The term “platform-as-a-service” has officially graduated to buzzword. With dozens of new companies, and hundreds of old ones now looking into or offering PaaSes, that 2011 was the start of the PaaS boom is undeniable.

New PaaS offerings have grown out of the ISV landscape at a rapid pace this past year. Coupled with the US$250 million purchase of PaaS originator Heroku by this past spring, the PaaS world is an environment primed for cutthroat competition over the next year.

But just how will all of these PaaS companies and services compete? While battles over features are the traditional way software companies compete, the PaaS market includes a number of other factors that contribute to the success and appeal of a platform.

Some of those hot features and capabilities are around management and administration. Another big trend is the addition of multiple languages to a platform.

For a time, the conventional wisdom was to serve one language and serve it well. Many emerging PaaS leaders got their start this way. Engine Yard and Heroku, for example, were entirely Ruby-on-Rails shops before both companies added Java support to their platforms this fall. PHPFog, on the other hand, expanded its own offerings beyond simply PHP, and as a result the company was renamed AppFog.

Lucas Carlson, CEO of AppFog, said that all these platform expansions indicate that the future of PaaS may not be about feature wars. “There are a lot of features that differentiate different platforms-as-a-service,” he said.

“Each one of these features—language support, infrastructure choices—no matter what feature you’re talking about, we’re headed in a direction where all the PaaS vendors are going to have similar technologies, so it’s going to be very hard to differentiate on features.”

In fact, Carlson predicted that a major factor in the success of a PaaS will be its community and ecosystem. “I think what is going to make the difference is going to be something harder to measure externally than features,” he said. “What I feel is going to make the difference is a vibrant and healthy ecosystem.

“I think the ecosystem is what will differentiate PaaS because when you have the best ecosystem built on your service and around your service, that’s where people are going to go simply by virtue of having the most connections to other services. Developers will choose the one that most of their friends will be using. I think this is the most important thing for these PaaS players, and that’s certainly not a feature that can be copied.”

No privacy
If the ecosystem matters, you might be forgiven for expecting PaaS companies to push out open-source projects, and to get behind popular data-center and cloud operating systems like Eucalyptus, Nimbula or OpenStack. But Adam Wiggins, CTO of Heroku, said that PaaS is about the public cloud only. Although he used harsher language to describe the private cloud and PaaS market, he indicated that he and Heroku believe the private cloud to be entirely vapor.

“My opinion–and this is not a widely held opinion–is that private cloud is total BS. If you make it private it is no longer cloud. You destroy all the value you get from cloud by making it something you have to run yourself. Anyone pursuing that path is advocating a false trail,” said Wiggins.

“Being able to move your application is important. Customers should be able to move their applications to different platforms with a minimum amount of re-architecting. It should be the case that if we want to spread to other providers, that requires a good level of abstraction at the infrastructure-as-a-service level, but I don’t think that leads naturally to giving people software to run the platform.”
Wiggins went on to explain this view by way of Google. He said that the value of Gmail is the fact that it’s hosted and maintained by Google. The company, he said, would be foolish to sell a Gmail appliance or software package for enterprises, because that would negate most of the benefits of Gmail.

Wiggins said that a similar scenario unfolded when Google introduced its enterprise search appliance. The product was unsuccessful, and Wiggins believes this was because the benefits of the Google search algorithm are not as important as the benefits of having Google maintain, populate and host that search algorithm.

Jeff Hobbs, director of engineering at ActiveState, said that building a PaaS is a difficult task, but building a private PaaS is even harder. “It’s much easier to build a public PaaS than it is to build a private PaaS. We have [a public PaaS] in our sandbox, which is newly available, but we are running Stackato on [Amazon] EC2,” he said.

“The reason, in some ways, a public PaaS can be easier is you control everything about the environment. You’re just hosting people’s code because you control everything about the servers. From a company point of view, that can be great: There’s no IT load. To build something that actually works across the hypervisors as well as hardening it in a way going beyond what CloudFoundry really offers, it’s easy to create a greenfield application on these PaaS systems, but its not easy to move existing applications. There are difficulties, such as data import and export, which is not solved in CloudFoundry, but is in Stackato.”

Don’t tell that to GigaSpaces. This enterprise private-PaaS company is banking heavily on corporate interest in internally hosting PaaSes. Yaron Parasol, cloud product manager at GigaSpaces, said that private PaaS is a reality, and that many enterprises see it as their only legitimate path to the cloud.

“When you are an enterprise user with a portfolio of applications already up and running and serving mission-critical business processes, you can’t change your procedure to a large extent,” he said. “In that case, you need a very flexible orchestration and management platform that will allow you to on-board the cloud. No matter what applications you have, no enterprise is a green field. If they don’t have new applications, it will take many years for them to enjoy the benefit of the cloud.”

In that vein, it should be noted that PaaS is not a solution as much as it is a new place to put stacks. Instead of solving a problem, PaaS increases velocity and makes life easier for developers. Certainly, that’s solving a problem, but the real appeal of PaaS comes from tying an application into the in-platform services that will allow it to scale, to be backed up, and to be resilient in case of outages.

To an extent, this is the dirty secret of PaaS: It’s more effective and powerful when an application is built to take advantage of the in-platform services. Until applications are built to use those services, they’re just traditional applications living in a newer, somewhat simpler environment.

