Federal IT FAQ: Which Platform as a Service (PaaS) is Best?

There has been much confusion about PaaS recently, in that many vendors call their offerings PaaS, but they can be very different in their approach. We are looking at PaaS through the lens of building enterprise and mission applications for the Federal Government. Some of the key distinguishing characteristics of a PaaS offering we look at closely are how well integrated their offerings are and how easily you can build applications by focusing on your specific business logic while leveraging sophisticated software to handle things like case management, analytics, collaboration, and mobile deployment. Some PaaS offerings allow you to provision many different combinations of software layers. Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure are examples of this. Others, like Salesforce.com’s Force.com platform provide one pre-integrated service that puts emphasis on pre-built functionality and ease of building new applications, allowing you focus on your business logic.

Gartner has specifically coined the latter approach as “Application Platform as a Service (aPaaS)”. It is a suite of cloud services “designed to meet prevailing application design requirements and includes mobile, cloud, the Internet of Things (IoT) and big data analytics innovations”. They define “Enterprise aPaaS” as an aPaaS that is “designed to support the enterprise style of applications and application projects (high availability, disaster recovery, security and technical support).” Their detailed analysis summarizes the field as follows in their magic quadrant:

Gartner magic Quadrant for Enterprise Application Platform as a Service, Worldwide (March 2015)

Which vendors are we seeing Federal IT executives evaluate most often?

The reality is that we haven’t found a single Gartner report that really compares the technologies that are most often talked about and evaluated for enterprise applications in the Federal space. The magic quadrant above is not very helpful in that many of these vendors are not focused on the Federal market and have not taken the necessary security steps to gain FedRAMP certification – a pre-requisite for doing work in Federal for the most part.  Gartner has many studies, each with varying criteria for inclusion and evaluation. Understanding their different slices and views of of the world can be as confusing as understanding the vendor landscape itself. For example, they have a separate analysis of Business Process Management (BPM) vendors. BPM is a valuable tool, but most enterprise applications require BPM as well as specialized business logic, analytics, CRM, mobile capabilities, enterprise-grade security, and an easy way to develop applications incorporating all of those things. Some of the BPM vendors are attempting to provide a complete platform and are making progress, but they will have a tough time competing with the scale and momentum of the big players. I bring this up because BPM solutions are being mentioned often by our clients and I have added them into the evaluation mix. These include PegaSystems, Appian, and Micropact, which was recently acquired by Iron Data.

Microsoft Azure and IBM Bluemix are examples of PaaS whose real strengths are in provisioning stacks of software – proprietary and Open Source. Microsoft even touts the ability to provision Oracle software, along with their products, for example. In reality, as far as enterprise applications go, they are providing just a little bit more than the IaaS vendors like Amazon. Using Azure or Bluemix, you can set up your environment quickly in the cloud, but it’s still up to you to develop software in a more traditional way and manage those layers and products for the most part. This is where costs and security risks creep up. See my previous post on the subject. However, in the Microsoft case, they make it easier than ever to deploy the likes of the Dynamics suite, their flagship business applications. They are doing their best to make those software stacks as integrated as possible, so it looks like a single uniform PaaS, but there are difficult realities when integrating legacy software elements that will always keep them behind the newer solutions that are built from the ground-up in an integrated fashion for cloud and mobile. Dynamics CRM, for example, was first launched 14 years ago and several of the Dynamics products are corporate acquisitions from long ago, such as Navision in 2002.

Which PaaS vendor do we recommend?

We developed our own analysis that includes some of the vendors we see most often in the Federal space. It is an attempt to demystify the difference between the likes of Amazon Web Services (AWS) that provide Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), Business Process Management (BPM) vendors like Micropact and Appian, and platform providers, like Microsoft Azure and IBM Bluemix, that are providing provisioning systems for multiple technologies, and Salesforce.com, which, despite the sales-oriented name, has developed a powerful platform for building enterprise business applications. Salesforce was the first true PaaS vendor to gain FedRAMP status – a testament to their investment in security and seriousness in the Federal market.

Demystifying IaaS and PaaS. Source - Phase One

As you can see in this analysis, we see Salesforce.com as the front-runner. In particular, we see their Force.com platform and Service Cloud, which supports Case management in an integrated way, as the “killer app” for Government. In the dozens of Federal agencies we support, the general workflow around a “case” supports a vast majority of what the Government does. This applies to State and Local governments as well. No platform allows you to build applications with all the necessary capabilities pre-integrated in such a fast and efficient way. None have embraced cloud-first and mobile-from-the-start the way Salesforce.com has. Their App Exchange, where you can download and integrate third party applications with the click of a button has far outpaced others as far as critical mass and large players.

This analysis was instrumental in our shift as a firm. We have always been passionate about finding better ways to help Government perform its vital missions. We view PaaS, and in particular Salesforce, as such as game changer that we are focusing our efforts and resources on executing on the vision of modernizing government IT in a much more secure and cost effective way. We have chosen Salesforce as our tool of choice and are proud of the results we are seeing.