IaaS vs. PaaS: what we've learned - Made Tech Blog
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IaaS vs. PaaS: what we've learned

We've been long-time proponents of PaaS, or Platform as a Service. We've also been long-time consumers of IaaS, or Infrastructure as a Service.

At its most simplistic, you could describe IaaS as renting something that closely resembles a server for a period of time. PaaS could be described as altogether something more full-featured: a cohesive suite of tools on which to run and manage your (typically web) application.

Much of our leaning over the past three or four years has been towards AWS for IaaS, and Cloud Foundry for PaaS, though we've variously trialled Rackspace Cloud, Heroku and Appfog.

In this post I'll compare our learnings on a number of key areas pertinent to both development, operations and business folk: performance, reliability, scalability, application management and cost.

Performance

Day-to-day, you're unlikely to see significant difference between IaaS and PaaS for a typical application at runtime. That said, as PaaS is further away from the 'tin', in much the same way as comparing physical and virtualised hardware, you're going to see some loss.

The noisy-neighbour problem, where other workloads on the same public PaaS provider can adversely affect your application's performance, manifests itself in much the same way as they do on public IaaS providers. On IaaS you have the option to use larger instance types, which often means you end up with dedicated access to an underlying physical machine, leaving you no neighbours to contend with.

Round 1: IaaS. But not by much.

Reliability

This should be an area in which PaaS excels, certainly if you believe the marketing hype.

If you're looking at reliability from an application management perspective, and by that, we mean the ability to detect unstable or misbehaving application instances and take corrective action, then PaaS does indeed provide some strong tooling around this.

However, if we're looking at the platform as a whole, we find PaaS to be more unreliable than IaaS. Because of the increase in moving parts involved in a PaaS system, there are more components to fail, and subsequently, increased instances where intervention is required.

Over the past month, for example, we've seen 3 separate (albeit short) outages on the Pivotal Web Services Cloud Foundry platform, whereas our AWS EC2 fleet has experienced no such issues. This would broadly mirror a typical month that we've seen over the past year.

Round 2: IaaS.

Scalability

In this area PaaS offers some benefits over IaaS, though does fall short on autoscaling options.

In a typical PaaS setup, increasing or decreasing the number of application workers is no more complex than issuing a command. This can be particularly useful for predictable high traffic events, or for manually reacting moderately quickly to unexpected bursts in traffic.

IaaS offers little out of the box in terms of instance scale. Assuming your application servers are behind a load balancer, you can add more instances and then deploy the latest version of your application to these instances to achieve the same outcome - though you're probably looking at 15 minutes over the 15 seconds for PaaS.

IaaS, and particularly the AWS platform, offers some strong tooling around autoscaling, though there's a heavy amount of customisation required to generate machine images for every release and to manually configure rules that trigger up- and down-scales.

Round 3: PaaS, though we'd like to see better autoscaling.

Application Lifecycle Management (ALM)

This is the area in which IaaS really doesn't stand a chance; the significant selling point of any PaaS platform.

If you go the IaaS route, you'll need to roll your own solution for managing applications, from provisioning infrastructure, deploying application changes and scaling application instances. Many quality tools exist in this space, but you're going to miss out on the turnkey access to them that PaaS provides.

Most (all?) PaaS platforms provide a uniform interface to perform common application management tasks. A particular selling point is the ease at which you can replicate entire environments. In simpler setups, you can expect to launch a clone of your entire production estate in a couple of minutes.

In addition, most PaaS ecosystems include a marketplace that can allow you to easily bind third party services such as cache services, proxies, mail relays and database services. We've found for small requirements, such as bolting a Redis queue backend on to an app - the ease, cost and removed maintenance overhead is significantly attractive in the PaaS world. Other core services, such as an application's primary database, we've found to be lacking in the PaaS marketplace and have fallen back on services such as Amazon RDS.

While many PaaS systems provide tooling for aggregating logs, we still often have issue gaining the transparency needed to look in to some operational issues. Untold hours can be wasted trying to debug an application that is not staging correctly, leaving you craving the ability to just SSH in to a box and tail some log files.

Round 4: PaaS. But we crave better transparency.

Cost

For the purpose of this post I'll focus on cost in terms of the cash you need to part with to make use of these services.

This of course depends very much on the specific choices you make on provider. As customers of Cloud Foundry, we've found the cost to be broadly in-line with what we'd expect to pay to run a similar number of applications direct on AWS. What we often find is that the ease of spinning up applications, you often inadvertently end up using more resource than you might otherwise; certainly without good discipline to clean up after yourself.

For a comparison between Pivotal Web Services and AWS, on which it's built, an average application which needs 512MB RAM and 5 worker processes would cost you, at time of writing, in the region of $55 USD per month. A comparable EC2 medium instance with 3.75GB RAM would cost you around $40 USD per month.

Another factor to bear in mind is how closely IaaS costs are able to mirror your workload. By its very nature, there are some incremental jumps between instance sizes which may not exactly match your needs, meaning that you may be carrying excess capacity that you don't need. PaaS on the other hand allows you to provision and pay for precisely the resources that you need to run your application workload.

There are many discussions about the costs of other platforms, particularly Heroku, where the costs can very quickly become uncompetitive with IaaS.

Round 5: swings and roundabouts.

IaaS or PaaS, then?

By some cruel twist, we've demonstrated that IaaS is stronger in some areas and PaaS in others, which is really the reality of the situation.

From our experience, we'd have to recommend that for truly mission critical workloads, PaaS is still too immature with too many moving parts to be considered a viable option. We expect that, over time, as PaaS offerings become more battled hardened, stability and operational transparency will increase.

Where you're able to stomach a higher level of risk, PaaS can offer significant agility in your ability to launch and manage new applications. Even if you're under good configuration management within your IaaS fleet, PaaS is likely to deliver you a runtime environment in a fraction of the time. For organisations with esoteric procurement cycles and manual infrastructure configuration, the leap forward is almost immeasurable.

For organisations who are adopting a microservice or SOA-type approach, PaaS provides a particularly complimentary offering, with the ease in which you can spin up runtime environments for new services.

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