IaaS vs. PaaS or Infrastructure vs. Platform and I Want Beer NOW!

A friend and now coworker of mine, Richard Seroter (@rseroter & Blog) decided to do a comparo. I took the infrastructure based deployment, ala IaaS and he took the platform based deployment, ala PaaS. What we’ve done is taken a somewhat standard ASP.NET MVC with Entity Framework, a SQL Server Database, a UX & UI design and got it running locally. From there we then deployed the same application the two respective ways to deploy the web application to a live environment. He took the Tier 3 PaaS (Iron Foundry + Cloud Foundry for the win) and I took the tried and true method of deploying via Windows 2008 Server instances via the Tier 3 Infrastructure.

Here are the steps I went through and for his steps check out this blog article on the PaaS deployment.

Part #1 – Get Some Servers Setup

First things first, I need two instances. If you’re following along, you can basically use whatever instances or server you want. AWS, Rackspace, or Windows Azure. Based on that there may be a few steps here or there you may need to alter, add or subtract from the process. One for the ASP.NET MVC Application and one for the SQL Server Database. The web app server doesn’t need a ton of resources, so I built it and scaled back RAM and cores to a single core.

ASP.NET MVC Web Server
ASP.NET MVC Web Server (Click for full size image)

In the next step here I’ve selected additional software to be installed on the instance. I’ll need .NET 4.0 so I’ve added this as shown.

Selecting .NET 4.0 for Addition to the Instance
Selecting .NET 4.0 for Addition to the Instance (Click for full size image)

After setting up the web server I also setup a database server. For the database server I made sure to allocate some decent resource, setting up 2 cores and 8 GB RAM. I also added the SQL Server installation based on Tier 3’s software packages so it would install automatically when the image is created.

All My Instances Running
All My Instances Building & Running (Click for full size image)

When I setup the SQL Server instance, I used a blue print feature that allows the SQL Server to be installed directly on the image. This of course saved me a lot of time. But it does add to the deployment time of the instance in the cloud.

Part #2 – Setting up Windows Server 2008

The first thing we’ll need to do is log into these machines and configure them, standard infrastructure stuff. Open up the Server Manager (which launches automatically on instances) and verify that we have IIS installed on the web server.

Database Server

Server Manager
Server Manager (Click for full size image)

Next log into the database server and verify that the SQL Server is up, running and create the initial database.


Using SQL Server Management Studio checking that the SQL Server Exists
Using SQL Server Management Studio checking that the SQL Server Exists

Once I had both of the servers up and running I got the application ready to deploy. First a little schema generation to use to deploy the database.

Don't Use "Script Database as..." option, use the "Tasks" option...
Don’t Use “Script Database as…” option, use the “Tasks” option…

Once the script is generated then transfer it and execute it against the database on the database server.

Execute the SQL Schema Create Script
Execute the SQL Schema Create Script (Click image for full size)

Always a good thing, even if all green lights are seen on the SQL execution, go in and make sure the tables are all there.

Web Server

Publish (Click Full Image)

Publish Application (click for full size image)For the web server, as long as IIS is already installed, the setup is fairly easy. First snag the compiled bits that need deployed. We’ll do a direct drop onto the server and get it running.

To get the compiled bits, right click on the Visual Studio Project and select publish. Add a deployment scenario, which I did and set it up to just spit the bits out to a directory. There of course a multiple options at this point to use FTP, WebDav or whatever your choice is. I’m not a particular fan of any of those in particular, they’re all fairly easy.

Deployment Publication Options
Deployment Publication Options (Click for full size image)


At this point I actually got hit with the “.NET 4.0 isn’t installed…” which it should have been. I opened up windows update and realized that it had not successfully executed nor had the .NET 4.0 install. This happens with all sorts of instances, regardless of provider, so make sure that the bits we need are installed. Also, with Windows, it’s a really good idea to get windows update turned on.

Back to Deployment

Now that we have the built bits just copy them onto the web application server into the inetpub wwwroot directory. Once you have that copied over you would be able to navigate to the IP of the machine this is setup on. At this time you may also want to setup a cname or a-record to point to the IP, so you can use a friendlier URI.


Now think about what has just gone on for a moment. We had to literally build out machines, add software and more. There were a lot of steps. This takes anywhere from 30 minutes to a few hours of actual work. In a larger business or an enterprise environment it could get extended out even further. Because of the extra complexity it could also end up broken, requiring extra troubleshooting and coding. There could even be a host of odd one off configuration issues with the hosting software itself.

