Comparing Cloud Vendors: A Primer For IT

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Remember "five 9's" and the effort to reduce the amount of downtime your customers had to endure?

With several major players emerging as mega-cloud vendors, the distinctions between IaaS, PaaS, and SaaS have blurred. Here's a primer on the various offerings, based on the latest Forrester Wave report.

Public cloud providers offer either infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) or software-as-a-service (SaaS). A few are recognized as providing a third type distinct from those two -- platform-as-a-service (PaaS). But over the last two years, the distinctions first set out by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) on different types of cloud have blurred.

Now, an IaaS or SaaS provider that doesn't also offer a development platform is in danger of losing customers to competitors. Users are coming to the public cloud, not just for compute cycles or software services, but also to develop their next generation of business applications. That further demand gives Microsoft and IBM advantages that AWS and Google sometimes struggle to match.

Likewise, it holds open a door through which a company such as CenturyLink, Oracle, Salesforce, or SAP can become mega-cloud providers themselves. Each is capable of providing desired elements of a development platform that works with a set of SaaS application that may be missing elsewhere.

Those were among the conclusions that emerged from the report, entitled, "The Forrester Wave: Global Public Cloud Platforms for Enterprise Developers Q3 2016," issued Aug. 29. Forrester interviewed 21 cloud users, as well as eight cloud providers for the report, which found that the digital economy will require a new generation of applications, as well as companies that survive to excel at tapping development platforms in the cloud.

That leaves Microsoft, with its Azure cloud and a full list of development tools and the SaaS services that work with them (such as SQL Azure), in a potentially strong position, although Forrester points out even a rapidly growing Azure is still at least six times smaller than AWS in terms of revenues.

The AWS cloud "offers few developer abstractions to make its services easier to use, offers no bare-metal compute or arbitrarily resizable VMs, and lacks an on premises API-consistent platform to serve enterprises implementing hybrid cloud strategies," Forrester analysts Dave Bartoletti and John Rymer wrote.

AWS doesn't offer a look-alike software stack for installation on-premises, they added. "Instead, it offers deep database and data migration services and tools, plus the longest roster of enterprise software partners certified to run on its platform."

The report didn't state the fact that several third-party platform suppliers, including Heroku (now owned by Salesforce), are hosted on the AWS cloud.

IBM, on the other hand, offers a developer platform in its Bluemix part of the IBM Cloud. With multiple tool offerings and extensive middleware -- often available as a service -- IBM SoftLayer IaaS and Bluemix still belong in the mega-cloud race as hybrid cloud suppliers, the authors noted.  

"IBM's primary challenge is to unify its SoftLayer and Bluemix services into a single set of cloud infrastructure and developer platform services with a consistent developer experience," the analysts wrote. "IBM's weaknesses are inconsistent interface experiences, lack of a generally available functional pipeline programming service, non-transparent pricing, and cost management across all services."

But cloud users with hybrid requirements -- for a mix of on-premises and public cloud services that work together -- should put IBM Cloud on their short list.

Google, with its App Engine PaaS, as well as its Cloud Engine IaaS, might seem to meet enterprise developer requirements in full. App Engine supports application-building in Java, Python, PHP, and Google-originated Go, and it can supply machine-learning analytics. Google also offers its expertise in container management through the Google Container Engine, which includes the widely used Kubernetes container orchestration system.

But the Forrester authors, without commenting on the nature of the Google cloud (which launches two billion containers a week), said most enterprise developers "are not yet ready to 'run like Google.' They need more packaged data and database migration services, and more confidence that their core business apps are ready to run on the Google Cloud Platform."

CenturyLink Cloud is an aspirant that has acquired development tools and development talent, but still falls short of offering a full development platform, the authors said.

CenturyLink acquired Tier 3 in Nov. 2013, and in the process hired Jared Wray, its CTO, to lead a transition in the way CenturyLink builds applications. The plan is to enable customers to use a DevOps methodology on the CenturyLink cloud.

Tier 3 was noted for its abilities to incorporate frequent updates in its cloud software and to use advanced infrastructure management. As senior VP of CenturyLink's cloud platform, Jared leads a team that is trying to make CenturyLink a platform of choice for future enterprise applications.

