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What is Platform-as-a-Service? Everything you need to know about PaaS

What is Platform-as-a-Service?
(Image credit: Pixabay)

Modern software applications can be incredibly complex. There are code libraries to maintain, graphics to build, and regulations to think about. Once an application is up and running -- whether it’s for internal use at your company or a customer-facing mobile iPhone app or Android app -- the real work begins. Companies have to continually update the app to ward off security issues, improve features to meet customer demand (internal or external), and keep up with the digital transformation occurring in your given market. When companies are tasked with maintaining and upgrading the surrounding platform for the app -- the operating systems, servers, networks, and computers involved -- it becomes even more of a Herculean task.

That’s where Platform-as-a-Service (or PaaS) comes in. As one of several cloud computing models in use today (joining the older Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) model, the newer Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) model, and many others), the concept of PaaS helps companies focus on software development or providing other services to customers without having to manage, update, and maintain the actual platform that hosts the application.

To understand what Platform-as-a-Service is and how it benefits a company, it’s important to understand how the idea even developed in the first place. For starters, the original concept of Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) was essentially a proof of concept for many companies. It means an application -- such as web-based email, a business app, or even a word processor -- runs entirely in the cloud. Companies started using SaaS as opposed to on-premise, locally installed applications. In some ways, this gave birth to cloud computing service, because the first time many of us first used the cloud was when we checked our web-based email.

Platform-as-a-Service extends this model much further. Over the last decade and more, companies have not only relied on business apps run from the cloud, but they have also started relying on cloud computing to help run the platform for software. PaaS is best understood in the context of how companies used to run applications before the cloud, and also how specific industries benefit from Platform-as-a-Service today.

(By the way, Infrastructure-as-a-Service takes this one step further. It is more than the platform for an application but it the entire cloud computing infrastructure, including apps, storage, servers, networking, and everything required to run an IT department.)

History of PaaS

Building an application -- for internal use or for customers -- is often a two-pronged endeavor. Not to oversimply the development process, which is often quite complex, but it is true that every application involves both software and hardware. The application software includes the user interface, development framework, graphics libraries, databases, and many other entities that are all required for the user to run the application. However, there is always a hardware component as well -- the software has to be installed, managed, maintained, and updated on a hardware platform, whether that is in a local data center on servers and a local network or an external cloud computing platform that provides access for remote users.

It wasn’t until 2005 that PaaS became a viable option, mostly due to how cloud computing advanced, networking speeds increased, and devices became more readily available. IT service management tasked with building apps, and app development departments and companies quickly gravitated to PaaS because it alleviates most of the tedious chores related to the application platform. For example, companies don’t have to procure new hardware and storage resources, they don’t have to plan out the capacity needs, they completely outsource most of the hardware and technology-related patching and maintenance that’s needed.

In short, PaaS providers ushered in a new age where companies can focus on what they do best -- building the actual application, and not worrying about how it is hosted.

An example of how PaaS works

It might seem like the dark ages of technology now, but it used to be that every application developed for internal use or external had to be housed within a local data center. Before the advent of the cloud, this meant that hospitals and clinics, accounting firms, media companies, and every other type of industry had to become experts in IT in addition to experts in their chosen field. As an example, if a hospital wanted to develop an internal app to track patient records, the internal staff would have to develop the app (including the user interface, database, and every other aspect of the software) and also manage the servers and networks for the cloud hosting.

It became a challenge because the app development was complex enough -- if you are familiar with HIPAA (or the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) regulations, these apps are becoming even more complex. Hospitals and clinics then had to maintain the platform as well, including all of the related security patches, storage, and networks.

Platform-as-a-Service removes that layer of complexity, providing more flexibility and relieving the hardware management duties so that a business can focus on what they do best.