My last two clients have had completely contrasting views on PaaS, specifically on whether it should be used at all. Both clients deploy to AWS and Azure. Both want to embrace software volatility. Neither want to introduce unnecessary complexity. Both have a similarly scaled online offering where traffic is subject to peaks and troughs which aren’t always predictable.
With such similar goals and problems to solve I’m intrigued by how different their approaches have been. Admittedly one client has a much more mature relationship with the cloud where the other is jumping in with both feet but still not sure how to swim. Perhaps that’s the crux of the matter and both will eventually become more similar in their approaches.
For this article I want to focus on the perceived issues with PaaS and try to explain why I think many concerns are unfounded.
My current client has raised a number of concerns about PaaS and I’ve dug around on the internet to find what has been worrying other people. Here’s a list of the most popular concerns I’ve seen.
- Vendor lock in – the fear that if software makes use of PaaS from one cloud provider, it will be too difficult to move to a different provider in future.
- Compliance – the fear of audit.
- B.A.U. – the fear of managing a PaaS based solution after the developers have left the building.
- Lack of published SLAs – the fear that a platform may not be as reliable as you need.
- Confusing marketing message – the fear of relying on something that isn’t defined the same way by two different providers anywhere.
- Lack of standard approach – the fear of ending up with software tightly coupled to a single platform.
This is certainly not an exhaustive list but I think it covers all the popular problems and those concerns raised directly to me from my clients. So now let’s try to address things.
Vendor Lock In
This sounds very scary. The idea that once we start allowing our software to make use of the APIs and services provided by one cloud provider, we’ll be unable to move to a different provider next year.
First of all, let’s talk about what’s driving this footloose requirement. At some level in the business, someone or some people are unsure that the currently chosen cloud provider is going to remain so. They may even want to review how suitable they are on an annual basis and have reserved the right to change their minds at that point. This isn’t unusual and it could be the right thing to do – any company that blindly continues to use the same vendors and service providers without questioning if they still offer the right solution is destined to find themselves hindered by a provider who can no longer meet the business needs. So for example, let’s assume that there is a distinct possibility that although AWS is the flavour of the month, this time next year might see a shift to Microsoft Azure.
At the point of that shift to Azure, what is the expectation for existing systems? There has been a year of development effort pushing software into AWS, does the business think that it can be re-deployed into Azure ‘as is’? I would expect that there would be a plan for a period of transition. I would also expect that it would be recognised that there are some systems for which it isn’t worth spending the money to move. New development will undoubtedly happen in Azure with as little effort as possible focused on AWS. The business doesn’t expect a ‘big bang’ change (which would be incredibly high risk).
Now let’s think about how well your software currently running in AWS will run in Azure. Both AWS and Azure offer hosting with the same Operating Systems, so we’re off to a good start – you should at least be able to manually deploy and get something running. The catch is in the way that the virtual environments are delivered. If your app relies on local HD storage, then moving from AWS to Azure may mean quite a hit. At the time of writing this article, the best throughput you can get from Azure Premium storage is 200MB/s whereas AWS’ EBS Provisioned Volumes will give you a throughput of 320MB/s. So moving to Azure could impact your application’s performance under load, especially if it relies on a self managed instance of a database (Mongo DB for example). In fact, if you want high performance storage in Azure then Table Storage or DocumentDB are probably the best options – both of which are PaaS.
This is only one example of how moving cloud provider could impact your software, there are others. The virtual machine options are different – not just in hard disc size but in available memory, processor speeds and in how their performance changes with load. So what you’re deploying quite happily onto half a dozen instances with one cloud provider may require nine or ten instances on another, plus a few tweaks to how the software stores its data.
What I’m trying to highlight here isn’t that using PaaS won’t be a barrier to moving from one cloud provider to another, rather that it isn’t the one you would have to worry about. Changing the API that is used for caching data is a well defined problem with easily understood steps to implement. Understanding the impact of the subtle differences in how each cloud provider delivers your virtual environments – that’s hard.
That’s not the end of this issue. Lets look at this from the software side. How often do developers use 3rd party software? From my own experience, I don’t think I remember the last time I spent a day writing code which didn’t involve several NuGet Install-Package statements. Every time I’m always careful to prevent tight coupling between my code and the installed packages. Why wouldn’t I expect the same care to be taken when working with PaaS? It’s really good practice to write a client for your PaaS interaction that abstracts the detail of implementation away from the logical flow of your software. This is good programming 101. When moving to another cloud provider the impact of changing the API is predominantly limited to the client. By far not the biggest problem you’ll have to deal with.
Depending on what your business does, you may have restrictions on where you can store your data. Conversely, storing your data in some territories may incur restrictions on how that data must be encrypted. Some territories may just not allow certain types of data to be stored at all; or you may need to be certified in some way and prove correct storage policies by external audit.
These rules don’t change if you store your data in a traditional data-center. You still have to be aware of where your data is going and what that means. It isn’t just a cloud provider that might make use of geolocation for resilience purposes. So your problem exists either way.
Cloud providers are aware of this issue and are very clear on where their data is stored and what control you have over this. This is specifically for compliance reasons.
Once a system is in place and running, the developers are rarely interested in maintaining it from day to day. That job usually falls to a combination of Operations and Dev Ops. The concern with PaaS is that it will in some way be harder for a non-development team to manage than if something well known and self managed is used. I think this falls into the category of ‘fear of the unknown’ – the question I would ask is “will a service that is managed for you be harder to look after than something that you have to fully manage yourself?” Even if you have a dedicated team with a lot of expertise in managing a particular technology, they will still have to do the work to manage it. PaaS usually is configured and then left. With nothing else to do than respond to any alerts which might suggest a need to provision more resources. It’s made resilient and highly available by clicking those buttons during configuration or setting those values in an automation script.
