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The New Holy Grail: Application Portability in the Cloud

How PaaS can empower the real-world enterprise and deliver on the promise of the cloud

Today's enterprise is built on the promises of mobility, everywhere-access and flexibility. We work on multiple devices when and where we want - at the office, on the road or at home. We expect full access to our data and applications - on a sales call, in a boardroom or on a cross-continental flight. And we expect to be able to transfer our data seamlessly between platforms -on a mobile device, on the desktop or in the cloud.

Why should enterprise cloud application data be any different? Enterprises housing apps in the cloud should expect to be able to position application data to optimize service, ensure regulatory compliance and preserve privacy. Application portability is a mission-critical demand of the real-world enterprise, and yet it's a need left unfulfilled by public cloud providers.

Why Move Apps to the Cloud?
Moving to the cloud brings tangible business benefits that include cost savings, resource efficiencies and scalability:

  • Cost savings: With cloud hosting services, you pay only for the data storage space you need. You save on infrastructure costs by paying incrementally, as your business grows.
  • Storage: Private servers and computer systems are costly to buy and to maintain. You get greater storage capacity in the cloud without the infrastructure investment.
  • Backup: Hosting your applications and data in the cloud means an automatic off-site backup system and disaster recovery mechanism.
  • Automation: You can push new updates directly to the cloud without worrying about constant server updates, which gives IT the freedom to concentrate on innovation rather than maintenance.
  • Flexibility: The cloud delivers more flexibility than traditional methods of deploying applications and infrastructure, and it offers the mobility your users need to access information from wherever they are.

What Does Cloud Portability Really Mean?
The successful enterprise must be able to scale up and down as demands dictate, without constantly worrying about IT infrastructure requirements. The benefits of hosting applications in the cloud come down to flexibility - the ability to innovate quickly, deploy rapidly and provision space as required.

The Need for Speed...and New Switching Costs
The real-world enterprise has a need for speed: moving quickly from idea to design to prototype to proof-of-concept to trial to production. No CIO wants to wait weeks for hardware and software stacks to be configured on a set of servers that the company will eventually outgrow. Businesses look to cloud service providers to help provision infrastructure resources. But making a snap decision on a cloud service provider in order to meet production timelines can introduce risks related to privacy, data sovereignty, service level agreement delivery and proprietary codebase conflict. Once an enterprise locks in with an outside cloud service provider, it becomes tough, if not impossible, to move applications into a new environment.

Impediments to Portability
Cloud portability is about being able to migrate from one cloud environment to another with minimum integration effort and minimal reengineering. Think of it as optimizing IT operational flexibility for the sake of the enterprise's business needs. But shifting applications from one cloud service provider to another isn't a trivial task: Building and deploying applications to clouds built on proprietary deployment models or technology stacks complicates things when it comes time to move from one vendor to another.

Let's be fair: Signing up for a service provider requires trust and dependence on that vendor. But the real-world enterprise CIO should be able to preserve some semblance of flexibility in developing and deploying applications. The ideal scenario in moving from one cloud service provider to another is a seamless service experience. By increasing service and application portability in a neutral and standardized cloud vendor ecosystem, portable deployment to any cloud can become possible.

Building apps on open, portable standards is one way to limit the costs (and risks) of vendor lock-in. But the real-world enterprise demands more than such a simple, so-called "greenfield" solution: the holy grail of cloud application portability is the smooth migration of existing applications.

Getting to the Holy Grail of Cloud Application Portability
Idealized portability means a full application life-cycle experience - from code to cloud to portability. Real-world enterprise applications should be able to work where and when required, in multiple jurisdictions, in multiple zones, on different clouds, and with different skins.

Sounds great! But how to get there when cloud service providers operate with competing frameworks and unique specifications?

When an application is pushed to a new cloud, there are many interdependencies that must be identified and re-evaluated. Service providers frequently toss around "standard" terms like service, application composition, orchestration and platform, yet these terms can differ in meaning from provider to provider, and in practice, dramatically affect (or even thwart) cloud application interoperability.

