What's a PaaS?

With spending on Platform-as-a-Service expected to exceed $20 billion in this decade, Web developers need to get a firm understanding of the technology

public cloud services

The recent explosion of public cloud services has made a dramatic impact across all fields in the IT industry. No one involved in this field can afford to ignore the trends and features that the cloud brings, all of which promise to continue to upend our industry for the foreseeable future.

Web development has an especially exciting and engaging future with the advent of highly scalable Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) technologies. Spending on PaaS tech is expected to reach north of $20 billion this decade alone, and it won't stop there. If you're currently a Web developer, or plan to become one, you need to understand this incredible technology and how it can be used.

The first question we should ask, though, is what is a PaaS? It's one of a few -aaS acronyms that you'll frequently run into when working in the cloud.  Public cloud services offer a lot of features and benefits from high-end security to global networks for worldwide reach. What makes these services affordable to all users from small startups to large enterprises is the service model.

The classic cloud service model is Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS). IaaS represents an entire physical infrastructure, from computers and racks to climate controls and building security, that is sold to the consumer on a per-use basis. Instead of spending the upfront costs on building out that infrastructure ourselves, we can simply purchase what we need from the cloud service provider, i.e. the service model. This means that the entire networking power of companies such as Microsoft or Google is available to us at a low cost which is a remarkable benefit.

There are other popular -aaS services as well. Storage-as-a-Service offers binary data or relational database storage in the same fully-managed fashion. Software-as-a-Service, Networking-as-a-Service ... the list can go on and on, and all of these services can represent an implementation of the service model for our use.

Platform-as-a-Service is one of the most interesting and potentially useful services offered right now. With a PaaS, not only is the entire physical infrastructure supplied and managed for us, but the software infrastructure as well. This means that the operating systems and relevant security patches, server software (such as Web servers), and firewall and security systems are fully managed by the professionals at the cloud service provider and we accrue no setup costs, only usage costs. With a PaaS underneath your Web application, you can focus almost exclusively on development, and one-click deploy your solutions to a managed platform in mere minutes.  

Why is this so earth-shattering for Web developers?  Let's take a look at what it offers us.

For starters, we no longer have to concern ourselves with platform configuration minutiae that's frankly better left to a different team of professionals. For small organizations or individuals trying to expand their reach, this means they can avoid having to learn those skills or hire people with that expertise, which could be cost prohibitive. For larger organizations, it means that a team of developers can divorce their development from the often slow and messy bureaucratic overhead of dealing with two or three separate departments in the enterprise.  Fully managed means just that; developers no longer have to worry about managing the platform themselves.

PaaS also enables cloud service providers to present one of  the most interesting and powerful feature they offer: dynamic scaling. Dynamic scaling means that your implementation can adjust the amount of underlying resources that power it in response to changing traffic patterns. Got a retail website that you expect to get hammered during Black Friday weekend? Don't worry, a PaaS implementation can respond to that extra traffic and spin up additional servers to handle the increased load. When the weekend is over and the traffic slows down, dynamic scaling will also reduce server count for your implementation, ensuring that you don't have to pay for capacity when you don't need it. It's the best of both worlds.

Between the low cost of entry for these services (some are even free!), the ability to dynamically scale your implementation, and the reliability and security presented by the underlying infrastructure, PaaS has a clear position in the development market for years to come. As a result, Web developers will need to have a high level of comfort with these systems to remain relevant. Major cloud service providers have recognized that they need this as well.

During this blog series, we'll be discussing the various PaaS offerings from the biggest players in the cloud services market, including Amazon's Elastic Beanstalk, Microsoft's Web Apps and Cloud Services, Google's App Engine, as well as others such as Heroku, CloudSwing, and the open source-based CloudFoundry. Everyone is getting on in this game and they're competing with price, features, and ease-of-use -- all of which makes the future of our lives as Web developers very exciting!

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