What PaaS vendors can learn from the application server market

Today I had an interesting discussion with the CEO of a popular Java application server on how the application server market has changed over the last few years. He mentioned that the traditional application server vendors are looking at ways to capitalize on the IP they’ve built over the last decade. It made me think of how many of these vendors are logically positioned to lead the PaaS revolution. Except Red Hat, no other Java application server vendor has invested in a PaaS solution. IBM hasn’t done much with the WebSphere in the PaaS world. The same is the case with Oracle, who currently sits on three popular application servers: WebLogic, GlassFish, and Tuxedo. VMware’s attempt to package Spring with vFabric and Cloud Foundry is a step towards that.

I also happened to read a post on comparing PaaS with application servers by Sinclair Schuller, CEO of Apprenda, one of the few .NET PaaS companies.

Sinclair concludes his article with the following:

“The future of PaaS is bright, but PaaS vendors have to get out of their own way and begin delivering on a vision that catalyzes the next 10 years of development, not on commodity “deploy and scale” value.”

So is private PaaS just an incarnation of the old application server?

An application server or a container was designed to provide certain abilities to the application during its execution. Developers were expected to follow specific patterns to exploit these capabilities. For example, J2EE containers provided pooling, caching, messaging, and an efficient life cycle management of components. These expensive application servers were sold with a promise that the developers can focus on the business logic without ever worrying about the infrastructure management and the required plumbing. With each version, the J2EE specification evolved to support various capabilities to include messaging, web services, and management extensions.

Let’s look at the promises that the PaaS players are making today.

  • Faster time to market
  • Control over data
  • Efficient infrastructure management
  • Standardized application development
  • Compatible execution environment across public and private clouds

Most of these capabilities are similar to those of the application servers. Technically speaking, private PaaS is the new generation polyglot application container that supports multi-tenancy and persistence along with a set of additional services.

Looking back at the J2EE application server adoption, only a few developers leveraged the full potential of these containers. One of the key reasons for lack of adoption of J2EE was that it was too prescriptive. Developers love flexibility and simplicity, and that’s one of the reasons that Spring’s market share grew at the expense of JEE. Spring provided a clean separation between the infrastructure and the application layer while offering a light weight approach of development and deployment.

Like the J2EE containers, private PaaS is also prescriptive. For majority of the enterprise applications, developers are forced to refactor and redesign the applications. This is one of the critical factors that acts as a barrier to adoption. PaaS vendors might argue that developers can simply push their code and the resources get provisioned. This is true for simple 2 tier applications, but when we try to deploy a multi-tier line-of-business application that talks to an ERP and a legacy inventory system, it just becomes challenging.

If private PaaS has to become successful, it should make developers life easy. It should be less perceptive and more flexible.

Relevant Analyst

Janakiram MSV

Principal Analyst Janakiram & Associates

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  1. Janakiram,

    In 2011, in a 6 months window, all of the four Java middleware vendors (RHT, IBM, VMW and ORCL) announced a Java PaaS strategy. Fast-forward 18 months, and none of those 4 vendors has a “GA” version of their public PaaS available to the public. Few (and that includes RHT) have just released their private PaaS offering. Why is that?

    As you know, while “Private” vs. “Public” just seems like a one word difference, it is actually two worlds apart. Private Cloud, in its current instantiation, is mostly a reincarnation of the good old virtualised data-center. In that case, what value can a private PaaS really provide? It can certainly provide a better integration between the various technology layers from a same vendor, simplify some processes, but it doesn’t radically change the situation: Enterprises IT staff will still have to relearn and be responsible for deploying, managing, monitoring, patching and upgrading those repackaged software layers. Just because we changed their name from Application Servers to PaaS, on-premises PaaS won’t automagically self-heal and solve IT problems. Don’t get me wrong, IT vendors are certainly right to play on their strengths and try to further monetize the current data-centers, but it is very hard to imagine that those massive investments will lead in the better time-to-market and productivity that’s advertised on the box.

    At CloudBees, we believe public cloud is where PaaS can truly unleash its power. This is where the equation radically changes, where traditional IT processes are not involved anymore, where issues like provisioning, managing, patching and upgrading a PaaS is not up to a customer’s IT team, but spread over hundreds of customers. However, offering a true public offering is not in the DNA o those traditional software vendors. They know how to QA and package software, they know how to speak and sell to CIO and IT directors, that’s their strength. Bypassing that IT establishment is not only not their strength, but it would put them at odd with their existing IT buyers.

    So while I agree with you that PaaS is the new platform, the next generation middleware, the real caveat is in its qualifier: private vs. public. Despite their size and installed base, I yet have to see a convincing case study from RHT for their private PaaS offering, ours are available here: http://www.cloudbees.com/resources/case-studies.cb


    Sacha Labourey
    CEO, CloudBees, Inc.

    P.S. You’ve probably read James Staten very good post here: http://blogs.forrester.com/james_staten/13-02-25-why_your_enterprise_private_cloud_is_failing

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