The Role APIs Play in Determining the Winners of the Cloud Computing Wars

One of the things that not many IT people fully appreciate is how much scale really matters when it comes to cloud computing. The more applications that run on a particular cloud computing platform, the more the cost of running those applications is distributed across an increasingly larger number of servers and storage systems. Eventually, a cloud service provider reaches enough critical mass that every new application winds up helping the cloud service provider to drive infrastructure costs down, while at the same time increase overall performance.

This is clearly the case with Amazon, which is now the leading provider of cloud computing services in the industry, so much so that it’s the shadow being cast by Amazon from Seattle, rather than Microsoft, that is being felt most this week at the VMworld 2012 conference.

At VMworld this week VMware essentially announced an effort to create a federated cloud computing ecosystem based around a set of vCloud offerings that include APIs to make it easier to manage instances of cloud computing across multiple data centers. In effect, this extends the virtual data center concept that VMware has been promoting over the last year. On top of that infrastructure VMware is hoping more cloud service providers with deploy Cloud Foundry, a toolkit that VMware created to foster the development of a cloud application development community based on open source code that supports multiple application development languages running on top of multiple platform-as-a-service (PaaS) offerings from different vendors.

While Cloud Foundry can be deployed on top of Amazon and by being configured to support Amazon APIs, it also provides the option of using APIs that are specific to Cloud Foundry. Cloud service providers such as Piston Cloud Computing see that as a critical capability because Amazon has sole control over its APIs. Piston Cloud Computing CEO Joshua McKenty says service providers prefer to see the adoption of the Cloud Foundry APIs that make it easier for them to differentiate themselves from Amazon, which optimizes its APIs for use in an environment that was never intended to support private cloud computing environments. As part of a demonstration of what might be possible in that context Piston Cloud Computing at the VMworld conference demonstrated an instance of Cloud Foundry that has been integrated with the OpenStack cloud management platform that has been gaining a fair amount of support from multiple server manufacturers, application vendors and cloud service providers.

Elsewhere, another cloud service provider, Skytap, showcased the ability to launch a PaaS environment based on Cloud Foundry in under a minute, along with support for deployments that would span hybrid cloud computing environments. According to Brett Goodwin, Skytap vice president of marketing, the cross-platform capability will prove to be a key differentiator for cloud service providers such as Skytap compared to Amazon approach that is primarily focused on applications that only run on its cloud service.

To a certain degree VMware and its partners are trying to link vCloud and Cloud Foundry together. But there are other PaaS providers such ActiveState that support multiple infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) platforms. According to ActiveState CEO Bart Copeland, as more organizations becomes aware of PaaS capabilities, the sooner it becomes apparent that IaaS is a commodity service. The challenge becomes recognizing how Amazon is essentially leveraging its market position to try to lock developers into its service via its proprietary APIs. PaaS offerings, on the hand, shield developers from that issue because they operate at a higher level of abstraction in the software stack.

AppFog, a rival provider of a PaaS offering that support multiple application development languages, is pursuing a similar IaaS-neutral approach. According to AppFog CEO Lucas Carlson, it doesn’t make any sense to ask developers to master multiple APIs to invoke hardware services when one API delivered on a PaaS service that can be hosted on multiple IaaS offerings will mask that complexity from developers.

Of course, IT organizations need to better understand the role of the PaaS service. Many of them are concerned they are adding yet another layer of expensive middleware to their operations. In reality, PaaS pricing, says Carlson, is now roughly equivalent to IaaS pricing. The next challenge, says Carlson, is getting IT organizations to differentiate between IaaS, open source toolkits such as Cloud Foundry, and what is an actual PaaS does in terms of making application workloads truly portable at the click of a button.

While it’s still early in terms of anything to do with cloud computing it’s apparent that there is a lot of jockeying for position going on at all layers of the cloud computing stack. The question that developers need to ask themselves is just what parts of that debate they actually need to pay attention to, versus the parts they may ultimately be able to simply ignore.

Be sure to read the next Cloud article: SAP Leverages Open API to Create CRM Ecosystem