A hot technology right now, platform-as-a-service (PaaS) is poised to get even hotter, and to evolve in some intriguing new directions.
PaaS has been revolutionizing the software development scene for many years now, offering coders a way to spin up full-blown environments as quickly and in as many varieties as they need them. And then, PaaS can get finished apps deployed, complete with 24/7 monitoring, near-limitless scaling, and automatic load-balancing in place, at the click of a mouse.
As applications become a primary vehicle for companies to engage with customers and deliver information and services, it's only natural that so much attention has been paid to streamlining and generally improving the development process.
But where does PaaS go from here? Where will the competition be in this market over the next few years? That's an important question both for providers of these services and for the growing ranks of developers who now rely on those services for building all kinds of apps.
I posed the question during a recent chat with Engine Yard, one of PaaS's pioneers. Based in San Francisco, Engine Yard has built a $28 million business providing development platforms geared to two of the most vibrant Web-focused development communities, those focused on the languages Ruby on Rails and PHP.
Bill Platt, vice-president of operations, foresees PaaS evolving in three directions, starting with the general trend towards hybrid clouds that span private and public infrastructure. "We anticipate that large enterprises will move towards cloud computing, and they will likely depend on hybrid clouds." Private clouds will handle workloads that deal with particularly sensitive data while the public cloud, including development-deployment platforms like Engine Yard's, will run apps that may need to be developed, launched, and scaled as quickly as possible.
However, Platt says, "These clouds need to talk to each other," and that will require some development work by the PaaS providers.
More intriguing is Platt's prediction that enterprises "will want to be able to run their applications across multiple clouds at the same time." As in earlier eras of computing, customers will want to avoid getting locked in to any particular supplier's offering and will want the ability to "pit vendors against each other to get better pricing."
Platt tells me that a new layer of software will emerge to abstract disparate clouds of infrastructure, and perhaps even disparate PaaS platforms. Developers will get a new platform incorporating a new set of APIs, and together these will make it possible to provision apps seamlessly across the nation or around the world.
For now, it's not entirely clear which players in the cloud market will define this new layer of code. But its emergence makes sense as the next chapter in computing's long story of abstracting multiple resources and enabling developers to treat them as a unified whole. Operating systems have done this for multiple processors in a single computer, and now a new layer of code will do it for multiple clouds of computing resources.
Finally, PaaS providers such as Engine Yard will expand their platforms to support more programming languages and to provide a wider array of IT services. "We'll be evolving upwards and outwards," Platt says. As an example of the kind of higher-level services PaaS will include, he points to email. It is now possible in Engine Yard's environment to "consume" email as a service, through a stable and well-defined interface and with no need to know about, much less manage, a mail server. Over time, many other similarly rich chunks of functionality will show up as easily consumable Web services, ready to plug into new apps.
In short, "wherever you find innovation going on, that's where you'll see PaaS," adds Mark Gaydos, senior vice president of worldwide marketing at Engine Yard. "There are all sorts of pockets inside enterprises that are going to want to be more cloudy. That's where we'll find opportunity to create new platforms to help developers."
Your thoughts on the future of PaaS?