Bullish On PaaS

Developers say 'platform as a service' is fast and elegant.

Platform as a service, or PaaS, is the cousin of the better-known "software as a service." SaaS delivers a fully baked application you can subscribe to and use immediately; with PaaS, developers use free programming tools offered by the service provider to create applications and deploy them in the cloud. The infrastructure is offered by the PaaS provider or its partners, which charge by some usage metric such as CPU use or page views.

This development model is radically different from traditional approaches, where programmers install commercial or open-source tools on their local systems, write code, then deploy and manage the applications on their own infrastructures. But the PaaS model is rapidly gaining adherents.

Garrett Davis spent more than 30 years writing software for big insurance companies. But when he struck out on his own as an independent developer, he wanted to "get in on the ground floor of the new environment."

He turned to Google App Engine to build his work in the PaaS cloud. He says that "after many years of writing zillions of lines of Basic, then Cobol, then J2EE," App Engine's tools, especially the elegant Python, had great appeal. "The Python language doesn't force me to clutter up my code with curly braces and semicolons," Davis says.

Faster Development

Developers can be extremely productive with PaaS, in part because they don't need to worry about defining scalability requirements, nor do they have to write deployment descriptions in XML, which are all handled by the PaaS provider. Davis quickly produced payroll and property management applications. With AppEngine, he says, he needed only one month to reverse-engineer a workers' compensation application from one written over a period of 50 staff-months in J2EE.

Michael Iovino, CIO at Author Solutions Inc. in Bloomington, Ind., is also impressed with the time-to-market advantages of PaaS. Eight of his programmers built the company's iUniverse authoring application with Salesforce.com Inc.'s Force.com PaaS development environment. In only three months, the team delivered a full-fledged program with a complete set of business logic and multifaceted options that assist book authors with everything from text layout to marketing and distribution. "I'm pretty happy with the speed of development," Iovino says.

Ray Chance, executive director of ECMInstitute LLC in Fredricksburg, Va., points to another big draw for PaaS: low cost. His nonprofit group is a hub for the distribution of information about enterprise content management. It uses a custom RSS service built with Google App Engine to get the information out to the institute's 1,000 members.

Chance says that as long as you have fewer than 5 million page views per month and need less than 500MB of online storage, the Google service is free. More important, Chance says, is that his App Engine-built RSS application is deployed and maintained in Google's data center, which Davis describes as "the most sophisticated collection of silicon and storage on the planet."

Developing with PaaS

Company size 2008 2009
5,000+ employees 24% 39%
1,000-4,999 15% 35%
500-999 5% 27%
100-499 13% 28%
1-99 7% 17%

Percentage of companies doing some PaaS development now and/or planning it in the coming year.

Source: Saugatuck Technology Inc., November 2008

But there are drawbacks to building PaaS software. For example, Chance says App Engine's Python can sometimes be a "struggle" because of its memory management limitations. And caching issues can limit how quickly RSS feeds can be fed from his site. Davis also says organizations might find it difficult to port J2EE apps to Google's restricted environment.

The Force.com environment is fairly robust, says Iovino. And additional development tools are available from Salesforce.com's AppExchange third-party software market. He adds that Force.com will need better code-management capabilities if the PaaS model is going to succeed in the long term, however.

Iovino also notes that because code executes in the Salesforce.com multitenant infrastructure, developers have to be cognizant of limitations. For example, they need to break up a long service call or data request into smaller, more manageable pieces. Iovino says developers quickly incorporate that notion into their thinking.

Mike West, an analyst at Saugatuck Technology Inc., says research indicates that PaaS, while in the early adopter phase, is attracting developers from businesses of all sizes because of its ROI.

"An increasing percentage of application development dollars are moving to PaaS," he says.

Hall is a freelance writer living in Oregon. Contact him at mark.everett.hall@me.com.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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