The Road to PaaS

I have observed that discussions about CloudFoundry often lack accurate context. Some questions I get that indicate context is missing include:

  • What Java version does CloudFoundry support?
  • What database products/versions are available
  • How can I access the server directly?

There are a few reasons that the questions above are not relevant for CloudFoundry (or any modern PaaS environment). To understand why, it’s important to understand how we got to PaaS and where we came from.

cloudfoundry-compared-traditional

Landscape

When computers were first becoming a common requirement for the enterprise, most applications were monolithic. All applicaiton components would run on the same general purpose server. This included interface, application technology (e.g. Java, .NET and PHP) and data and file storage. Over time, these functions were distributed across different servers. The servers also began to take on characteristic differences that would accommodate the technology being run.

Today, compute has been commoditized and virtualized. Rather than thinking of compute as a physical server, built to suit a specific purpose, compute is instead viewed in discreet chunks that can be scaled horizontally. PaaS today marries an application with those chunks of compute capacity as needed and abstracts application access to services, which may or may not run on the same PaaS platform.

Contributor and Organization Dynamic

The role of contributors and organizations have changed throughout the evolution of the landscape. Early monolithic systems required technology experts who were familiar with a broad range of technologies, including system administration, programming, networking, etc. As the functions were distributed, the roles became more defined by their specializations. Webmasters, DBAs, and programmers became siloed. Some unintended conflicts complicated this more distributed architecture due in part to the fact that efficiencies in one silo did not always align with the best interests of other silos.

DevOps

As the evolution pushed toward compute as a commodity, the new found flexibility drove many frustrated technologists to reach beyond their respective silo to accomplish their design and delivery objectives. Programmers began to look at how different operating system environments and database technologies could enable them to produce results faster and more reliably. System administrators began to rethink system management in ways that abstracted hardware dependencies and decreased the complexity involved in augmenting compute capacity available to individual functions. Datastore, network, storage and other experts began a similar process of abstracting their offering. This blending of roles and new dynamic of collaboration and contribution has come to be known as DevOps.

Interoperability

Interoperability between systems and applications in the days of monolithic application development made use of many protocols. This was due in part to the fact that each monolithic system exposed it’s services in different ways. As the above progression took place, the field of available protocols normalized. RESTful interfaces over HTTP have emerged as an accepted standard and the serialization structures most common to REST are XML and JSON. This makes integration straight forward and provides for a high amount of reuse of existing services. This also makes services available to a greater diversity of devices.

Security and Isolation

One key development that made this evolution from compute as hardware to compute as a utility possible was effective isolation of compute resources on shared hardware. The first big step in this direction came in the form of virualization. Virtualized hardware made it possible to run many distinct operating systems simultaneously on the same hardware. It also significantly reduced the time to provision new server resources, since the underlying hardware was already wired and ready.

Compute as a ________

The next step in the evolution came in the form of containers. Unlike virtualization, containers made it possible to provide an isolated, configurable compute instance in much less time that consumed fewer system resources to create and manage (i.e. lightweight). This progression from compute as hardware to compute as virtual and finally to compute as a container made it realistic to literally view compute as discreet chunks that could be created and destroyed in seconds as capacity requirements changed.

Infrastructure as Code

Another important observation regarding the evolution of compute is that as the compute environment became easier to create (time to provision decreased), the process to provision changed. When a physical server required ordering, shipping, mounting, wiring, etc., it was reasonable to take a day or two to install and configure the operating system, network and related components. When that hardware was virtualized and could be provisioned in hours (or less), system administrators began to pursue more automation to accommodate the setup of these systems (e.g. ansible, puppet, chef and even Vagrant). This made it possible to think of systems as more transient. With the advent of Linux containers, the idea of infrastructure as code became even more prevalent. Time to provision is approaching zero.

A related byproduct of infrastructure defined by scripts or code was reproduceability. Whereas it was historically difficult to ensure that two systems were configured identically, the method for provisioning containers made it trivial to ensure that compute resources were identically configured. This in turn improved debugging, collaboration and accommodated versioning of operating environments.

Contextual Answers

Given that the landscape has changed so drastically, let’s look at some possible answers to the questions from the beginning of this post.

  • Q. What Java (or any language) version does CloudFoundry support?
    A. It supports any language that is defined in the scripts used to provision the container that will run the application. While it is true that some such scripts may be available by default, this doesn’t imply that the PaaS provides only that. If it’s a fit, use it. If not, create new provisioning scripts.
  • Q. What database products/versions are available?
    A. Any database product or version can be used. If the datastore services available that are associated with the PaaS by default are not sufficient, bring your own or create another application component to accommodate your needs.
  • Q. How can I access the server directly?
    A. There is no “the server” If you want to know more about the server environment, look at the script/code that is responsible for provisioning it. Even better, create a new container and play around with it. Once you get things just right, update your code so that every new container incorporates the desired changes. Every “the server” will look exactly how you define it.
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About Daniel Watrous

I'm a Software & Electrical Engineer and online entrepreneur.

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