Perhaps there is a concern that in future, it will be harder to find development resource to make changes. This is a baseless fear. No-one debates this problem when referencing 3rd party libraries via NuGet – there really isn’t any difference. Sure there may be some more subtle behaviours of a PaaS service which a developer may not be aware of but any problems should be caught by testing. Often the documentation for PaaS services is pretty good and quite to the point; I’d expect any developer working with a PaaS service to spend as much time in their documentation as they would for any 3rd party library they used.
Take a look at the AWS docs for DynamoDB – the behaviour of the database when spikes take reads or writes beyond what has been provisioned is a pretty big gotcha, but it’s described really well and is pretty obvious just from a quick read through.
There is definitely going to be a need to get some monitoring in place but that is true for the whole system anyway. When establishing the monitoring and alerts, there will have to be some decisions made around what changes are worthy of monitoring and what warrant alerts. Thinking of the utilised PaaS as just something else pushing monitoring events is a pretty good way to make sure the right people will know well in advance if any problems are going to be encountered.
Lack of Published SLAs
This can cause some worries and it’s something that annoys me a lot about AWS in particular. I don’t see any reason why an SLA wouldn’t be published – people want to know what they’re buying and that’s an important part of it. But let’s get our sensible heads on – we’re talking pretty damned decent up times even if it isn’t always 99.999%.
In my opinion, worrying about the SLA for a PaaS service provided by people such as Amazon, Microsoft or Google doesn’t always make much sense. These guys have massive resources behind them – you’re far more likely to mess it up than they are. But let’s think about how failures in any service should be handled. There should always be a failure state which defaults to something which at least isn’t broken, otherwise your SLA is tied to a multiple of the SLAs of every 3rd party. Your system has to be resilient to outages of services you rely on. Also, let’s remember where you system is hosted – in the same data centre as the PaaS service is running in. If there is an outage of the PaaS service, it could be also impacting your own system. Leveraging the flexibility of geolocation and availability zones allows you to get around those kinds of outages. I’m not saying you’re guaranteed constant availability but how often have you seen amazon.co.uk go down?
Given the nature of cloud hosting coupled with a resilient approach to calling 3rd party services, a lack of published SLA isn’t as terrifying as it seems. Code for outages and do some research about what problems have occurred in the past for any given service.
Confusing Marketing Message
This is an interesting one. What is PaaS? Where does infrastructure end and platform begin? That might be pretty easy to answer in a world of traditional data-centers, but in the cloud things are a bit more fluffy. Take Autoscaling Groups, for example, or more specifically the ability to automatically scale the number of instances of your application horizontally across new instances based on some measure. I’ve heard this described as IaaS, PaaS and once as ‘IaaS plus’.
The line between IaaS and PaaS is being continuously blurred by cloud providers who I don’t think are particularly worried about the strict categorisation of the services they provide. With services themselves consisting of several elements, some of which might or might not fall neatly into either PaaS or IaaS, the result is neither.
I think this categorisation is causing an amount of analysis paralysis among some people who feel the need for services to be pigeon holed in some way. Perhaps being able to add a service into a nice, pre-defined category makes it somehow less arduous to decide whether it’s something that could be useful. “Oh, IaaS – yeah, we like that! Use it everywhere.” Such categorisations give comfort with an ivory tower, fully top down approach but don’t change the fundamental usefulness of any given service.
This feels a little 1990’s to me. Architecture is moving on and people are becoming more comfortable with the idea of transferring responsibility for the problematic bits to our cloud provider’s solution. We don’t have to do everything for ourselves to have confidence that it’s as good as it could be – in fact that idea is being turned on its head.
I love the phrase “do the hard things often”, well no-one does any of this as often as the people who provide your cloud infrastructure. Way more often than you do and they’re far better at it, which is fine – your company isn’t a cloud provider, it’s good at something else.
So should we worry that a service might or might not be neatly described as either PaaS or IaaS? I think it would be far more sensible to ask the question “is it useful?” or even “how much risk is being removed from our architecture by using it?” and that isn’t going anywhere near the cost savings involved.
Lack of Standard Aproach
In my mind, this could be a problem as it does seem to push toward vendor lock in. But, let’s consider the differing standards across cloud providers – where are they the same? The different mechanisms for providing hard disks for VM’s results in Amazon being half as fast again as Azure’s best offering. What about the available VM types? I’m not sure there is much correlation. What about auto-scaling mechanisms? Now they are definitely completely different. Code deployment services? Definitely not the same.
I suppose what I’m trying to get at is that each cloud provider has come up with their own service which does things in its own specific way. Not surprising really. We don’t complain when an Android device doesn’t have a Windows style Start button, why would we expect two huge feats of engineering which are cloud services to obey the same rules? They were created by different people with different ideas and to initially solve different problems.
So there is a lack of standards, but this doesn’t just impact PaaS. If this is a good reason to fear PaaS then it must be a good reason to fear the cloud altogether. I think we’ve found the 1990’s again.
I’m not in any way trying to say that PaaS is some kind of silver bullet, or that it is inherently always less risky than a self managed solution. What I am trying to make clear is that much of the fear around PaaS is from a lack of understanding. The further away an individual is from dealing with the different implementations (writing the code), the harder it is to see the truth of the detail. We’ve had decades of indoctrination telling us that physical architecture forms a massive barrier to change but the cloud and associated technologies (such as Dev Ops) removes that barrier. We don’t have less points of contact with external systems, we actually have more, but each of those points is far more easily changed than was once true.
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