What is PaaS? A Beginner's Guide to Platform as a Service

Aaron Walker
Aaron Walker  |  August 20, 2018

Platform as a service, typically referred to as PaaS, is a cloud-based service that delivers a range of developer tools and deployment capabilities.

Companies use PaaS solutions to build, deploy, and maintain applications. These tools can be confused with infrastructure as a service (IaaS) offerings, but PaaS solutions offer a much wider range of development tools and prebuilt application components.

What Is PaaS?

The preconfigured, all-in-one nature of PaaS solutions has made them popular among modern technology companies. Businesses can save money by consolidating development tools into one platform and save time utilizing ready-made parts. PaaS solutions will come equipped with an array of element libraries, workflows, templates, and prebuilt data structures.

Programmers and developers can spend more time on user experience testing and adding functionality. Complex data structures can be simplified, migrated, or integrated as well, simplifying a number of backend development process. Prebuilt application backends reduce development by simplifying database migration software and data integration.

Many software as a service (SaaS) solutions are built on PaaS offerings. These tools are developed using PaaS toolkits and hosted in the cloud. Companies developing SaaS offerings can keep their hosting costs low until traffic demands require increased investment. This makes PaaS solutions ideal for startups looking for a low initial cost for a long-term investment.

PaaS solutions also present application lifecycle management features. They have the initial deployment tools, but most have additional features to suit your company’s product development methodologies. DevOps teams can plug in cloud-based continuous integration tools to add updates without downtime. Companies using the waterfall approach can deploy an update with ease using the same console they use for day-to-day management.

PaaS technology has myriad benefits, and it’s no wonder why its presence and influence have grown dramatically in recent years. The cloud service market is expected to grow more than 21 percent in 2018, from $153 billion to $186 billion, according to Gartner. They also expect it to nearly double 2017’s market value by 2021, delivering more than $300 billion in revenue.


PaaS definition

PaaS is defined by a computing model where cloud service providers deliver a set of development kits and programming environments as well as prebuilt application components. These prebuilt components often include back-end frameworks, libraries, database management tools, and other components.

The cloud-computing delivery model is what sets PaaS apart from traditional software development tools. It presents an all-in-one model for development, delivery, and maintenance. Traditional development tools will provide a development environment or a software testing tool. Some development offerings will pair tools or deliver a suite, but most of those programs are stored on local devices, rather than in the cloud.

The cloud service providers allow users to select the tools they need and deliver them over the internet. They accomplish this by using their infrastructure and data centers to virtualize tools to meet the customer’s need. Some open-source PaaS solutions are not managed by vendors and do not rely on third-party infrastructure. These tools can be hosted on in-house infrastructure or through rented computing power from a cloud provider or through an infrastructure as a service (IaaS) solution.

PaaS can be hosted in either public or private cloud. Public PaaS is beneficial due to ease of implementation; users simply subscribe to the service and start working. Private PaaS requires more intervention from the IT department (in that private PaaS software needs to be installed on your hardware). Private PaaS are used almost exclusively by enterprise companies, as they have the additional resources that are required to set up and maintain it. Private PaaS has an advantage when it comes to control, security, and compliance; however, this is because the company itself can take full responsibility of those aspects.


How does PaaS work?

A common issue for modern businesses is scaling to the global economy. Businesses and individuals that develop and maintain applications are often hit with this problem. The cloud computing industry has developed many solutions, and platform as a service (PaaS) offerings are one of the most commonly leveraged tools. They are highly scalable application development and hosting solutions that diminish infrastructural burden on small and growing businesses.

PaaS solutions supply and power an application’s back end, which usually includes facets such as databases, web servers, operating systems, and storage. Service providers give developers the tools required to build atop this pre-developed back end. They are presented in a web-based or cloud-synced platform for developers to access anywhere, at any time. These tools can be filled with existing company data and instantly sync with your application.

