This article originally appeared in the Oct. 2011 issue of InfoTECH
As more and more cloud vendors enter the market, providers will have to differentiate themselves by focusing on specific customers, geographies, applications, or service models. Application-optimized, cloud-based solutions make sense for enterprise customers looking for high performance, highly available infrastructures.
Analyst firms Gartner and IDC (News - Alert) agree: The market for cloud services is growing at double-digit percentage rates annually. Extraordinary growth attracts extraordinary competition, so vendors entering this market have had to segment the market by focusing on specific customers, geographies, applications, and service models. One result has been an increase in the number of application-specific, cloud-based “platform-as-a-service” (PaaS) offerings. That’s good not only for the vendor ecosystem, but also for buyers: PaaS enables developers and small-to-medium businesses to deploy web-based applications in optimized environments without the cost and complexity of building out the infrastructure in house.
Two examples of vendors that provide specialized PaaS offerings are Acquia and Engine Yard, supporting open-source Drupal and Ruby respectively. The two share several similarities: Both were created by leading startups in their respective open-source communities; both have attracted approximately the same amount of venture capital (~$38 million); both are offered in the context of a larger range of enterprise-level services. Not all cloud-based PaaS provider meets these criteria, of course, although the field does appear to be fertile ground for both vendors of this size and open-source hosting targets. (PHP Fog is another example among many others.)
The advantages of cloud-based PaaS are familiar: scalability, reliability, and a host of other “ilities.” Vendors of specialized PaaS add to these the promise of their expertise in the selected platform. Acquia is a good example: The company was founded by the creator of its target technology, and also offers Drupal training, support, tools, in addition Drupal-based social business software.
From a business standpoint, such platforms are hard to resist. Customers who have committed to a specific technology get the sort of one-call, complete solution that Microsoft (News - Alert) has long championed. That’s a compelling offering, particularly considering the common complaint that open-source projects lack the sort of enterprise-level ecosystem businesses demand.
But how good are they from a technical point of view? That depends, of course, on the vendor. In Acquia’s case, the platform provides several Drupal-specific optimizations including an appropriate PHP memory allotment, LAMP stack tuning, unique monitoring tools, a three-stage interface that matches the workflow of Drupal web developers, opcode caching, and so forth. Similarly, Engine Yard’s offering includes Ruby-specific monitoring and process management, a Rails-optimized Linux distribution, and in-memory caches.
Developers are the first to gain from these application-specific infrastructures. First and foremost, they gain access to a reliable platform and commonly used tools (such as Drush and New Relic), which are maintained and updated on someone else’s time. In some cases, PaaS services include other benefits, such as access to a library of specialized documentation, and 24/7 support.
But end users notice the differences, too. A platform that can recognize the difference between users who are logged-in and “anonymous” can use that information to cache content more efficiently, dramatically lowering the number of HTTP requests and improving overall speed.
Why the Cloud?
The truth is any of these advantages is available without cloud hosting. But when married to cloud hosting, application-specific hosting optimizations gain extra power. For one thing, the cloud can automatically distribute load, further improving performance. With cloud failover, problems in one server (or even an entire region) don’t have to bring down a site, and administrators have the flexibility to make manual changes as needed.
Again, the business reasons are equally compelling. Cloud platforms are generally built on a multi-tenant architecture, giving each tenant an economy of scale they couldn’t achieve on their own. Common administrative tasks such as upgrades are only done once, and then replicated automatically as needed around the cloud.
The challenge with such architectures is in system-level coordination – something typically beyond the expertise and means of individual tenants. That’s where single-technology PaaS vendors such as Engine Yard, PHP Fog or Acquia come in. They promise knowledge of technologies throughout through the top of the stack’s application layer, and can take advantage of techniques specific to their technologies.
In the end, vendors of specialized PaaS offerings are banking on three things: a solid stack, understanding of their target technology and enterprise-level service.
Commoditization of cloud services allows them to focus on the latter two – and in the end, the buyer wins. The result is enterprise-ready application platforms, resting on a proven base, and run by experts in the technologies that comprise them.
Bryan House is vice president of open-source content management system provider at Acquia.