Imagine you wanted to host an ASP.NET, PHP, Ruby on Rails and a Node.js App on the Server. That would be almost impossible. Consider how much extra configuration knowledge an ops person would need to troubleshoot each one of those frameworks. Just sit back and contemplate the complexities involved for a moment. All the complexity goes away with something like Cloud Foundry or Open Shift. With someone managing that system for you, such as us here at Tier 3 with our Web Fabric PaaS, AppFog, Cloud Foundry, or one of the other providers even more of the complexities just disappear.

Time for Summary & Beer

With all the steps and individual tasks needed to get something running in an IaaS Environment, go check out how slick getting something up and running with a PaaS style environment. The juxtaposition between what Richard had to go through versus what I had to go through is pretty significant. Simply put, for the vast majority of all application development can be done against a PaaS Environment and likely should. Digging deeper into the infrastruture elements is rarely needed except in rare scaling circumstances, such as the volume that Facebook, LinkedIn or Netflix deal with. Even then, as has been stated by these companies, they have a PaaS of their own they often build software to. So why not have this ability where you build software?

One of my key metrics, and I’ll be elaborating on this metric more in the future, is when I get to head out of the office for the day, relax, have a beer, and think about what I’ll get to create next. I call this my “Beer Enabler Measure“. PaaS technologies make it much easier for me to get to the relaxing part of my day a lot faster than IaaS technologies, and both of these make sure that I’m not pulling an all nighter without a beer like traditional hosting environments often do.

In the end, sure, infrastructure can be important and can help in transitioning legacy applications into an easier to manage environment. Today though, if you’re doing web application dev of any type, it should be deployed against a PaaS Environment either private or public.

Windows Azure and the IaaS Context (or lack thereof)

Windows Azure has several primary competitors in the IaaS Realm, even though they aren’t technically an IaaS Cloud Provider at all.  Some of these competitors in this space are Amazon Web Services (AWS), Rackspace, GoGrid and VMWare.  Each of these providers offer virtual machines with either Windows or Linux Operating Systems, multiple data centers for geographically dispersed access, dynamic scaling, and other features associated with hosting infrastructure in cloud computing.

Some of the more dedicated infrastructure services provide content delivery, routing, load balancing, virtualized instances, virtualized & dedicated private clouds, DNS routing, autoscaling at an infrastructure level and more.  Some of the providers and their respective services are listed below:

Amazon Web Services Infrastructure Services

  • Amazon Cloudwatch enables Autoscaling.
  • Amazon Cloudfront is a content delivery network (CDN).
  • Amazon Route 53 for highly available and scalable DNS.
  • Amazon Virtual Private Cloud (VPC) for secure bridges into on-premises computing.
  • Elastic Load Balancing for distributing incoming application traffic.
  • SQS, or Simple Queue Service for messaging.
  • SNS, or Simple Notification Service for alerting.

Rackspace Infrastructure Services

  • Content Delivery Network (CDN)
  • Simple Load Balancing using virtualized server to provide load balancing.

GoGrid Infrastructure Services

  • Content Delivery Network (CDN) with a boasted 18 points of presence on 4 continents.
  • F5 Hardware Load Balancing
  • Data Center specific provisioning.
  • Autoscaling with Vertical RAM Scaling and more features.

Pricing IaaS

These companies offer a lower price point, which plays into the assumption that the user of the cloud services is skilled in setting up the needed networking, access, services, servers, and other things needed for each virtual machine launched within the respective cloud environment.  Some of the price points, especially in regards to Linux, are 1/3rd to 2/3rd the price of Windows Azure.

The Windows Azure advantage is at a higher price point, but lower total cost of ownership.  This advantage unfolds when operating in the dedicated development environment, but removing the networking and information technology arm of a company.  Basically, a company buys the cloud services from the grid just like they would the building power for their headquarters.  This leaves the generation of power, or simply the compute power, to a dedicated utility instead of having in house management of these resources.

Infrastructure Services

There are a number of companies in the technology industry today that offer infrastructure services.  Infrastructure services generally revolve around a few specific characteristics;

  • Content Delivery
  • Routing & Load Balancing
  • Virtual or Dedicated Private Cloud
  • Operating System Virtualized Instances

Windows Azure provides two primary infrastructure services.  Both of the services are somewhat minimal, since Windows Azure is focused on being a platform and not an infrastructure.  The service is the Windows Azure Content Delivery Network and the Windows Azure VM Role.

The content delivery network is provided as an add-on to the Windows Azure Storage to provide faster geographically dispersed access to data.  This increases the speed of access to the data and sties within the Windows Azure Cloud Platform.

