Can Software Development Aspire to the Cloud?

Posted in Application Development, Cloud, Java, SaaS (Software as a Service), Technology Market Trends at 1:00 am by Tony Baer

As we’re all too aware, the tech field has always been all too susceptible to the fad of the buzzword, which of curse gave birth to another buzzword as popularized by gave birth to Gartner’s Hype Cycles. But in essence the tech field is no different from the worlds of fashion or the latest wave in electronic gizmos – there’s always going to be some new gimmick on the block.

But when it comes to cloud, we’re just as guilty as the next would-be prognosticator as it figured into several of our top predictions for 2009. In a year of batten-down-the-hatch psychology, anything that saves or postpones costs, avoids long-term commitment, while preserving all options (to scale up or ramp down) is going to be quite popular, and under certain scenarios, cloud services support all that.

And so it shouldn’t be surprising that roughly a decade after Salesforce.com re-popularized the concept (remember, today’s cloud is yesterday’s time-sharing), the cloud is beginning to shake up how software developers approach application development. But in studying the extent to which the cloud has impacted software development for our day job at Ovum, we came across some interesting findings that in some cases had their share of surprises.

ALM vendors, like their counterparts on the applications side, are still figuring out how the cloud will impact their business. While there is no shortage of hosted tools addressing different tasks in the software development lifecycle (SDLC), major players such as IBM/Rational have yet to show their cards. In fact, there was a huge gulf of difference in cloud-readiness between IBM and HP, whose former Mercury unit has been offering hosted performance testing capabilities for 7 or 8 years, and is steadily expanding hosted offerings to much of the rest of its BTO software portfolio.

More surprising was the difficulty of defining what Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) actually means. There is the popular definition and then the purist one. For instance, cloud service providers such as Salesforce.com employ the term PaaS liberally in promoting their Force.com development platform, in actuality development for the Force.com platform uses coding tools that don’t run on Salesforce’s servers, but locally on the developer’s own machines. Only once the code is compiled is it migrated to the developer’s Force.com sandbox where it is tested and staged prior to deployment. For now, the same principle applies to Microsoft Azure.

That throws plenty of ambiguity on the term PaaS – does it refer to development inside the cloud, or development of apps that run in the cloud? The distinction is important, not only to resolve marketplace confusion and realistically manage developer expectations, but also to highlight the reality that apps designed for running inside a SaaS provider’s cloud are going to be architecturally different than those deployed locally. Using the Salesforce definition of PaaS, apps that run in its cloud are designed based on the fact that the Salesforce engine handles all the underlying plumbing. In this case, it also highlights the very design of Salesforce’s Apex programming language, which is essentially a stored procedures variant of Java. It’s a style of development popular from the early days of client/server, where the design pattern of embedding logic inside the database was viewed as a realistic workaround to the bottlenecks of code running from fat clients. Significantly, it runs against common design patterns for highly distributed applications, and of course against the principles of SOA, which was to loosely couple the logic and abstract from the physical implementation. In plain English, this means that developers of apps to run in the cloud may have to make some very stark architectural choices.

Nonetheless, there’s nothing bad about all that — just that when you write logic inside a PaaS platform, it is like writing to any application platform. It’s nothing different, better, or worse than writing to Oracle or SAP. The only difference is that the code exists in the cloud, for which there may be good operational, budgetary, or strategic reasons to do so.

UPDATE: In a recent column, Andrew Brust described how Microsoft came to terms with this issue during its current rollout of SQL Data Services.

The confusion over PaaS could be viewed as a battle over vendor lock-in. It would be difficult to port an application running in the Salesforce cloud to another cloud provider or transition it to on premises because the logic is tightly coupled to Salesforce’s plumbing. This sets the stage for future differentiation of players like Microsoft, whose Software + Services is supposed to make the transition between cloud and on premises seamless; in actuality, that will prove more difficult unless the applications are written in strict, loosely-coupled service-oriented manner. But that’s another discussion that applies to all cloud software, not just ALM tools.

But the flipside of this issue is that there are very good reasons why much of what passes for PaaS involves on-premises development. And that in turn provides keen insights as to which SDLC tasks work best in the cloud and which do not.

The main don’ts consist of anything having to do with source code, for two reasons: Network latency and IP protection. The first one is obvious: who wants to write a line of code and wait until it gets registered into the system, only to find out that the server or network connection went down and you’d better retype your code again. Imagine how aggravating that would be with highly complex logic; obviously no developer, sane or otherwise, would have such patience. And ditto for code check-in/check out, or for running the usual array of static checks and debugs. Developers have enough things to worry about without having to wait for the network to respond.

More of concern however is the issue of IP protection: while your program is in source code and not yet compiled or obfuscated, anybody can get to it. The code is naked, it’s in a language that any determined hacker can intercept. Now consider that unless you’re automating a lowly task like queuing up a line of messages or printers, your source code is business logic that represents in software how your company does business. Would any developer wishing to remain on the payroll the following week dare place code in an online repository that, no matter how rigorous the access control, could be blown away by determined hackers for whatever nefarious purpose?

If you keep your logic innocuous or sufficiently generic (such as using hosted services like Zoho or Bungee Connect), developing online may be fine (we’ll probably get hate mail on that). Otherwise, it shouldn’t be surprising that no ALM vendor has yet or is likely to place code-heavy IDEs or source code control systems online. OK, Mozilla has opened the Bespin project, but just because you could write code online doesn’t mean you should.

Conversely, anything that is resource-intensive, like performance testing, does well with the cloud because, unless you’re a software vendor, you don’t produce major software releases constantly. You need lots of resource occasionally to load and performance test those apps (which by that point, their code is compiled anyway). That’s a great use of the cloud, as HP’s Mercury has been doing since around 2001.

Similarly, anything having to do with the social or collaboration aspects of software development lent themselves well to the cloud. Project management, scheduling, task lists, requirements, and defect management all suit themselves well as these are at core group functions where communications is essential to keeping projects in sync and all members of the team – wherever they are located — on literally the same page. Of course, there is a huge caveat here – if your company designs embedded software that goes into products, it is not a good candidate for the cloud: imagine getting a hold of Apple’s project plans for the next version of the iPhone.

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