Uneven maturity obscures cloud platform choice

Platform-as-a-service will play key role in unlocking cloud benefits for many businesses, but varying maturity of technology and lack of interoperability make choosing right vendor tough, industry watchers say.
Written by Kevin Kwang, Contributor

Platform-as-a-service (PaaS) plays an important role in reducing complexity and time in developing cloud apps for companies, but the market's uneven maturity level is making it difficult for companies and independent software vendors (ISVs) to focus their efforts on a specific platform, industry watchers note.

Chris Morris, research director for cloud technologies and services at IDC Asia-Pacific, explained that as infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) offerings mature and become more commonly available, these are rapidly becoming a commodity product with decreasing margins. To increase their profit margins, cloud vendors are now turning their attention to the PaaS layer of the cloud computing stack, Morris told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail.

He noted that IDC last year predicted that PaaS would become the "next cloud battleground" and market developments are now proving its forecast true. Microsoft's Azure, for one, has matured and its number of applications has "increased greatly", he said, while key partners such as Dell, Fujitsu and Hewlett-Packard (HP) will be bringing their Azure-based services to market in the second half of this year.

Red Hat with its OpenShift offering, and VMware with CloudFoundry, have also jumped into the PaaS fray recently to join existing vendors. Besides Microsoft, these include Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Salesforce.com, he added. IBM, too, is expected to launch a PaaS offering before the year is out, Morris predicted.

Analysts from Forrester Research agreed. In a report they wrote in May, John Rymer, vice president and principal analyst, and Stefan Ried, principal analyst, noted that building cloud apps can "recall the bad old days" of native Unix and sockets programming if developing on IaaS services, such as Amazon's EC2 and S3, because developers will have to "worry about the details of virtual machines, storage blocks, execution threads and network connections".

"This is why platform-as-a-service is so important," the analysts wrote. "With good PaaS products, application development and delivery professionals will quickly [reap] cloud benefits. But without such products, cloud [application] development is simply too difficult for most enterprise developers and the benefits of cloud will flow slowly, if at all, to a broad range of shops."

That said, they highlighted that the PaaS market was a "sprawling, fast-changing and immature" market, with most PaaS vendors small in size and even big vendors such as Google and Microsoft offering only incomplete, new products. Salesforce.com, they said, had the most mature offering with its Force.com service, but since the vendor acquired another PaaS vendor in Heroku for US$212 million, there is now uncertainty over how this buy will fit into Salesforce.com's portfolio and strategy.

"Developers vote with their dollars and energy, and both our data and continuing conversations with clients suggest they are not yet voting for PaaS products in significant numbers," the Forrester analysts said. Additionally, Google App Engine, Azure and Force.com get attention and adoption, but most developers prefer to either work with IaaS options from AWS or postpone development in the cloud altogether, they added.

Interoperability challenges persist
Software companies ZDNet Asia spoke to also pointed to the lack of interoperability as a key reason for slow PaaS uptake.

Suhas Kelkar, CTO of BMC Software Asia-Pacific, for one, said existing PaaS offerings are currently at various maturity levels and have different strengths and weaknesses, making it harder for organizations to make a PaaS choice.

This issue is compounded as there is "not much portability" between platforms at the moment, which means one's application will be locked on that platform, Kelkar noted in his e-mail.

"Interoperability of platforms is still an issue and there is no solution for this currently," he said. "Some of the early PaaS platforms were very powerful but tightly closed…and though recent PaaS offerings are becoming more open, in that they are now using standard [coding languages] such as .Net or Java, these are not completely interoperable yet."

Another software vendor, CA Technologies, noted that interoperability becomes critical for applications that have functional requirements to access information across different platforms. According to the company's Asean director of cloud solutions, Manivannan Govindan, the level of openness required for cloud apps varies across platforms given their different use cases.

"Careful assessment is vital in selecting the right platform that meets the application's functional requirements and operational needs," Govindan explained. In terms of picking the right cloud platform operator, he said the company views the viability of the vendor and level of security for the data and intellectual property of the apps it creates on the platform, as key criterions for consideration.

He added that CA, though a close Microsoft partner for 20 years, will not be limiting its PaaS choice to Redmond's Azure platform.

"While Microsoft has a critical role to play as it is in a strong position to influence how manageability is embedded on both the software and hardware infrastructure, CA, being a platform-agnostic company, will continue to have a broad use of and support for other vendors' technologies across our product lines," he said.

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