The third leg of the cloud

Platform as a Service: Nobody understands it, but it's changing the world

There’s little dispute that the cloud has been possibly the most disruptive innovation of the last decade. It was a little slow going at first, because of a perception problem. People just didn’t understand it, because they thought they couldn’t put their finger on it. It wasn’t something they could touch and feel, or even see in their own office, so they didn’t want to trust it. One of the biggest problems of early acceptance of the cloud was in the terminology, and calling it something other than the “cloud” would have been better from a PR perspective. The very term conjures images of something ethereal and unreal, and out of reach. In fact of course (and most people have come to realize this), an app or a piece of data that exists in the cloud actually does have a physical home. And even if you can’t reach out and touch the piece of hardware involved, somebody, someplace actually can.

Now that we’ve gotten over that and most people understand that the “cloud” is a real thing, there is still some confusion. The official NIST definition of “cloud” actually divides it into three parts: software as a service (SaaS), infrastructure as a service (IaaS), and platform as a service (PaaS). SaaS is easy to define—every time you log into your Hotmail account, you’re using SaaS. IaaS too, is easy to see. When you store your vacation photos in Dropbox, you’re using IaaS. PaaS however, is perhaps the most important but least understood piece of the cloud. But looking into the future, PaaS is likely to be the most influential part of cloud computing over the next few years.

PaaS is the behind-the-scenes element of the cloud that consumers don’t need to worry about, but in reality, it’s what drives—or at least, is most likely to drive—all cloud-based development and deployment in the future. Cary Landis, CEO of Virtual Global, worked with NIST to build out their cloud reference architecture and clarify just what platform as a service really is. Landis sees PaaS as a type of operating system for the web. “It does for web applications, what desktop operating systems do for desktop applications,” he explained. “Stovepiped web applications are the biggest problem that needs to be solved. Historically, they are overscheduled and over budget, and the problem of these mega-million dollar stovepiped web applications can be solved if there were an efficient way to platformize those applications with consolidation, sharing, and eliminating redundancy. Platform as a service potentially accomplishes that and makes those platforms readily available to developers.”

The cloud platform drives down software engineering costs dramatically, reduces time to market, improves profit margins for the companies using it, lowers risks and improves security. PaaS may not cure the common cold, but it really is the heart of the cloud. It’s what makes the cloud work the way it was designed to work.

Because PaaS also lowers the skills requirements to build a cloud-based app, it ultimately brings the cloud to the masses, and over the next few years the emergence of cloud platforms such as Virtual Global’s SaaSmaker is going to open up a new marketplace.

Let’s look at the mobile app market as a reference point. The barrier to entry is extremely low. You can buy an SDK for the iPhone for a small amount of money, spend a month or two developing your concept, and then list it on the app store. Your biggest costs are going to be in marketing it, rather than in developing it. Becoming a developer of mobile apps does not require a significant amount of investment capital, and the majority of mobile app developers are small-time, self-funded operations with only a few people. That’s real entrepreneurship. And, that’s where the cloud app market is going. Cloud platforms, along with the potential for app stores for all manner of consumer-facing as well as B2B cloud apps, will emerge. Ultimately, like many high-tech innovations, PaaS is an empowering technology that will give developers and innovators the tools to better serve their customers on a mass scale—and will let more people have a seat at the table.

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