Formal industry standards for cloud interoperability are still being developed. The Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS), a not-for-profit consortium that drives the development, convergence and adoption of open standards, has formed TOSCA (Topology and Orchestration Specification for Cloud Applications), a technical working group created to develop a description of application and infrastructure cloud services, and to define the relationships and operational behavior of these services independent of suppliers and hosting technology.

TOSCA aims to make it possible for higher-level operational behavior to be associated with cloud infrastructure management. Having an interoperable description of all the application and infrastructure cloud services, the relationship between parts of any service, and the operational behavior of the services independent of the supplier creating the service will enhance the portability of cloud applications and services.

We are a long way from cloud interoperability standards. What's the best option in the meantime? A Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) layer.

How PaaS Solves the Interoperability Problem
A standard open approach would simplify all the interfaces common to multiple clouds without doing away with the specific added-value features that make each of those cloud's business and operating models unique.

Until interoperability standards are in place, running cloud apps requires an elastic application middleware layer - a PaaS. A PaaS sits between the software and the infrastructure, providing everything necessary for an application to run: hardware (virtualized or not), operating system, database, language runtime, modules, and web framework. A PaaS can be deployed on multiple hypervisors and on different types of Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) foundations. In a three-tiered cloud computing model, the PaaS layer lies between the application and the IaaS, and provides the elastic middle layer and solution stack as a service that allows for portability - so applications can be pushed (or migrated) to any cloud with little or no reengineering required.

Private PaaS: Metaphorical "Bubble-wrap" for Enterprise Applications
Achieving cloud application portability requires a multi-platform PaaS layer built with open standards and lightweight bindings. Not surprisingly, few public cloud providers offer a solution that makes it easier to switch to another vendor's hosting service. When that economic reality collides with the privacy and security demands of the real-world enterprise, private PaaS becomes all the more attractive.

A private PaaS layer offers the same advantages as a public cloud - scalability, efficiency, elasticity, etc. - but also provides the additional security, control, and customization afforded by dedicated resources.

A private PaaS is operated for a specific organization, either by the organization itself or by a third-party. Private PaaS - whether hosted on-premise or off, in a public, private, or hybrid environment - is about control; it is operated for a specific organization, either by the organization itself or by a third party.

For instance, implementation behind a corporate firewall can ensure data privacy, security, and control. That makes sense for large enterprises with specific IT security requirements that can't be reasonably met with a shared-resource public cloud model. And compatibility is never guaranteed. Even if a public-cloud hosting provider offers a PaaS, that vendor might not know how to install, deploy, run, and manage every specific application(s) of a particular real-world enterprise.

Private PaaS: Not Just for Private Cloud Anymore
Hosting cloud applications on premise is the most secure way for enterprises to manage data. But private PaaS isn't just for private cloud. Deploying a private PaaS in a public cloud model adds an additional layer of security. "Packaging" applications in private-PaaS' metaphorical bubble wrap can reduce the risk of data breaches. (With "individually packaged" private-PaaS-protected applications, there's no "hack once, compromise all" prize, even on a public-cloud infrastructure.)

Want Control? Flexibility? Portability? Get a PaaS
Deploying applications using a Platform as a Service (PaaS) middleware layer enables the real-world enterprise to manage applications in line with business priorities, and not just to accommodate the constrictive operating limitations of a cloud hosting provider. Enterprises deserve flexibility, and IT/DevOps should be able to move applications - across infrastructures, clouds, and providers - at their discretion. That's the promise of the cloud. Delivered.

More Stories By Diane Mueller

Diane Mueller is a leading cloud technology advocate and is the author of numerous articles and white papers on emerging technology. At ActiveState, she works with enterprise IT and community developers to evangelize the next revolution of cloud computing - private platform-as-a-service. She is instrumental in identifying, building, and positioning ActiveState's Stackato cloud application platform. She has been designing and implementing products and applications embedded into mission critical financial and accounting systems at F500 corporations for over 20 years. Diane Mueller is actively involved in the efforts of OASIS/TOSCA Technical Committee working on Cloud Application Portability, works on the XML Financial Standard, XBRL, and has served on the Board of Directors of XBRL International. She currently works as the ActiveState Cloud Evangelist.

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