Unlikely PaaS alliances, strange offerings, and variable gauges

Recently we’ve seen developments in PaaS offerings that may strike some as odd or surprising: first, RedHat offers Microsoft .Net and SQL Server as cloud services, and then Microsoft offers Oracle’s flagship database, WebLogic Server middleware and Java on its Azure platform as “license-included virtual machine images” in the Windows Azure Image Gallery.

What’s this world coming to then, you may wonder. Where’s all the dividing lines we’ve come to know and love? Have vendors decided to embrace one another and live happily ever after in that warm fuzzy feeling? Right. To me it looks more like putting on smiles and acting on your best behavior to keep relatives happy at a family dinner than anything else. The relatives in this metaphor being PaaS users apparently, so relatives with deep pockets, if we really are to extend the metaphor to its full length.

SaaS providers need the equivalent of Variable Gauges, enabling their apps to find their way on infrastructure with differing specifications. Source: Wikipedia.

Technically, this is not exactly ground-breaking. Virtualization has made this possible a long long time ago. So it only makes sense to look at this under the light of strategic offerings and competition for market share. As AWS recently turned 8 and is the undisputed leader of the cloud provider pack, challengers will try just about anything to get a bigger piece of that seemingly ever-expanding cake. And that includes unlikely alliances and strange-looking offers.

It’s interesting however to keep an eye on what the implications of this are going to be. To me, this is good news for PaaS users: the option to be able to use your infrastructure of choice on any provider is welcome, and it’s probably here to stay as it will come be to be expected. Not that everything’s rosey of course, as moving applications across PaaS providers is not exactly a piece of cake.

As a SaaS provider, your goal is obviously to be able to deploy your application on as many platforms as possible in order to have as many potential distribution and revenue channels as possible. We’ve already seen how a new class of CMPs (Cloud Management Providers) is on the rise, one that shifts the focus from infrastructure growing pains to application bundling and business offerings.

The fact that there are now more options in terms of development platforms supported by PaaS providers makes your life easier obviously, however but in terms of deployment and provisioning things remain complicated. Each CMP appears to have its own API flavor, which means that custom work has to be done to be able to run your application for each one.

There is an emerging standard there called Application Packaging Standard (APS), which in some ways resembles JEE and adopts its philosophy by having applications expose metadata in standardized format and offering facilities such as message queues. However, as APS originated from one of the vendors (Parallels) it is seen as affiliated and controlled by them despite being theoretically open. Thus, its adoption and support is far from being universal.

So while recent developments signify more choice and opportunity for SaaS providers, we’re a long way from an ideal ecosystem, and we’ll probably won’t get there anytime soon. To use another metaphor, that would be like betting on railroad track dimensions across the world to converge to a standard that would allow every train car to travel on every track. The railroad has been around for much longer than the cloud or IT for that matter, and while that has not happened yet, it has not stopped transportation by train either. Let’s see how long it takes to get the equivalent of variable gauges for SaaS.

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