Platform as a Service (PaaS) providers love to crow about how many development languages they support or how feature-rich their platforms are, yet customers have other priorities in mind when deciding which PaaS provider to use.
Businesses select their current PaaS providers primarily for their various ecosystems of partners, developers and independent software vendors (ISVs) that build commercial applications on top of their platforms, according to a new TechTarget survey.
"Customers are saying now, 'I'm not just looking at Salesforce as an app provider, but I'm also looking at them as a platform provider, and I want to use their whole ecosystem.," said Adam Selligman, vice president of developer and partner relations at Salesforce.com, whose PaaS portfolio includes Force.com and Heroku.
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About half of the PaaS users responding to the spring edition of TechTarget's 2013 "Cloud Pulse" survey indicated that they chose their current PaaS providers because they were "part of a cloud ecosystem we use or plan to use," making it the top deciding factor in provider selection. Respondents could select up to three answers from eight possible responses. They ranked "integration capabilities with our current architecture" as the second most important deciding factor, and features and functionalities as third.
Customers value robust PaaS ecosystems for several reasons: Third-party applications that share a common platform are typically easier to integrate and manage, and they offer a more consistent user experience, according to Yefim Natis, a vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner. That's because many PaaS customers are, ultimately, looking at PaaS as a channel for Software as a Service (SaaS), he added.
"The war for leadership in platforms is the war for ISVs -- the war for ecosystems," Natis said. "The platform that has the most applications is the winning platform."
Ecosystems: What's the value for PaaS providers?
Meanwhile, PaaS providers say the benefits of building and nurturing large, active ecosystems aren't limited to increased sales revenue from more ISVs using the platform. Several noted that ISVs can convert a provider's platform services from a static offering to a constantly evolving portfolio of new, often complementary applications.
Although Google considers its App Engine platform to be a "highly scalable and reliable platform that has a set of tools that are tightly integrated," developers also "benefit from choice," said Chris Ramsdale, a Google product manager for Google App Engine. And through its Cloud Platform Partners Program, Google reaps its own rewards from keeping its ecosystem well-nourished.
"We believe that at the heart of innovation is developer productivity. The faster developers are, the more they can experiment, iterate and ultimately build amazing solutions," Ramsdale said. "Having a healthy ecosystem allows us to focus on core functionality within the platform while providing developers with the choices they need to be incredibly productive."
Ecosystem partners and ISVs also often fulfill a demand for specialty applications that the provider may lack the expertise or resources to build and sell.
"A large ecosystem benefits all the participants," said Ashesh Badani, general manager of cloud business unit at Red Hat, whose public, open source PaaS offering, OpenShift, has remained in "developer preview" since launching in May 2011. "Looking at it from the sheer economics, we're not going to be able to scale and create [certain vertical applications], but there are likely willing partners that are OK with that."
Salesforce in the lead, but challengers pop up
Gartner tracks 40 providers in a subset of the PaaS market it calls Application PaaS -- the space in which Salesforce's platforms, Google App Engine, Microsoft Azure and Amazon Beanstalk all compete. In terms of ecosystems and platform maturity, Salesforce has a wide lead over its competitors with the most ISVs, applications, customers, revenue and advanced features, making it a clear market leader, said Gartner's Natis.
Having a healthy ecosystem allows us to focus on core functionality within the platform while providing developers with the choices they need.
Chris Ramsdale, Google
The platform isn't perfect, however, and competitors aren't dawdling.
"Force.com has its challenges, too. It's not all gold," Natis said. Some customers view Salesforce's platform as somewhat proprietary, while others see its ecosystem as incomplete due to the strong focus on CRM applications, he added.
Meanwhile, "Microsoft is pushing very hard with Azure. IBM's and Oracle's PaaS are pretty thin at the moment, but they're in the business. EMC just spun off a company with VMware called Pivotal that's already [competing] and will continue to compete with Salesforce," Natis said.
PaaS providers -- even Salesforce -- acknowledge that the world of PaaS ecosystems is still in its infancy. Badani, of Red Hat, also expressed concern about the market becoming too fragmented for customers, as more PaaS providers try to carve out their own kingdoms.
"Everyone's in the business of evangelizing and building their own ecosystems, but how many ecosystems can we have?" Badani asked. "In a world where people are inundated by all this noise they get from everywhere, the challenge is figuring out who is authentically committed to the future."
Attracting ISVs, partners and third-party developers
Ecosystems are communities and concepts, not physical entities. As a result, there is no single prescription for what a PaaS ecosystem should look like; likewise, there's no universal recipe for attracting ISVs to build it up.
Some providers add capabilities to their platforms that are specifically designed for ISVs, such as features for billing, usage tracking, version control and marketing, said Gartner's Natis. Many support developers coding in GitHub.
Other PaaS providers bring their ecosystems together by funneling the third-party SaaS applications built on their platforms into an app marketplace. Salesforce's marketplace, AppExchange, is home to 1,700 applications -- one of which is installed every 40 seconds. Red Hat, a relative newcomer to the PaaS market, is considering building a marketplace that its OpenShift platform could feed into.
Salesforce does outreach and provides both technical and business-related support and training for partners and ISVs, also reserving a session track for them at the company's annual Dreamforce conference. Additionally, it strives to make it easier for ISVs that also use Salesforce.com to access and incorporate customer data during application development, Selligman said. Google also has a partner team that actively reaches out to ISVs, or what it calls technology partners, via its Cloud Platform Partner Program.
"The challenge is, you can't force an ecosystem to grow and thrive. Ecosystems grow most successfully when they evolve organically on an open and flexible platform," said Ramsdale, of Google's App Engine team. "The key here is investing in a robust set of APIs that allow partners to integrate at all levels. This is where we are today, with technology partners providing cloud-based workflow, ALM and IDEs on top of Google's Cloud Platform."