As a hosting company we hear this question all the time, but it usually misses the mark of what hosting consumers are actually asking for. And a misunderstanding about what hosted Cloud services are and do can lead to solutions that might not fit the problems customers are trying to solve. So what do consumers actually mean when they ask, “Do you sell Cloud?”
Due to the server-centric types of products that hosting companies have typically offered, when traditional hosting consumers ask if a hosting provider “sells Cloud,” they are likely asking if that provider offers a Cloud IaaS solution when, in fact, their needs might be better served with a PaaS or even SaaS solution. Confused yet? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Let’s take a minute to look at these terms to try to understand a little better just what Cloud has to offer the hosting consumer.
IaaS—or Infrastructure as a Service—refers to the now ubiquitous “server in the Cloud” concept. With an IaaS solution, you receive a virtualized server OS and a generalized application stack on top of it (such as a LAMP). This basic unit of hosted Cloud IaaS is known as an instance, and it can be delivered on top of virtualization technologies such as Xen, KVM, or even Virtuozzo Containers. With IaaS, everything beneath the OS installation and the virtual networking provided with it (i.e. the virtualization software, the hardware, and the physical network build-out) is a “black box” to the end user, which is fine because few users have a real need to interact directly with the server hardware.
Platform as a Service is a conceptually higher layer than IaaS. In PaaS the operating system joins the hardware and virtualization as part of the black box that users cannot see into. The end user simply interfaces with a programming language such as php, Java or Ruby. PaaS offers this programming environment—the platform—to the user.
Anyone familiar with these terms knows that this is something of a simplification of the IaaS/PaaS relationship. After all, the definitions of these terms are somewhat of a moving target in the industry right now. For an interesting article that illustrates some of the nuance of why simple definitions do not always suffice, click here.
There’s another higher-order layer that is important to mention and will come up again later in our discussion: Software as a Service. In SaaS, a single application such as WordPress is exposed to the end user. The functioning application itself is the service while everything beneath it that makes it run is hidden from the end user. WordPress is a great example of SaaS when hosted on wordpress.com.
So, if you’re wondering if you can buy a highly scalable virtualized Cloud instance to move your server into, the question is not Do you sell Cloud? but Do you offer a hosted Cloud IaaS solution? But is asking whether you can move a server into the Cloud, really the right question?
To be clear, one -aaS is not better than another, each just targets different levels in the technology chain to solve problems. In fact, SaaS and PaaS solutions are most likely delivered on top of IaaS—and SaaS may be delivered on top of PaaS. The key is to know what you’re looking for and shop accordingly. Do you need a turn-key solution for a single application that stresses ease-of-use and low maintenance? Look at SaaS for that particular application. Or do you need a highly-customizable environment from which you can build one-off applications? Look to PaaS for a single programming environment. Or look to IaaS for the ultimate in flexibility to design your solution.
Some of you may remember in Part 2 of our Cloud Series I discussed some of the truly awesome new possibilities with Cloud hosting technology, and the associated learning curve: the ability to divorce the application from the OS and the hardware and have many instances working in tandem to accomplish a greater goal, each instantaneously scalable and clone-able to meet traffic demands on the fly. This is where Cloud IaaS shines.
To be sure, individual applications can be custom built on top of IaaS server instances and tap into the incredible scaling some Cloud solutions offer, but being able to leverage a PaaS or SaaS solution allows you to skip some of the complexity of having to build a one-off solution in an IaaS environment. As the future of Cloud unfolds PaaS solutions that are specifically tailored to languages like Java, Ruby and PHP as well as SaaS solutions that offer turn-key application environments like WordPress, phpBB, and Magento will become the norm.
So, back to the original question, “Do you sell Cloud?” The answer you receive to that question may not provide you with the information that you really need when choosing a provider. However, you will quickly be able to home in on the right answer and provider if you know what you’re looking for, or if you find a provider who is willing to work with you to help you determine the optimal solution for your requirement.
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