Windows Azure VM Role

Windows Azure as marketed by Microsoft is not an infrastructure service.  However Microsoft has broken from being a pure platform only service with the Windows Azure VM Role.  The Windows Azure Platform is still primarily a platform service, but the VM Role has been provided with the intent of migrating customers that may need a full machine instance of Windows Server to run existing applications.  This enables an enterprise or other business to start migrating existing applications without a complete rewrite of those applications.

This enables the migration of applications that have long, non-scriptable, fragile installation steps to be moved into the Windows Azure Cloud Platform.  The VM Role does pose a possible distraction to developers, who should focus on developing applications against the Windows Azure Web or Service Roles.  This provides the greatest benefit and chance for savings over time.  In addition the roles are patched, and kept up to date by Windows Azure instead of needing hands on maintenance from the account holder or developers.

On a Windows Azure VM Role the operating system, updates, and other maintenance of the role are left up to the account holder.  Microsoft offers no automated patching or other support.  The VM Role must also be monitored by the account holder.  Windows Azure knows when the system becomes unresponsive but otherwise doesn’t act unless the system completely crashes, shuts down, or otherwise stops.

The VM Role is also advantageous when an account holder or developer needs elevated privileges for a particular application.  This however does not mean it is an encouraged practice to use elevated privileges for application development within Windows Azure.  But the VM Role offers the ability for those situations that are inflexible and require abrogation of good design principles.  This feature offers the ability to install MSIs, custom configure IIS, or otherwise manipulate the server environment for hosting needs.

One of the largest concerns with the VM Role is that the savings and decrease in maintenance associated with Windows Azure Platform managing the networking, load balancing, and other related infrastructure services.  The VM Role does not retain this automated level of management and at this time does not have load balancing or other features enabled.  Load balancing can be done externally to the Windows Azure Platform, but requires CNAME and custom DNS management in order to do so.

The Confusions of IaaS, PaaS, and SaaS

IaaS, PaaS, and SaaS stand for Infrastructure as a Service, Platform as a Service, and Software as a Service respectively.  But what exactly is the context & definition of each of these acronyms?  The simple definitions I have included below.

  • IaaS – A service provided by a company, group, community, or government that provides basic computer networking, load balancing, content delivery networks, routing, commodity data storage, and virtualized operating system hosting.
  • PaaS – A service provided by a company, group, community, or government that provides a platform in which to develop software applications, usually web based, with immediate abstractions of the underlying infrastructure.
  • SaaS – A service provided by a company, group, community, or government that provides a software solution to the system clients.  The software may be internal to a business, delivered by other means, or most commonly delivered over the Internet.

IaaS, PaaS, and SaaS are heavily used acronyms in the cloud computing industry.  These three acronyms describe services in particular, but not cloud computing specifically.  It just happens that cloud computing is often broken down into these three segments.  From here on though, I will use IaaS, PaaS, and SaaS in relation to cloud computing.

Windows Azure is highly focused around being a platform.  It has often been said internally and externally at Microsoft that Windows Azure is not infrastructure or software that you can buy, but a platform that software is built to without a need to think about the infrastructure.  Recent events and changes have cast a shadow of doubt on Microsoft’s intentions toward the infrastructure and services aspect of this.  I’ll cover more specifics as I break these services apart.

Traditionally, and even today and ongoing tomorrow, there are a number of existing infrastructure, platforms, and software solutions that are provided in the context of IaaS, PaaS, and SaaS.  These solutions are not always cloud technologies, and can be provided in a number of ways.  Let’s break out the three into the traditional environments that would provide these services.

Traditional Infrastructure

Traditionally infrastructure was, and still today, often provided to companies internally and by 3rd party providers.  These providers, such as small businesses or internal IT Departments, would deliver actual hardware including cabling, architectural design, network configuration & setup, load balancing, hosting of physical servers, data storage in arrays, and other services.  Some examples would be a traditional RAID array with multiple disks, and storing dedicated single copy data as a backup on that array.  Another is documents stored on a file server and backed up to a tape drive.

For further context, take this working example of a very common infrastructure scenario.  An industrial company that makes, manages, and operates the manufacturing of widget X.  The company has a primary office space in an office building in a major metropolitan area.  In that office there are approximately 90 employees.  There is a satellite office with another 25 employees in another part of the city, located about 6 miles from the main office.  These two offices have a combined total of 115 PCs & Laptops.  These machines are interconnected on a network that connects to a collocation facility where the servers are stored & connected to a large pipe on the Internet.  This collocation facility provides the access for all customers via the Internet and also all the access for employees to their internal servers.

