public cloud IaaS provider, Hendrick says, could even be classified as a PaaS offering because it offers tools for developers to build and deploy applications in the AWS cloud.

But the four big-name tech stalwarts are making sure they're not left out of the Cloud conversation moving forward.

Microsoft

Microsoft may have one of the most recognizable PaaS products in the market with its Azure platform, but Tim O'Brien, general manager and platform evangelist at Microsoft, says cloud is still mostly seen today through the lens of IaaS. "The PaaS question we get today is, 'How is that different from IaaS?'" In a simplified form, IaaS is nothing more than virtualized machines or storage, he says, whereas PaaS is a development fabric. The idea is that developers deploy the software and the application automatically provisions virtual machines to its specifications. To allow for easier connections between the PaaS and IaaS layer, Microsoft recently extended an IaaS offering to Azure, which O'Brien says makes it the most comprehensive cloud offering on the market. "No other provider has that kind of breadth," he says. The other major differentiator is the company's 25-year experience working with enterprise IT, which he says newer tech companies just don't have the experience of. "There are no shortcuts to truly understanding what keeps CIOs up at night," he says.

Salesforce.com

One of those "new" tech companies O'Brien seemed to be referring to is Salesforce.com, Rob Woolen, senior vice president of the Salesforce Platform seemed to take some issue with. Salesforce was one of the first to define the SaaS market with its CRM tool that's hosted in the cloud, which Woolen says is now used by a majority of the Fortune 100 companies, proving the company's enterprise credentials. "The conversations we're having are not are you willing to store business critical information with us, it's what else can I do in the cloud?" he says. The company is moving authoritatively into the PaaS space as it has made public the platform that it built the Salesforce software on named Force.com. It also purchased Heroku, the Ruby programming language, which has extended to include Java, Node.js, Python and other languages as well. "The real value of PaaS is that it allows customers to not spend time managing the infrastructure, but instead making their applications," he says. Salesforce and Force.com, he says, benefit from what he calls a federated security approach: Each of those Fortune 100 companies using Salesforce.com has independently verified the security processes of the software and if any bugs are found they alert the company and the bugs are fixed out across the entire system. This "democratized approach to security," he says, has built in a unique platform offering that he says has enterprise class security features.

Google

Google's heritage of being a completely Internet and cloud-based company give it advantages over legacy IT giants, says Peter Magnusson, an engineering director at Google. "Google has been a cloud company from the beginning," he says. The company's PaaS layer, named AppEngine, takes advantage of the breadth of services offered by the company. It can integrate with other Google apps, such as its e-mail, map and other features. "Looks at what your IT needs are," he says. "Don't miss the opportunity because competitors may already be making the switch." Google launched AppEngine in preview in 2008 and launched it last year to support Java and Python languages. "In the future we'll stop talking about platform and infrastructure as two different things," he says. "There's a package that people want and users want a complete set of managed and unmanaged aspects of the cloud."

IBM

While the other three companies each have a PaaS offering of their own, IBM's strategy is to enable PaaS applications, says Mac Devine, director and CTO for the Cloud Portfolio of IBM Global Technology Services. IBM breaks the PaaS world down into two main categories: Legacy applications that are being converted to be delivered through the cloud, and new applications that are built from scratch in a PaaS environment, and each one has its own needs. "If you try to build one platform that will satisfy developing both, you may satisfy neither," he says. IBM has a series of cloud products, including its PureSystems and SmartCloud appliances, which enable PaaS environments by allowing for migration of legacy data and applications into a new PaaS environment. Integration services, he says, will be key for migrating legacy applications to the cloud and allowing PaaS environments to interact with the IaaS layers. The company's purchase of Cast Iron last year, which specializes in cloud integration and migration, solidifies the company's position. As a differentiator as the PaaS market grows, he says there will be an increased desire by developers to integrate big data analytics and tools into those applications, which IBM has to tools to supply.

Network World staff writer Brandon Butler covers cloud computing and social collaboration. He can be reached at BButler@nww.com and found on Twitter at @BButlerNWW.

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More about: Amazon, eSystems, Google, IBM, IBM Australia, IDC, IDG, Microsoft, Red Hat, Salesforce.com, Technology, VMware
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