Platforms in the cloud ease load off architecture tasks

For six years, Watchfinder, a U.K.-based global buyer and seller of pre-owned luxury watches, split the role of DevOps between application development and management of a virtual infrastructure environment. But the company’s ambitious growth plans, which included expansion to the U.S. earlier this year and an expected doubling of monthly watch sales, required IT director Jonathan Gill to think differently.

His plan was to find efficiencies in operations so that more resources could be dedicated to development.

“We’ve grown rapidly over the past couple of years, and my team has been expanding, but not on the infrastructure side — only developers,” he says.

To align with the company’s goals, Gill turned to a platform-as-a-service (PaaS) offering, a cloud-based system that eliminates the need for hands-on attention to the underlying architecture of an application environment. The PaaS setup provides development and deployment services, as well as a variety of runtime middleware services to facilitate the construction, testing and operation of applications.

Big tech players — including AmazonGoogleIBM and Microsoft, among others — have entered the PaaS market, creating platforms that free customers from the heavy lifting of architecture configuration, deployment and management to focus more fully on development of core applications.

Gill’s team, for example, migrated away from its Amazon infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) virtual server environment to Microsoft’s Azure PaaS offering. DevOps team members now concentrate on creating applications that provide a competitive business advantage, such as a reimagined database that can quickly generate real-time sales quotes.

Moving away from a single SQL Server setup, the team has developed an application that logs all of the company’s purchases and sales of watches and uses Hadoop clusters to analyze them along with market activity, historical trends and other data, and then taps Azure’s Machine Learning Studio to automatically generate quotes for customers who want to sell watches.

The data also is used to populate a catalog for buyers. “Because each watch is unique, with its own model number and origin, none of the off-the-shelf databases worked for us and we wanted to bring in more automation,” Gill says. Now, he says, 85% of the day-to-day quote-generating process can be done automatically.

Because Watchfinder was already an entrenched Microsoft shop, Azure was a natural fit and the transition was smoother — and less expensive — than moving to a new platform, says Gill, noting that Azure’s approach makes sense to his DevOps team.

Rob Enderle, principal analyst at Enderle Group, says businesses that are considering PaaS need to evaluate their platform requirements, their existing talent pool and their expected rate of growth in order to identify the offering that’s right for them.

Getting the most from your PaaS system

1. Make sure your team is comfortable with the platform. Build in time before the PaaS migration for your DevOps team to test-drive the features of your chosen platform. If necessary, hire new employees or consultants who are experienced with that platform and can show you the ropes.

2. Map out your PaaS goals. Consider what efficiencies you’ll gain — such as more freedom for operations teams, access to services that will provide a competitive advantage or a way to develop and reuse modules. Then make sure the PaaS option you’ve chosen supports those goals.

3. Document an exit strategy. Your PaaS plans might not work out or you might decide you’d rather bring some applications back in-house. Make sure you’ve accounted for that possibility in your contract with your PaaS vendor. Also, as you add services, consider what would happen if your application had to be moved to another platform or back in-house. How would you retain or re-create that functionality?

While Microsoft is a more recent entry into the PaaS marketplace, it has gained traction among enterprise users, according to Enderle. “Microsoft has made Azure its business,” he says, adding the company’s large footprint gave it an easy path to the top tier.

Other companies, such as Amazon and Google, aren’t focusing on PaaS yet. “Amazon’s primary business is still being a retailer, and Google’s primary revenue source is selling information to others. They aren’t focused on making money off of enterprise cloud services,” Enderle says.

He says IBM’s Bluemix is an interesting up-and-coming PaaS offering because it is bolstered by IBM’s $2 billion acquisition of SoftLayer’s cloud-based platform. “PaaS is much closer to IBM’s core business than it is to Amazon’s,” Enderle says.