Platform as a Service – Why the leaders haven’t even scratched the surface yet

Oracle plans to announce a new platform as a service (PaaS) that will allow customers to build Java applications in the cloud.PaaS (Platform as a Service) is a new name for an old product category. PaaS vendors are springing up everywhere, providing application stacks, middleware, application development tools, and provisioning and scaling capabilities for cloud-based applications. The traditional players come from a place where they are trying to adapt their traditional on-premises bases to the cloud without losing significant market share, while newer players are trying to promote new application development and deployment paradigms for both enterprises and ISVs. Traditional players include the likes of Oracle, Microsoft, SAP, IBM, and even Progress Software, while the newer native breed includes startups such as Engine Yard, Zoho, and CloudBees as well as internet giants such as and Google.

Prior to the emergence of cloud-based applications, leading application platforms of previous generations included platforms such as PowerBuilder, Visual Basic, Oracle Forms, Lotus Notes/Domino, Delphi, and even NetWeaver and Cold Fusion. These platforms offered primarily enterprise IT but also some ISVs high level tools that made it easy to assemble building blocks into enterprise software applications. This former generation’s architecture was desktop-based client-server (PowerBuilder, Oracle Forms) while a slightly more modern generation included some internet 3-tier approaches (ColdFusion and NetWeaver). While these platforms didn’t handle any of the provisioning, scaling, or multi-tenancy capabilities associated with cloud-based applications, they all provided visual environments, high level application building blocks (often called “controls”, “data connectors”, or “widgets”), and some degree of underlying database connectivity. Enterprise developers adopted these tools as they enabled rapid development capabilities, consistency of look-and-feel, and easy integration amongst families of IT-built enterprise applications. The downside often included expensive licensing and some degree of locked-in-ness as the scripting languages were often proprietary and applications had tight dependencies on the middleware included with such platforms. Occasionally ISVs also adopted these tools, but because ISVs are more sensitive to the aforementioned downsides than enterprises are, adoption of these platforms with ISVs was minimal.

For the most part, the focus of the new group of emerging PaaS providers is different than that of the legacy leaders. Most of these PaaS products are focused on manageability, scalability, control, and provisioning, and not on rapid development. Many of the PaaS providers simply wrap open source languages and middleware (such as Spring, Struts, Node.js, Python, Ruby, etc.) with a provisioning and deployment engine. While they help an organization deploy and manage cloud-based applications, they do not make significant inroads in improving the development experience in a cloud-centric way.

Salesforce remains a notable exception. The Force Platform provides a visual development environment (forms engine, workflow engine, and report engine) with a cloud-native infrastructure that handles scaling and multi-tenancy under the covers. While a great solution for enterprise IT willing to lock itself in to Salesforce, however, the Force is not typically adopted by ISVs for fear of being locked into partnering with a potential future competitor (as Salesforce expands its offering footprint). Furthermore, these ISVs are also unwilling to base a solution on a platform that requires significant subscription fees.

Thus, what we predict, and what we look forward to, is the emergence of a generation of PaaS solutions that integrate both approaches. The eventual leaders will offer the management and provisioning capabilities of the new cohort, but also integrate an application development paradigm with high level visual capabilities, robust scripting languages, workflow, and reporting. This next set of leaders will likely not be in the application business, and thus, at least initially, non-threatening partners to both enterprises and ISVs alike.
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