Inside advice on the use of Platform as a Service in the enterprise

CloudBees founder and CEO Sacha Labourey answers tough questions and hands out practical advice about PaaS and how it works in the enterprise.

Sacha Labourey, the founder and CEO of CloudBees Inc., talks about the advantages of using a cloud development platform for continuous iterative deployments. How are developers using the cloud? Why would we want to go outside the IT organization for enterprise infrastructure? Isn't the cloud really just a fancy hosted service? What about enterprise organizations that already have scalable solutions in place on-premises; do they get anything out of a Platform as a Service (PaaS)? What are the challenges developers run into when they try to bring PaaS into their workplace?

Labourey says there's a shift from releasing software in large batches every year or so with major version revisions to more fluid iterations. Continuous integration is easier with cloud services, he says, because the live development environment is more available for experimentation on the part of developers because the rollback process is much easier than with traditional deployment techniques.

Labourey also sees PaaS as a new way of doing things. The cloud platform is not about servers, or infrastructure anymore, says Labourey. "It's really about a service focused around applications." While he admits that it sounds like a philosophical difference, Labourey says it's really a fundamental change. Most developers don't care so much what hardware it takes to support their application, they just want the platform it's on to have the features they need -- like availability, scalability and perhaps more specific things like failover -- built into the service-level agreement (SLA). The way PaaS providers can deliver on those SLA points, according to Labourey, is that their sole focus is application provisioning best practices. "It's really industrialization of the best practices that we do on the Platform as a Service."

Labourey knows that developers can't just trust the word of PaaS evangelists. He suggests that developers should try a platform solution for themselves. "There are plenty of PaaSes out there; they pretty much all have a free offering; so just give it a try."

Of course, in the initial stages of PaaS migration, application developers will want to start slow. It's important not to try out anything new with your established applications until you're sure it will be a good fit for them. "I would certainly not advice people to move what they already have to the cloud," Labourey says. "I think that's the wrong thing to do." Instead, large organizations should consider PaaS as a way to handle oncoming waves of new application requests driven by IT trends like mobile, social and big data analytics.

Labourey thinks many IT organizations don't know how they'll meet the new surge. "Are we going to be ten times more productive?" he asks. "Are we going to hire ten times more developers? How can we do that?"

A part of the answer, according to Labourey, is finding new ways to be more efficient. For example, as large organizations build mobile applications, those applications are going to have to tie back to the large, business-critical applications that you have on-premises. "The on-premises environment," Labourey says, "must remain stable. You don't want to touch it, but then you have this funky mobile application on the other hand, and how do you bridge that gap?"

Labourey suggests a great place to start to take advantage of PaaS is with communication servers that talk with the mobile clients out in the world and the legacy applications on your own servers.

To those who still think PaaS is just for startups, Labourey presents some fairly impressive financial figures from Amazon Web Services (AWS), the leading provider of cloud infrastructure. "If you look at the revenue that they did from 2006 to ... 2010, it remained relatively flat," he says. "At that point you could argue that it was only for startups and for build-and-test." But in the last few years, according to Labourey, AWS has gone through a giant surge and is expected to do almost 4 billion dollars in revenue.

This will bring them neck and neck with VMware, the leader in virtualization, says Labourey. It will also give AWS about three times as much revenue as Red Hat, which is a major force in the open source world, and bring them up to about a third of the revenue Dell is expected to bring in from servers, storage and networking. "So if this is just about startups and build-and-test, you're going to need a lot of startups," he concludes.

So what is it that's brought so much new business to AWS over the past few years? Labourey says it's primarily time to market. Citing the surge in the enterprise need for new applications, he says enterprises need to find new ways of developing. "If you want to be successful," he warns, "You can't just rely on the same old high-friction steps. You need to have something much faster."

For instance, developers at a financial institution might need three to four months just to get an empty server via established channels. On the other hand, Labourey claims the same financial institution could develop a completely new service from start to finish in that same time with PaaS. "It's not about cost," he says. "Most of the time it's really about 'I want it now. I want it yesterday. How do I do that?'" Where traditional IT operations might not be able to handle these requests, because they have a backlog of projects and limited resources, opportunities for developers to increase efficiency with PaaS resources may become available.

In Labourey's view, it's very similar to what happened with e-commerce websites in the nineties. Where traditional IT didn't know how to create and integrate e-commerce with existing infrastructure, Web agencies sprung up to answer the call. Now mobile agencies are springing up to turn mobile applications around in months rather than years. But those mobile agencies still need "an environment that they can operate in quickly and safely. Most of the time that means PaaS," Labourey says.

There can be technical issues that keep organizations from adopting cloud resources. Lebourey admits there are cases where PaaS won't work, but he feels there are more cases that will work than that won't. He feels the issues that really keep PaaS at bay for many organizations are actually perception or political issues. The perception piece is that "people don't really understand what Platform as a Service is, and that's why I always encourage them to give it a try," he says.

He also thinks there's fear on the part of traditional IT operations. "This looks a lot like what we're doing internally, but now it's available under an API? So what is my job again?" Labourey says this has led operations to ask developers to prove that the cloud is secure.

Now, he says, developers are turning that question around and asking operations to show that the cloud is not secure. Whereas at one time everything could be kept on-premises behind the firewall, today's mobile applications require developers and organizations to move that data out into the wild, at least as far as the mobile device. Why not let the application environment live out there as well?

But Labourey doesn't see PaaS as threatening the job of IT operations. "IT is the guardian of the temple. They need to make sure things remain safe, secure, stable and never down." Right now, that might mean building and maintaining the firewall. In the future, Labourey believes it will no longer be about the firewall but about integrating various Software as a Service and PaaS solutions. It will be very complex to manage (for example) the SLAs and ID management of a chain of SaaS services. There will be other important complicated details that need to be held together. "That will be the job of IT. Developers will never care about these things because they're always going to be thinking about the next application and the next cool thing."

Of course enterprise organizations have a lot of application architecture that's already built and running on-premises. Integrating those apps with new social and mobile applications can be somewhat difficult and will likely require a hybrid approach. Sorting out what data to keep on-premises and what to put in the cloud is going to be a tricky question that each organization will have to answer on its own.

Labourey suspects that the decision will frequently be made less on what the data is and more on how quickly the application has to be completed. "The bottom line is, I don't necessarily expect that this decision -- at least in the short term -- is going to be rational." Specific teams will have specific needs that can't be met by traditional IT and they might resort to things we call shadow IT. "At the end of the day," Labourey says, "[developers] have only one goal, which is to deliver value to the business. If that means going to the cloud, they'll do it."

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