Issac Roth, resident PaaS Master at Red Hat, said that traditional enterprise applications aren’t necessarily going to be cloud-ready because they’re now being deployed in a PaaS. In fact, he advocated traditional virtualization infrastructure for existing applications.

“Anything running today on WebSphere is theoretically scalable, but someone’s still there setting up new servers, putting in place network connections and configuring the load balancer,” he said. “With PaaS, that just happens. The reason that’s possible is because that platform is restrictive. You have to write to CDI, which is the new Java EE 6 framework, or Spring or Rails or PHP. If you want the data tier to be scalable, you need to use a scalable database. It’s not like you can just take anything and make it work.”

Fortunately, said Roth, Red Hat’s OpenShift PaaS is based on open-source technologies, and thus platform tie-ins for scalability and other services are all based on commonly used methods. “These aren’t arcane or obscure Web technologies. These are things everybody is using now,” he said.

“The world has evolved together. You can’t take some CORBA stuff and put it in your PaaS, but if you do write a modern Web application to a modern framework and a modern data store, that will scale.”

Hot Java
The biggest feather in Red Hat’s OpenShift hat is certainly the platform’s support of Java EE 6, something that is difficult to find in the PaaS marketplace. And while EE support is not well represented in the PaaS market, Java SE has become the hottest language to add to your platform over the past three months.

Both Engine Yard and Heroku added Java support recently, as did AppFog. With Java developers no longer bogged down by a sluggish platform ecosystem, Java has been unleashed into the cloud thanks to all of these newly supported offerings.

Mike Piech, vice president of product management and marketing at Engine Yard, said that supporting Java is key to the success of a broadly appealing PaaS, but that it’s also a very young industry. “Java’s very much still about mainstream enterprise software development,” he said.

“Anyone considering moving to the cloud would consider Java. Java wasn’t necessarily conceived with the cloud in mind, and was not the most optimal solution for the cloud, unlike Ruby. All that said, there are lots of people throwing their hats in the ring. The one that seems to be most advanced is CloudBees. Red Hat and others are all saying the right things and dipping their feet in the water, but there’s no ‘there’ there yet.”
Eggs in one basket
All these new offerings have a lot in common with one another, at least when it comes to where they’re hosted. Engine Yard and Heroku, for example, have long held no infrastructure of their own. Their platforms have been hosted in Amazon’s EC2, yielding the benefits and cost savings for both themselves and their customers. But putting all your eggs in the Amazon basket can be a frightening proposition, especially considering the AWS outage that occurred earlier this year. That’s why most PaaS companies are looking to host in other clouds as well.

But Piech said this danger is not as perilous as it may sound. “Calling it a danger is probably a little more extreme than we’d characterize it. Given that Amazon is the most advanced infrastructure-as-a-service out there, it remains the right choice if you’re going to build your own stack on a service,” he said.

“In Engine Yard’s roots, we started that way. I would call it non-zero risk there. Today we have an alternative infrastructure we run on Terremark/Verizon, and we are looking at who number three is going to be. We’re involved in OpenStack. Through our Fog efforts, we’ve put work into abstracting and standardizing touch points between PaaS and IaaS. We’re having conversations with a number of the obvious other players in the markets. It’s fair to say in the next couple quarters there will be some significant moves there.”

And again, despite the cries of Heroku, this is another area where private cloud offerings become appealing. For enterprises that already maintain and run their own data centers, private PaaS is appealing as a way to simplify application fabric within that data center. And for those enterprises, said Kim Weins, senior vice president of marketing at OpenLogic, said the real key is flexibility.

“OpenLogic’s CloudSwing sits in that general open PaaS space,” she said. “The biggest difference is really placing that enterprise lens on it. First, we need a customizable platform that companies can get up quickly with default stacks. The second thing enterprises need is the ability to provide controls and management around that, things like managing costs and tracking what they’re spending in the cloud, SLAs, monitoring up and down the technology stack from the server level up.

“We provide that complete customizability and provide an end-to-end enterprise solution. The support aspect, for enterprises, once they start bringing these applications up in the cloud, they want to be able to get support on those. We’ve been providing technical support on 600 different open-source packages for the last six years.”

And that leads into what many of the PaaS experts we spoke to thought 2012 would be about: support. Jerry Chen, vice president of product management and product marketing at VMware, said he expects next year to be more about targeted vertical PaaS offerings than about the commercialization and enterprise readiness of existing PaaS offerings.

“If you think going forward, one of the trends you’ll see will be solution-focused offerings or vertical offerings. There will be a mobile PaaS, a financial services PaaS, or a healthcare PaaS,” he said.

“They’ll combine that with data and services that enterprises want. If you go down deep on financial services, they want a large database with real-time data feeds. The core offering should be a common open PaaS, with solutions and services specialized on top.”

And with those verticals comes the requirement for support and SLAs. Red Hat’s Roth said that service and support offerings around PaaS will be the biggest trend for 2012.

“The first big trend is supportable commercial-grade offerings,” he said. “The reason everyone’s taken so long to do it is because you’re going to give someone a service-level agreement, you’re going to take care of security, etc.

“These are giant stacks that go very deep. It’s one thing to grab Tomcat off of the Internet, put a UI on it and say, ‘We’ve got a PaaS.’ But when you go ‘OK, I have to be able to update security on everything and make changes and fix holes,’ it’s a lot of work. There’s a lot of operational stuff that has to be put in place. Some PaaS vendors are going to have to change what they use in the stack when they commercialize, because they’ve got to support it.”