Dominique Vernier’s blog, “Leverage SaaS and PaaS to speed up application development,“ provides an excellent overview of IBM’s cloud-based approach to software development and delivery. IBM’s introduction of the Bluemix Platform as a Service (PaaS) to the marketplace earlier this year builds on the existing capabilities of Jazz (/jazz.net/) introduced in 2008.
While Jazz addresses the requirements and design stages of the application lifecycle, Bluemix extends IBM’s cloud-based capabilities to development, testing, and production as well. The Bluemix PaaS runs on Cloud Foundry (cloudfoundry.org), an open source cloud platform with more than 40 contributing members including IBM, Intel, VMware, and others.
Bluemix delivers application and component boilerplates, runtime environments, and an ever-growing list of pre-built services which can be used as composable building blocks to create custom applications. Developers simply drag/drop these modules into software environments to streamline time spent on writing new code, duplicating existing code, hunting for the “right” version of infrastructure components, or building test or execution environments. By design, Bluemix can significantly reduce the amount of time developers spend on non-core work.
It appears, however, that PaaS platforms may have a PR problem. Only 17% of companies surveyed by EMA are using PaaS to deliver a production service, versus almost 40% using SaaS. So one has to ask the question: “How long will it be until customers and prospects recognize the value proposition of PaaS in general, and Bluemix in particular?”
The lure of SaaS is obvious. Instead of investing in license fees, consulting fees and hardware, companies can access world-class enterprise applications by simply producing a credit card. Implementation times are reduced from years to minutes, IT specialists are freed up to focus on core business value, and ongoing software administration and maintenance become artifacts of the past.
However there are some significant “gotchas” with SaaS which virtually every company encounters sooner or later—and which highlight the value proposition of PaaS. One is the fact that, while SaaS can be an excellent option for delivering commercial, packaged applications, SaaS-based CRM and ERP are far more “plain vanilla” and less customizable than many would-be customers anticipate. For enterprise divisions and departments accustomed to modifiable, on-premise-hosted software which accommodates unique internal processes and workflows, moving to “one size fits all” SaaS can be a rude awakening.
Another is the fact that there is still the need to deliver custom applications. As Figure 1 shows, custom applications are THE most common application type in today’s companies, outstripping packaged applications by double digits. Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) clouds, while excellent for delivering server and systems level assets, lack the capabilities necessary for streamlined application delivery. In fact, particularly for the first few deployments, deploying componentized applications via IaaS can be more labor intensive than doing so on premise.
Figure 1: Which of the following does your company currently utilize?
One of the beauties of the Bluemix concept is that it provides an answer for companies seeking to bring some of the benefits of public cloud into the creation and delivery of custom applications. Many are struggling to accelerate Continuous Delivery cycles, seeking ways to re-allocate developers from production support to core development work, or investigating ways to take advantage of the cost and resource savings of public cloud.
Accelerating software delivery, for example, is a challenge for virtually every company. While more traditional methods of software development are time- and labor-intensive, one of the truly innovative elements of Bluemix is that it brings this element of speed to custom development. With infrastructure and supporting services such as APIs, load balancers, and messaging systems (such as IBM WebSphere) available at the click of an icon, some Bluemix customers have demonstrated their ability to create a full-blown custom application in minutes or hours versus weeks or months.
For companies currently developing applications on IaaS or private cloud, PaaS platforms such as Bluemix may well provide a more efficient alternative. Developers can compose new applications faster and with fewer required skills, factors which can lead to cost, time, and development efficiencies.
At the same time, customers still have their choice of where applications are hosted. Because Bluemix is built on an open source platform, applications developed on Bluemix can be hosted in a private cloud, on Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), or on the Bluemix PaaS. And unlike some competing PaaS platforms, Bluemix supports complex, enterprise-grade applications versus simple web front ends or mobile “apps”. Dominique’s example of a PaaS-based back end to a custom application is an excellent one.
IBM’s breadth and reach are beneficial to customers as well. Breadth of services is an important factor in choosing a PaaS vendor, since additional services enable developers to take advantage of more reusable, pre-built capabilities. IBM continues to add new services to Bluemix and, with the introduction of the IBM Cloud marketplace, is opening the floodgates for third party services such as Square, PayPal, Twilio, and Pitney Bowes’ Geolocation services.
Finally, the launch of Watson services on Bluemix illustrates the power of PaaS. It gives developers capabilities, in this case analytics, which enable them to build services they could only dream about a few years ago.
All this being said, price is still the bottom line for many companies. PaaS pricing offers a multitude of benefits at a relatively low price point. Cost benefits are derived from other sources as well. Time is money, and developer time is freed up for writing code versus tasks requiring sysadmin expertise—since the platform itself is supported by some of the best sysadmins in the business. Business services are hosted on best-in-class enterprise environments which always have the latest updates/patches/etc. Concerns for data center “sprawl” become a thing of the past. Finally Bluemix requires less architecture and planning, as its “intelligent fabric” can monitor, right-size, and right-locate application components based on customer-configured policies.
The key message? Don’t underestimate the power of the PaaS. PaaS platforms are well worth investigating, and advanced platforms such as Bluemix present new opportunities for creating and hosting truly differentiating business applications.