This content is part of the Essential Guide: Sorting through enterprise IT's PaaS options

Choosing a PaaS: Questions to ask PaaS vendors

PaaS vendors have flooded the market with information -- some good, some bad. Enterprise IT managers would be prudent to know what questions to ask of any potential suitors.

The decision to incorporate a Platform as a Service (PaaS) product into a company doesn't end there. More than one vendor is out for the enterprise PaaS dollar and given the influx of marketing surrounding the topic, deciding on the right platform -- or platforms -- won’t be easy.

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Viewing PaaS as an opportunity for growth

The decision to use PaaS in the first place is actually a fairly simple one. PaaS provides distinct advantages for the enterprise. One is that with cloud computing, the cost risks are low and it’s easy to try something out on a limited basis before diving in. Another is that PaaS vendors are hungry to turn technology into profits and are willing to answer questions at the negotiating table.

It's the vendor selection phase that organizations need to prepare for carefully.

Make PaaS part of cloud computing strategy

Knowing the right questions to ask is part of the challenge of choosing a PaaS vendor. There are plenty of places to start from a technology standpoint, but Jeff Kaplan’s immediate concerns are economic.

“You want to make sure the vendor you select has financial viability, that they’re going to be around,” said Kaplan, managing director of Wellesley, Mass.-based consultancy THINKstrategies. “If there’s any dependency involved, you don’t want them going out of business or being acquired by a company that could discontinue support of that platform.”

As simple as it sounds, many cloud upstarts face this problem. The cloud market has rapidly expanded and dozens of new platforms exist, with contraction through acquisition or business failure always looming.

The questions on the technology side of PaaS don’t need to be too advanced at the outset. Paul Burns, an analyst with Fort Collins, Colo.-based consultancy Neovise, recommends making sure the vendor supports the language that matches the development team’s skills. From there, managers need to be able to identify what a prospective platform specializes in.

“In my opinion, platform as a service is one of the most evolving parts of cloud computing, compared to SaaS or IaaS,” Burns said. “Some vendors are really focused on the deployment aspect, so I think you want to figure out what it is they do.”

Burns sees different platforms playing on different ends of the application lifecycle. Some are more focused on deployment, others might be more focused on run-time or application management.

“Is it good for developing brand new applications or for helping existing applications run better in the cloud, or for both of those?” Burns said.

Understand functionality needs before selecting PaaS vendors

Identifying functionality is crucial for managers, many of whom haven't developed an understanding of what exactly PaaS is, according to Krishnan Subramanian, principal analyst with Rishidot Research and a cloud computing author. He said the first thing he hears CIOs ask is whether or not a platform can support a legacy application, something he thinks is a mistake and represents a misunderstanding of what PaaS is currently used for.

Subramanian doesn’t just pour cold water over CIOs’ dreams of cutting costs on supporting legacy apps. He offers several more constructive lines of questioning, beginning with one that’s on a lot of analysts’ minds.

“Does the vendor make it easy to take the applications and the data out of their platform?”

Application portability and data portability are huge issues in cloud computing, according to Subramanian. The lack of portability, popularly referred to as lock-in, are some of the biggest concerns still lingering about cloud computing, along with security.

Subramanian thinks enterprises should seek out PaaS vendors supporting open protocols and open standards to solve the lock-in problem. Portability concerns tie in with Kaplan’s thoughts on seeking out potential PaaS vendors with long-term financial viability, because if data isn’t portable and a vendor is failing financially, then data could be lost.

Doom and gloom scenarios aside, Kaplan also believes it’s important to look beyond the PaaS vendor to the user community, because good ones are hard to find and they ultimately help to drive platforms.

“How vibrant is the ecosystem of third-party developers?” Kaplan said. “Hopefully that development environment is supported by a number of third-party developers who you can further integrate with.”

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