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Vendors aim to get cloud app development off the ground

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Developers have been building cloud applications for years, but they have been doing it offline. A new batch of vendors is trying to change that, putting developers in the cloud with their applications through cloud integrated development environments, or cloud IDE.

But while developers and the cloud applications they have created have been enormously disruptive in companies, the developers themselves have stuck with their preferred brush and canvas -- the desktop IDE and the text editor.

“That’s probably the main issue we face,” said Benjamin Mestrallet, founder and CEO of eXo, one of several major cloud IDE vendors. “When you’re used to something, it’s extremely difficult to change, especially in an application where things get done.”

The development environment is a personal one for developers, one that they often customize to their own specifications. They are used to their individual workstations and are not easily persuaded to give them up. Cloud IDE offerings from Cloud9, eXo, Eclipse (Orion) and others are planting the seeds of change.

“I think there’s a lot of evangelizing going on. But evangelizing is not just about broadcasting, it’s about interaction,” said Reuben Daniels, CEO of Cloud9, a cloud IDE vendor aimed at JavaScript and Node.js developers. “I think the cloud IDE space is very young and we’re learning what is required.”

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For Daniels, what’s required isn’t perfecting cloud IDEs to have the same functionality as desktop IDEs; that problem, he said, is solved. It’s finding ways to add value in the cloud that goes beyond working locally.

In comes collaboration, which has quickly become one of the tech industry’s golden words alongside social and mobile. Cloud IDEs allow for more and faster collaboration between development teams and are particularly useful for teams that are distributed geographically.

“As SaaS products, cloud IDEs are naturally networked in a way that most desktop alternatives are not,” said Stephen O’Grady, an analyst with RedMonk in Portland, Maine. “We've evolved mechanisms to cope with this asymmetry -- version control systems, most obviously -- but there are advantages to being able to collaborate easily and in real time on the same assets.”  

Daniels talks up Cloud9’s collaborative editing abilities, saying that desktop users looking to gain the same efficiency are left with trying to huddle around one developer’s desk and look over his shoulder. He describes Cloud9’s collaborative editing as being akin to Google Docs, in which many users can remotely work on a project in real time.

Being able to collaborate on the same project is just one part of what cloud IDE vendors say make their products special. Integration with other cloud services, like social coding repository GitHub, is the other.

Who is using a cloud IDE?

The bulk of development is still being done offline, but cloud IDEs have seen gains in certain areas.

Mestrallet reports that San Francisco-based eXo, which is focused on Java, has 15,000 businesses registered for its cloud IDE, with an average of five users in each one. Since introducing a Java debugger, something that was available on desktop IDEs and seen as a necessity, eXo has drawn 3,000 new users a month.

Cloud9, which is targeted at Web development languages JavaScript and Node.js, has seen uptake among younger developers.

“There are always generational gaps between developer populations; from text editors to IDEs to SaaS-based development tooling, developer preferences are strong and entrenched,” O’Grady said.

Daniels doesn’t see it necessarily breaking across age groups, but definitely sees a cultural component in the positioning of cloud IDEs, adding that people using new languages are more accepting of new ideas.

“I’m not sure if we want to call it generational, but it’s definitely cultural. Developers have a very specific culture,” Daniels said.

Developing a cloud IDE ecosystem

Both Mestrallet and Daniels said that one of the great strengths of desktop tools is their rich ecosystems. They add that setting up a web of partners should be easy in a cloud space -- it’s what every other sector of the cloud is busy doing -- and they are working toward that end.

“Every good IDE has an ecosystem around it with lots of partners and lots of tools which help with the workflow of a developer,” Daniels said. “We already have a set of partners, everyone from Microsoft to Mozilla and VMware, and we work with them to do things like integrate with their cloud services. That’s something special that only a cloud IDE can really do.”

Mestrallet sees value in forming partnerships with Platform as a Service (PaaS) vendors, which is where developers take their applications once they are built. eXo has formed partnerships with four prominent PaaS vendors -- CloudBees, Heroku, Red Hat OpenShift and Cloud Foundry -- and made it easy to onramp projects from the IDE to the platform.

“I think cloud IDE is the best way to evangelize the PaaS market,” Mestrallet said. “The PaaS vendors understand that, and they want to support our stuff and they are really interested.”

O’Grady agrees. “Partnerships with PaaS vendors are a natural fit for cloud IDE vendors, given the nature of PaaS development,” he said.

Daniels has brought other cloud services into the Cloud9 ecosystem, including SourceLabs, a test cloud that allows Cloud9 developers a chance to test how their applications would function in a real environment.  

What’s on the horizon
Everyone seems to agree that it will be an uphill battle for cloud IDE vendors for some time. And they agree that its one being fought with desktop IDEs, not the other cloud IDE vendors.

Mestrallet and Daniels don’t see each other as competitors, nor do they view other cloud IDE vendors that way at this point.

“The cloud IDE market is kind of a new market,” Mestrallet said. “We can say we compete with [other cloud IDEs] to get the attention of the people, but those IDEs are really specialized.”

Mestrallet is optimistic about the future for cloud IDEs, saying it’s only a matter of time before they gain wide acceptance.

“With time, things advance and little by little people change their practices, change their tools. But the issue is it’s little by little,” he said. “How long? I’d like to say three years, but I think it might be more than that.”

In that time, O’Grady says cloud IDE vendors would be wise not to overplay their hand.

“Online editors undoubtedly have advantages over desktop alternatives, but the reverse is equally true,” he said. “The best strategy is [to] position them as a complementary technology, at least until comfort levels with the technology improve.”

As for the future, O’Grady sees a role for cloud IDEs, but not one of market domination.

“Online IDEs will inevitably play a role in development, but they're not likely to eliminate desktop alternatives any more than IDEs themselves eliminated text editors.”


This was first published in June 2012

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