With back-end development out of the way, for the most part, developers can focus on front-end design and user experience. These PaaS solutions provide either a web-based or downloadable interface. The development environments also have plentiful integrations to sync external data and provide additional functionality. In the end, the PaaS supplies a platform that allows design, development, and delivery to the end user.

Cost saving and planning burdens can be significantly reduced using PaaS solutions. The reduced need for infrastructure simplifies hardware and personnel requirements, giving more time for development and application management. The level of abstraction between hardware and software allows for increased resource control. As resource needs increase, no pressure is put on the business. Pricing reflects the amount of information transferred and number of users allows for rapid scaling and predictable prices.


Paas examples and use cases

SaaS applications

One of the most common use cases of PaaS is the development of SaaS applications. These SaaS deliverables can range from an e-commerce payment gateway to a cloud-based backup software solution. PaaS provides the tools to facilitate cloud application development from brainstorming and organizing to development and deployment. 

All companies that plan to iterate quickly, alter data, update applications, and scale accessibility should consider investing in a PaaS solution. They are highly flexible and reasonably affordable solutions that provide companies with more bandwidth, storage, and development tools during the most crucial stages of software development.

Cloud migration

Companies with existing legacy applications or on-premise infrastructure are continuing to adopt PaaS as their cloud-based solution for the future. Companies choose to migrate their company data and applications from on-premise hardware, because it’s cheaper in general and less expensive to maintain. On-premise hardware requires dedicated staff to operate and maintain. Outsourcing that can cut down on staffing needs and hardware costs. The data hosted in the cloud will also be accessible to virtually any permitted user with an internet connection.

Another common migration use case is moving legacy applications from local infrastructure to the cloud. These applications become more scalable and easier to distribute, monitor, and maintain. The PaaS vendor typically offers cloud services in addition to PaaS. These tools can be used to beef up security, add functionality, or improve monitoring. There are a significant number of additional features companies can add once they’ve moved their applications into the cloud.

Mobile PaaS backends

MBaaS offerings supply similar development tools and backend infrastructure to that of PaaS solutions. But while PaaS tools are highly dynamic and can be used for virtually any kind of development, MBaaS solutions are geared specifically towards mobile application development. The scope is much more narrow, but can provide the same scalability and reliability.

Still, PaaS solutions can be used for mobile applications. Many companies and developers use PaaS solutions to create cross-platform applications that can be used on any device. PaaS provides a dynamic and flexible solution that can be used to create an application for virtually any endpoint device.

Benefits of PaaS

Developers and businesses use platform as a service (PaaS) solutions to develop, test, and deploy cloud-based and web applications. Developers are given tools like text editors, development environments, testing capabilities, and other necessary features to write, build, configure, deploy, and maintain modern applications. They provide the middle layer on which software as a service (SaaS) solutions are built. In addition, they typically provide some level of infrastructure beyond development and deployment capabilities. 

Increase development speed 

PaaS solutions allow for rapid prototyping and development by providing prebuilt backend infrastructure. Instead of building large databases and managing backend requirements, developers can focus on features, performance, and usability. Data can be hosted atop an existing backend and synced through APIs for live updates and integration with external applications.

PaaS solutions also typically provide development, staging, and testing environments. These tools centralize developer resources for increased productivity and reduced costs. Many PaaS offerings provide tools to automate builds and tests to save time and eliminate bugs. Once development has ceased, applications can quickly be hosted through the PaaS solution. 

Reduced costs and commitment 

Companies launching an application for the first time may not have the financial means to purchase the hardware and software necessary to build and deploy an application. PaaS solutions are designed for startup accessibility with scalable costs. This means new companies can opt in and develop an application quickly and begin creating revenue. As demand grows, they can increase spending periodically to maintain their application without a large upfront investment.

Companies looking to reduce their current operating costs could see PaaS solutions as a viable option. These are typically large companies with various existing applications. They may be running on in-house infrastructure or an IaaS solution. But consolidating infrastructure management with development and maintenance can both simplify and reduce your current infrastructure spending. 

