Why PaaS Wins

Working as a technology strategist for a large IT vendor, I’m tasked with thinking about technology from the customer perspective.  But often customers ask for things not because they want them, but because they have underlying needs they are trying to address in the best way they know how.  Their ask is the result of a sort of secondary effect of a larger issue.

I think IaaS and PaaS are good examples of an expressed want versus a solution that addresses the underlying need.  IaaS is of the former kind because it is an incremental enhancement to a now-outdated paradigm for implementing IT – the general purpose operating system (GPOS).

GPOSes grew out of an era when hardware was insanely expensive and isolated.  This necessitated the evolution of the lowly “monitor” program into an all-purpose middleware layer abstracting hardware into easier-to-program-for services, and securely and efficiently multiplexing those resources across as many concurrent processes as possible.  Although these advancements optimized resource utilization, it made application programming both easier and more difficult in various respects, and did not initially account for  internetworking on the scale of today’s Internet. 

We’ve since entered a different era of inexpensive, broadly distributed, well connected hardware.  Backing resources for compute, storage, and network can be so highly abstracted by this new “distributed operating system” that application development can be vastly simplified, and the staging and execution of those applications are no longer constrained by hardware boundaries.  That’s PaaS.

But making the jump from old to new, to take advantage of this new distributed world, requires rewriting “legacy” apps. And once that decision is made, one must determine in what language and using what platform –  there’s still looming uncertainty over which ones will survive the coming shakeout. It’s painful and doesn’t happen overnight, but that PaaS transition will happen in time, and here’s why…

IaaS is a hack that makes the transition less painful by providing a waypoint on the journey between old and new.  It’s the old GPOS wearing a fuel-guzzling rocket-pack, allowing legacy apps the ability to take to the clouds, expensively and clumsily.  It doesn’t solve the problem, but it gets you a few steps closer to the ideal. 

In the end, I believe IaaS becomes the ultimate salesman for PaaS, so I’m not opposed to promoting it as an intermediate solution.  As organizations move legacy apps to IaaS, they’ll reap only a small set of the benefits they could be enjoying if they go all in with PaaS. By the time that realization hits, the PaaS wars will be over, and the inertia to fully embrace it will be easily overcome.

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