The concepts and technologies behind cloud computing are rapidly coming into focus this year. As the real value of the cloud is demonstrated, many CIOs are seriously considering it as another tool that can be used to drive more efficiency into their operations. A natural first step on the cloud journey is to move physical server workloads into virtual machines. As a second step, some of these VMs can be moved to a public hosting provider for even greater cost efficiency.
But simply moving workloads to the cloud is just the start of a longer journey. Once core cloud concepts are accepted, there are new opportunities to consider regarding how to consume cloud resources in the most efficient manner. To understand why, consider the three "service" delivery modes: SaaS, PaaS, and IaaS:
- Software as a service (SaaS): The provider is vending access to an application that end users access using a Web browser or other thin client. Examples are Gmail, Salesforce.com Inc. customer relationship management (CRM), and HotMail.
- Platform as a service (PaaS): The provider is vending access to an application-hosting environment to which software developers upload code, such as .NET or Java applications. Examples are Windows Azure, Force.com, and LongJump.
- Infrastructure as a service (IaaS): The provider is vending access to hardware resources that end users typically consume as virtual servers on which they install a traditional operating system and application stack. Examples are Amazon EC2 and Rackspace.
The bulk of the enterprise migration activity so far has been in the IaaS layer, which makes it easy to take existing apps running in general purpose operating systems, put them into VMs, and "cloudify" them. After the initial migration to IaaS, however, the additional advantages of PaaS and SaaS begin to motivate a retargeting of applications to those higher layers.
What is driving the "trend to ascend"? Applications running at the IaaS layer reside in virtual machines comprising a legacy, general-purpose operating system. Though effective as a "quick and dirty" method to migrate applications to the cloud, as application containers go this combination is very inefficient. Furthermore, these "legacy" containers are still subject to related legacy software development and deployment practices. Realizing this typically triggers the upward move to PaaS, which offers richer, integrated, collaborative, and overall more productive development and optimized execution environments. Some PaaS vendors such as SalesForce, LongJump, and Intalio give end users the capability to create their own apps while ensuring the organization's IT compliance and governance controls are enforced. In some cases, the application is already written (SaaS) and simply requires a subscription.
Consequently, IT vendors are shifting more of their R&D and M&A activities to the PaaS and SaaS layers in anticipation of an influx of customers seeking to further optimize IT budgets and minimize cycle time for application development. To illustrate, consider:
- Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) creating the Windows Azure platform.
- Dell Inc. , Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE: HPQ), and Fujitsu Ltd. (Tokyo: 6702; London: FUJ; OTC: FJTSY) partnering with Microsoft to create their own Windows Azure offerings and appliances.
- VMware Inc. (NYSE: VMW) acquiring SpringSource and other complementary technologies.
- WMware's partnerships with Salesforce and Google (Nasdaq: GOOG).
- Longstanding, successful SaaS offerings that continue to experience steady growth.
- A plethora of PaaS and SaaS startups filling the vacuum until the larger players deliver a competing product (or acquire them).
As a technology strategist at Dell, I can personally attest to the accelerated drive the industry is putting behind development and delivery of cloud technologies. Nearly all of the large public cloud providers have built their infrastructure on Dell optimized cloud platforms. Other Dell customers are finding ways to innovate and improve their IT operations with products and services to help them migrate to the cloud. And the race to the cloud doesn't end there; we are actively listening to our customers to determine how they want to adopt cloud technologies, and working to bring them practical solutions to enable a smooth transition.
Cloud computing is real and is finally beginning to deliver on some of its promises. The winning strategy for IT organizations in this new era comprises a balance of enthusiasm and circumspection. Remember that it is a journey, with a move to IaaS being an intermediate stop on the climb to PaaS and SaaS.