Reducing infrastructural burden

Aside from prebuilt backend and development infrastructure, most PaaS solutions reduce security risk by providing a stable network infrastructure on which applications can run. In-house or on-premise infrastructure can be very expensive and require additional staff for implementation, operation, and maintenance. PaaS solutions allow users to deploy information and code directly to a public, private, or hybrid cloud.

With PaaS solutions, users are able to manage objects, resources, and databases remotely and simultaneously. They do not have to maintain servers or update hardware as needs change. Some companies use PaaS solutions atop existing infrastructure, but files, data, and resources can be easily deployed into cloud storage.

Improve scalability and reliability

The pay-as-you-go model also enables worry-free scaling. Costs will increase, but performance should not be affected by increased traffic and usage. Databases can also be scaled as the information within them multiplies. As performance is maintained through reliable cloud servers, security is often cited as an additional level of reliability. With proper configuration, data can be tightly secured, ensuring safety for company and customer information. 

Other benefits of PaaS

Companies can benefit from easier application reuse, increased resource allocation, and improved customer support, among other things. And that’s in addition to lower costs, quicker development, and increased security. Application multi-tenancy can allow developers working on different projects to utilize the same core service and isolate instances for each application. That improves speed, performance, and security. Resource allocation can be simplified through shared resources across applications. Each application can allocate and share resources while properly documenting each KPI and recording historical performance trends. For the business, this means reduced overhead, lower headcount requirements, reduced failover frequency, and quicker deployments.

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Simplified integrations

A PaaS solution will have to integrate with numerous other tools in your organization, and the complexity of these integrations ties directly into the time and effort needed to implement the platform. In addition to having to integrate with the infrastructure as a service (IaaS), a PaaS will likely need to integrate with other development tools that are already in place, such as version control systems, build automation tools, software testing products, or integrated development environments (IDEs). 

Some PaaS tools provide for continuous deployment and integration. This allows companies to apply updates and change functionality without limiting public access to applications. Virtual machines can also be extremely helpful for computing, storage, and simulation. Element libraries, pre-configured integrations, and programing language variety also contribute to the development process. 


Disadvantages of PaaS

Vendor lock-in

Affordable development tool kits and reasonable host pricing are readily available for businesses. In most cases, companies won’t have to invest in costly servers or other infrastructure because it’s handled by the provider. When demand increases, the payment model will continue to reflect usage. Hopefully, as user bases grow, revenue follows, allowing for simpler expense forecasting. Still, some users disapprove of some potential vendor lock-in when using PaaS offerings. Since your company’s entire application is built on the platform, it can be difficult to change providers without affecting functionality. 

Changing PaaS providers would involve a significant workload and expense increase. All of the application’s code and data will need to be migrated. All of the network monitoring and configuration management operations will need to be restructured. Contracts will also need to be renegotiated. It is possible to switch PaaS providers, but it can be time consuming, labor intensive, and expensive. 

Lack of control

One downside of relying on a PaaS provider is that the product is vulnerable to downtime during which users cannot access the system. Downtime is a necessary evil needed to improve and maintain the platform, but if it occurs too frequently or at unannounced times, developers could be left in the dark, basking in their frustration. Having a reliable system is key to launching an application quickly and efficiently, so make sure you ask what the service uptime is and urge providers to give advance notice whenever possible.

Hardware and software dependencies

Companies migrating a legacy application may have difficulty pairing their existing hardware to their new provider’s hardware. Some applications require specific kinds of servers, data storage systems, and networking components. Some cloud service providers will be able to accommodate these needs at little to no cost. Some may not be able to meet your hardware needs, while others may be able to accommodate your hardware requirements at an additional price point.

Programming languages and existing development software setups should be considered when adopting a PaaS. One of the first steps you need to take when selecting a PaaS provider is to choose which programming language you will use. Every PaaS platform supports a different set of programming languages, so ensuring that the one you choose is compatible with your language of choice is a crucial step in your decision process.


