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Specialized PaaS options may differ based on vertical industry needs

With PaaS app development choices growing and prices declining, the right choice may come down to which one is the best feature-for-feature fit for different vertical industries.

When developing mobile and cloud applications, does it make sense to look for a platform-as-a-service offering that's tailored for your specific industry? Or, are today's PaaS options so broad in features that almost any one will do? When it comes to specialized PaaS options, there's no clear-cut answer.

Specialized PaaS, a concept that researcher Gartner embraced as recently as mid-2015, no longer seems to garner mainstream support. The reasons are simple: continually expanding feature sets among leading PaaS providers are vast and competition among major players like Amazon, Microsoft, Google, and IBM continues to drive prices down.

"Today, I think it's fool's gold to go into a proprietary development platform," said Mark Geene, CEO of Cloud Elements, a Denver provider of API hub technology. "They can never keep up with the innovation that's happening at the leading platform services, like Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, Google, and IBM Bluemix. And continually declining pricing has made cost nearly a nonfactor," Geene said.

Geene's view of a PaaS-agnostic world is gaining traction, but it is not yet universally shared. "Choosing the right platform for development is a critical decision," said longtime cloud consultant David Linthicum, senior vice president at Cloud Technology Partners. "People pick particular clouds because their industry is better supported -- healthcare, finance and retail -- than in other base cloud systems."

Linthicum said that he sees organizations move to Amazon Web Services not only for its ability to scale, but for compliance with key technologies, including the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard and Sarbanes-Oxley logging for the retail and financial services industries, respectively. "Amazon has done a good job with this," he said.

Similarly, Microsoft is strong in specialized PaaS options for the healthcare industry. "Microsoft was an early innovator in supporting healthcare in the cloud," Linthicum said. "Pricing has become a secondary consideration to having the right feature set, which may cost slightly more but allows you to get a better, more-compliant application to market faster."

Don't fence me in

Mark GeeneMark Geene

The downside of choosing specialized PaaS options is the possibility of vendor lock-in -- ironically, the very situation that public cloud computing and open source software were intended to avoid. "Choose one PaaS for a specific capability and you may find yourself locked into that provider without even realizing it," Geene said.

Brian Gracely, director of product strategy in Red Hat's OpenShift PaaS group, believes the idea of specialized PaaS options for specific industries may have already been eclipsed by growing feature sets of mainstream PaaS providers. "Applications, regardless of what industry they are written for, are much more similar than they are different. While I haven't seen specialized PaaS, what I have seen is customized services that are of more value to some industries more than others."

I think it's fool's gold to go into a proprietary development platform.
Mark GeeneCEO, Cloud Elements

One problem that could lead to lock-in is that industry-specific features may not be universally available or implementations from different providers are too dissimilar to facilitate platform portability. "If you choose a PaaS based on specific features, you are going to get locked in to that provider," Linthicum said. Choosing a particular PaaS because it excels in Health Information Portability and Accountability Act logging for healthcare will ultimately make it costly or even impossible to port applications to another provider. "The trade-off is that if you go for a particular set of features, you are going to be married to the platform for the long term," he said.

Market growth

Pricing notwithstanding, the market for platform services of all types continues to soar. In a January 2016 report, IDC projected that spending on global public cloud services will rise at a rate nearly six times that of overall IT spending, surging from $70 billion in 2015 to more than $141 billion in 2019. That's a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 19.4%.

Though software as a service is expected to account for more than two-thirds of all public cloud spending in the IDC forecast, both PaaS and infrastructure as a service are expected to grow at considerably faster rates than SaaS with five-year CAGRs of 30.6% and 27.0%, respectively.

PaaS comfort factor

Though choosing a PaaS based on feature sets is essential, opting for one that is wildly different from developers' existing spheres of expertise is likely to be counterproductive.

"Hopefully, the PaaS you are going to is accommodating the technologies that your company already uses," Geene said. "This will allow you to program with the languages and data sources that you are used to using." Especially important is that any new move to a PaaS embraces microservices, regardless of provider or industry for which the app is written. "Moving app development to a PaaS is the single best opportunity to get away from the legacy monolithic model and determine the appropriate level of granularity for the services that, together, will make up an application's functionality," Geene said.

As for specialized PaaS options tuned for specific vertical industries with special requirements, exemplified by healthcare and financial services, it's not necessary, said Geene. "The horizontal PaaS offerings are so functional, I can't view any application that you'd want to build that you couldn't on any of the leading PaaS platforms." Any industry-specific need should be implemented as a service that can be called from the application program, he added. "There should not be dependencies to a particular platform and you should be able to call any industry-specific service through an API."

Joel Shore is news writer for TechTarget's Business Applications and Architecture Media Group. Write to him at jshore@techtarget.com or follow @JshoreTT on Twitter.

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