[Want to learn more about IBM's Bluemix platform? Read IBM Opens Fourth Bluemix Garage in France.]

CenturyLink's status as an emerging platform has little developer mindshare, the authors said, but it offers a version of the open source platform, Cloud Foundry, in its AppFog platform and a NoSQL database service based on its acquisition of Orchestrate last year.

In addition, InformationWeek has also previously reported that CenturyLink is aggressively moving to make software-defined networking part of its cloud service, with virtual network functions to be made available to all its cloud data center users by 2018. It's currently installed in 36 of its 60 data centers.

Virtual network segments with specialized security, traffic management, or other functions would be a boon to developers creating and launching applications there, if they had network needs not covered by more standardized services.

Despite its DevOps aspirations, the report's authors said that CenturyLink "lacks native continuous integration, continuous deployment tooling and other developer abstraction features: no mobile, analytics, IoT or media development services; no functional pipeline programming services; no native security or compliance monitoring services; and a lagging ecosystem of application and service partners."

The Forrester analysts concluded that it is "unclear whether CenturyLink will continue to invest in the developer services it needs to compete with the global public cloud leaders or revert to its core strengths in bare metal infrastructure hosting."

Like CenturyLink, Oracle is also attempting to put together an offering that will appeal to more than those already using its products. It's not clear at what point it will have invested enough to claim to have a set of services comparable to offerings from mega-vendors AWS, Microsoft, IBM, and Google.

While Oracle lacks a global cloud data center infrastructure and is late to the competition in cloud platform and cloud infrastructure, the report's authors warned that the company should be not be dismissed.

Oracle has a credible cloud platform for its database system, Java, and its SaaS application customers, they wrote. "We expect more platform services and global presence within 18 months."

The Oracle Cloud "has a cohesive and productive developer experience," along with its market-leading database services. It also offers five "well-documented database migration services" and a range of hybrid cloud -- joint on-premises and public cloud -- options, the authors noted.

Oracle's main weakness is its immaturity compared to other cloud providers. "The vendor's infrastructure functions are me-too at best. It lacks application services in machine learning and similar analytics, media and microservice functional pipelines," they said.

"Which Oracle platform services are available in its data centers around the globe? That's a mystery," they added.

Salesforce, the pioneer of SaaS, now mounts a combined App Cloud that is the marriage of two primary cloud-based development platforms: Heroku, hosted on Amazon Web Services, and Force.com, the company's tightly integrated technology platform. The App Cloud primarily "configures, extends and integrates the vendor's SaaS products," noted the authors.

Developers may create independent apps if they wish, however. Heroku and Force.com "almost completely shield developers from infrastructure -- making Salesforce one of two megacloud vendors to do so. Despite relying on two different underlying platforms, App Cloud's developer experience is clean and direct," they added.

Salesforce's Lightning service aids mobile application development, and App Cloud also includes "strong identity and access management," the analysts said.

However, the report questioned whether App Cloud is appropriate for future enterprise applications. It's "a poor choice" for enterprise developers "who value control of infrastructure configurations." Those would remain in the hands of Salesforce operations experts in its cloud data centers. Salesforce App Cloud has no on-premises software stack that works in conjunction with the public host service. 

In addition, Salesforce, unlike AWS, Microsoft or IBM "does not yet offer a large global footprint for its App Cloud." The Forrester analysts said the Salesforce cloud also had weaknesses in its continuous integration, in its continuous delivery tools, in its application and data migration functions, and in cost management.

Although the analysts included SAP Hana Cloud Platform in the report, they had the least to say about it. Hana Cloud Platform is "challenger" among the mega-cloud providers and mainly aims to help SAP applications users. Its primary purpose is to host customizations and extensions of the SAP Business Suite and S/4Hana applications, they said.

Its strengths include a consistent and productive web integrated development environment, its Fiori framework for mobile and web app development, and its identity and access management service.

Like Salesforce, the platform shields enterprise developers from having access to infrastructure configuration tasks. It also offers "a limited set" of application development and delivery functions. However, it lacks a wide selection in language runtimes, databases, and analytics services offered by other cloud leaders, they said.

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