IaaS vs. PaaS

The tech world has witnessed an onslaught of “aaS” offerings in recent years. PaaS remains one of the most distinguishable and widely used solutions on the market. Service providers offer a variety of tools to host and deploy applications, but most tools fall into specific categories. It’s difficult to differentiate when you see a new “aaS” type, such as disaster recovery as a service (DRaaS) or mobile backend as a service (MBaaS). But despite their similar names, most “aaS” offerings provide very different toolsets.

Infrastructure as a service (IaaS) is the most closely related “aaS” offering. IaaS is a cloud computing model based on outsourced infrastructural resources. Like PaaS offerings, they reduce the burden of having expensive on-premise computing and hosting hardware. But they do not provide the same back-end processing capabilities and design tools. 

The key features of IaaS solutions are increased server space, virtualized servers, and storage capabilities. IaaS offerings are well suited for businesses that can’t afford the heavy maintenance and staff required to maintain large-scale networks rather than companies in need of rapid development and scaling.

SaaS vs. PaaS

While many of the underlying concepts between PaaS and SaaS overlap, there are some obvious differences. The main discrepancy is the nature of its use. PaaS is designed to build, deploy and maintain applications using cloud infrastructure, while SaaS offerings simply deliver a fully functional application. SaaS users access applications through a web browser or a downloadable desktop application. PaaS users build applications to be delivered in that form. 

Many SaaS tools are designed as development solutions, but that does not mean they are fully functional cloud platforms. The SaaS application may supply a text editor or development environment, but they do not have the same scope of prebuilt components, hosting capabilities, and application lifecycle management features.

PaaS and SaaS solutions are priced in a variety of different models. SaaS tools range from monthly, flat-rate fees to headcount and usage totals. PaaS solutions charge for the variety of toolsets used, data transferred, and the number of developers. Be sure to understand how the pricing structure works and which factors drive the costs. 


PaaS Providers

AWS

Amazon Web Services has a wide range of cloud service offerings that range from PaaS and IaaS solutions to analytics and security solutions. Their flagship offering is AWS EC2, which offers a variety of IaaS and PaaS tools. It gives users complete control over their computing infrastructure and lets them scale usage to meet their demands. It was one of their first publicly available cloud computing offerings and it has remained a core part of AWS since 2006. (It’s even hosted Amazon.com since 2010.)

AWS Elastic Beanstalk and AWS Lambda are AWS’ most popular pure-play PaaS offerings. Elastic Beanstalk is a scalable platform for developing applications written in Java, .NET, PHP, Node.js, Python, Ruby, and Go. It also supports docker applications and common application servers including Apache, Nginx, Passenger, and IIS.

AWS Lambda is a serverless computing platform. It allows users to execute code without actually managing any server infrastructure. The product is designed to run applications on any endpoint device and scale continuously by only running when requests are triggered.

Microsoft Azure

The Azure platform is Microsoft’s flagship cloud computing service offering. It was launched in 2008 and provides PaaS, IaaS, and SaaS solutions. Today, Azure offers a wide array of computing, development, networking, and integration services.

There are a few ways to utilize PaaS through Azure’s plug-and-play service model. But Azure Web Apps and Azure App Service are two of their most commonly used pure-play PaaS offerings. Web Apps is pretty straightforward. It’s a managed platform that supports Windows and Linux applications.

Azure App Service takes a more modern approach to PaaS, offering complete infrastructure control and a development platform for web apps, mobile apps, and APIs. Users can integrate existing frameworks to speed up development time and integrate continuous delivery tools to build out DevOps processes.

Azure Functions is noteworthy; it operates much like AWS Lambda through its serverless computing model. The event-driven code execution model is designed to accelerate development time, optimize resource usage, and simplify operational processes.

