Platform as a service heats up

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It's still a tiny market, but it's growing as vendors consolidate and more users give PaaS a try.

Of all the members of the cloud services family, platform as a service has been the slowest to grow and is the one that enterprises have had the most trouble adopting, despite its benefits. But experts think PaaS might soon shake its reputation as an underachiever.

Gartner estimates that worldwide PaaS revenue reached $1.2 billion in 2012, up just a bit from $900 million in 2011. That's peanuts compared to the $109 billion that the researchers estimated for 2012 from all hosted services, including software as a service.

PaaS is one step up from the infrastructure offerings like Amazon Web Services, which manage servers and the virtualization layer but leave the rest up to users. With PaaS, the provider also maintains the server operating system and typically an application development environment on top of that, so developers can focus on the application they are building, rather than keeping track of server software updates.

Getting Started

Companies say they use PaaS offerings to get out of the business of managing server hardware and software so they can get products to market quicker and iterate constantly. The simplest definition of PaaS is that it's an application platform offered as a service.

The benefit is that developers who use PaaS offerings don't have to build and configure hardware and software environments for their applications to run on. They can write an application and upload it to a PaaS that supports their software language of choice, and the application runs.

Mind Shift Required

Still, using PaaS requires a shift in thinking for some developers and IT shops. People like Cruz, who has a background in managing hardware infrastructure -- he was CTO at a credit card company that had 6,000 square feet of data center space -- might find it challenging to not be able to manage servers. "At first it's weird because you think, 'I'm having this weird issue, can't I just go into the box?'" he says. "You really can't do that."

Instead, PaaS users have new ways to manage problems. For example, a developer might use a tool like New Relic to try to troubleshoot problems that affect app performance.

"We have a team of engineers, but we don't have full-time dev ops personnel. The cost of building that team would far outweigh the cost of the premium that Engine Yard charges," he says.

Plus, "we're not particularly interested in wearing the pager that way," Smith says. "If a client's site goes down because my software's not working, that's totally fair. But we don't really want to be involved at 3 a.m. because a router in the data center went down."

So far, the transition is working fine. "You have that layer between you and the iron so things like monitoring and how the deployment system works is limited. But generally, anything you need to do at that level, I can call [Engine Yard] and talk to an engineer and they'll help us," Smith says.

Beyond the language issue, enterprises have needs that are similar to those of startups in that they find PaaS useful for getting to market quickly. At a large company, however, it's more often a marketing executive who signs up for PaaS than someone from the IT department, according to PaaS vendors.

"The center of gravity around who is the purchaser and decision-maker is shifting," says Doug Hauger, general manager for Azure at Microsoft. He says chief marketing officers or line-of-business vice presidents at customer companies are telling their marketing agencies they want a new marketing campaign quickly and they want it done on Azure. "That's causing challenges because the IT department is saying, 'OK, so what do we do?'" Hauger says.

Often marketing executives will initially approach IT but find that IT can't move as quickly as they want. But not all IT shops are totally resistant to change.

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