In this example we have a number of systems & networking interconnects needed for day to day operations.  This is a very common, and often a rather complex array of services.  This scenario is one that requires a moderate need for Internet infrastructure, but needs mount for file sharing, backups, redundancies, a the ability to startup new servers easily for usage, testing, development, or day to day operations.  The purchase cycle for additional hardware to bulk up this infrastructure isn’t measured in minutes, but is measured in days, weeks, and all too commonly months.

Take another example using a software game company.  This company traditionally delivers games via boxed medium to stores like Target, Wal-mart, or Gamestop.  The game shop is primarily located in a single office with 45 employees.  They have Internet access that connects them to their partners that handle graphics rendering compute time, e-mail & communication server hosting, & other sources.  The backup and storage for their work is on-premises with tape backups, file servers in building, and other equipment for the day to day operations of game development.

This company has needs for a large pipe to their rendering farm partners.  The file servers are local and also require a fair sized pipe to the workstations and huge disks for storing rendered images.  The rendering farm partners have appropriate networking connections on their end for uploading and downloading of their content to this company.  At the end of the development cycle when the game is ready for release they send off the gold copy of the build to manufacturing which is also in another geographic location.  This company then prints the boxes & discs and sends the game out through logistical distribution companies to the stores that will sell the product.

A Traditional Platform

Traditionally a platform was something that consisted of Ruby on Rails, the .NET Framework, Java Server Pages, or PHP.  One had to be responsible for the deployment of these platforms to infrastructure, and all the configuration, maintenance patches, updates, software installation, and other work required staffing at appropriate levels to handle the workload.  The .NET Framework is an example of developing to a platform, and then installing Windows Server (or running it on Mono under Linux), setting up the IIS Server on Windows, then appropriately installing updates, patches, fixes, and other pieces of software.

A great example of real world platform usage is alive in almost all companies to some degree.  Take Visual Basic for Office as an example.  This is often used in offices that have no dedicated development teams, nor any real trained developers.  Visual Basic for Office allowed almost anyone to get up to speed and use very simple programming concepts to get something built using the Microsoft Office Suite as the platform.

A great scenario, and extremely common, is a mid-size enterprise at approximately 170 employees.  In the main office there are a number of people in accounting, sales, support, logistics, marketing, advertising, and other departments.  Each of these departments often have custom needs to deal with their specific business needs within the enterprise.  Sales may want to have an ongoing list of customer contacts and their relation to particular sales people, so one of the sales guys hacks together a solution with Microsoft Office Access.  The next thing everyone in sales is using it.  Going beyond that someone in accounting figures out some cool tricks with Visual Basic for Applications and builds a way to keep in progress work in balance to simplify the daily tracking of numbers.  Again, the next step is other people in the department start using that same application.  Visual Basic for Applications, and the later incarnation Visual Studio Tools for Office is a great example of a software suite that had a platform built on it.

Another common scenario is the business that has grown to about 320 people and starts to migrate some of the rogue databases or custom Visual Basic for Application tweaks into applications that can be formalized and setup for use more easily within the enterprise.  Visual Studio and SQL Server are purchased and development work begins on the .NET Framework to codify these solutions.

The last example is one of the newer platforms out today.  Ruby on Rails started out as a platform to build on that did things in a very simple, minimalistic, rapid manner.  Development was started on the platform by people that eventually formed 37signals.com and built the tools that company sells; Basecamp, Highrise, Backpack, and Campfire.  The Ruby on Rails Platform makes web development faster and easier than it ever has been with traditional software platforms.  It has had such a huge impact that Microsoft has even released competing offerings such as ASP.NET MVC to counter the development patterns and style of the Ruby on Rails patterns.  This platform has some notable applications including Twitter, Yellowpages, Scribd, Hulu, Slideshare, Medhelp, Github, Odeo, Jango, Ravelry, MTV Style and many more.

A Traditional Software Solution

This is the point of all the other layers, the ability to provide software that clients can use to complete daily work, communicate, and create solutions for their business needs.  This traditionally has been provided by installing tools like Microsoft Office, Visual Studio, WordPerfect, Lotus, or other software packages.

This is probably the easiest service type of the “as a Service” differentiations to describe.  It is what is commonly seen by end users.

One of the most common software solutions that is used throughout the world is the Office Suite.  Microsoft’s Office Suite being the most common at this time.  Another great example of a software package commonly used is CAD & Photoshop.  There are literally thousands of other software offerings that are used at home, in the enterprise, or in small businesses every day.