Google Cloud

The Google Cloud Platform offers a laundry list of cloud computing services, much like AWS and Azure. Most industry experts rank them as the fourth-largest vendor in the entire cloud computing space, behind AWS, Microsoft, and IBM. In July, the company announced a number of offerings including improved security, and new edge computing capabilities.

Its main PaaS tool is Google App Engine, a decade-old cloud platform for building and hosting web applications. It operates on a managed serverless platform that supports a variety of popular programming languages. It also comes with built-in tools for monitoring, versioning, and application security management.

Google Cloud Functions is has comparable event-driven functionality to that of Lambda and Azure Functions. Most companies use Cloud Functions as a serverless backend, but it can also support real-time data processing and intelligent applications.


The future of PaaS

The PaaS market has not grown quite as rapidly as the IaaS and SaaS markets, but it has made significant strides in recent years. The growing popularity of containerized applications and the evolving microservices delivery model have significantly changed application development for hundreds of companies. Simplifying PaaS delivery has added a lot of control for customers. They can add or remove services as their needs change. Customers can even adopt cutting-edge artificial intelligence or edge computing capabilities with ease.

PaaS and IaaS are slowly blurring together as hybrid service models attempt to deliver complete control to the customer. The two technologies have formed a symbiotic relationship. Companies can build their application with PaaS and manage or scale with IaaS control. Companies that can afford both fully fledged IaaS and PaaS offerings can gain full control over infrastructure, resources, networks, and code.

Low-code

PaaS-esque solutions such as low-code development platforms have increased in popularity in recent years. These tools simplify the development process while providing managed backend services. Many of these products combine templated applications and prebuilt backends with customizable code or drag-and-drop interfaces.

Companies with smaller development teams or individuals with minimal coding experience can jump in and create interactive applications or customized workflow tools. Some individuals do have concern about non-programmers building applications, but the technology has made it easier for user experience and design experts to take more control over the development process.

Containerization

Containers have taken world by storm, becoming a billion-dollar industry in just a few years. By 2020, the industry will be worth upwards of $2.6 billion, according to 451 Research. The technology is built around the idea of isolation and abstraction. Containers possess everything they need to operate (runtime, code, and libraries) within a single construct. Companies have used this technology to improve security, increase technology time, and simplify configuration management.

The number of companies using container technology is steadily growing. Many employees from corporate giants have reviewed containerization software products on G2 Crowd. The most common are Docker and Kubernetes, two container management solutions. Many cloud service providers have even begun offering cloud-based container management solutions such as AWS ECS and Google’s GKE.

The internet of things

The internet of things (IoT) has forced a number of industries to evolve. Nearly every household device or business tool can be connected to the internet. As a result, many PaaS vendors have released offerings to meet the needs of cross-platform applications operating on disparate devices. IoT management solutions, many of which are offered by PaaS providers, are used to build and manage scalable multi-tenant IoT applications.

 Since everything is connected to the web and thousands of IoT apps have hit the market, a plethora of data emerged from an untapped source. Streaming analytics technologies came to power as a practical solution. These tools can monitor devices in real time and help companies better understand users while improving application performance. They also help integrate these large, continuously growing datasets into third-party applications.


It’s important to stay in the loop as the PaaS market continues to grow and cloud services expand their capabilities. These tools can help companies go from archaic non-factors to industry innovators. 

Visit our platform as a service (PaaS) category to stay up to date on the latest offerings and top-rated solutions. Whichever software or services you use, share your personal experience in the form of a review on G2 Crowd to help fellow professionals around the world with their business buying decisions.

Aaron Walker
Author

Aaron Walker

Aaron is a Senior Research Specialist who focuses on cybersecurity, information technology and software development. He began at G2 Crowd in 2016 after graduating from The University of Iowa. Aaron has written for The Daily Herald, Tribune Media, and The Daily Iowan, among other media outlets. In his free time, Aaron enjoys shooting film photography and fine-tuning his illustration skills.