The PaaS Lament: In the Cloud, application administrators should administrate applications

Some organizations just have “systems administrators” in charges of their applications. Others call out an “application administrator” role but it is usually overloaded: it doesn’t separate the application platform administrator from the true application administrator. The first one is in charge of the application runtime infrastructure (e.g. the application server, SOA tools, MDM, IdM, message bus, etc). The second is in charge of the applications themselves (e.g. Java applications and the various artifacts that are used to customize the middleware stack to serve the application).

In effect, I am describing something close to the split between the DBA and the application administrators. The first step is to turn this duo (app admin, DBA) into a triplet (app admin, platform admin, DBA). That would be progress, but such a triplet is not actually what I am really after as it is too strongly tied to a traditional 3-tier architecture. What we really need is a first-order separation between the application administrator and the infrastructure administrators (not the plural). And then, if needed, a second-order split between a handful of different infrastructure administrators, one of which may be a DBA (or a DBA++, having expanded to all data storage services, not just relational), another of which may be an application platform administrator.

There are two reasons for the current unfortunate amalgam of the “application administrator” and “application platform administrator” roles. A bad one and a good one.

The bad reason is a shortcomings of the majority of middleware products. While they generally do a good job on performance, reliability and developer productivity, they generally do a poor job at providing a clean separation of the performance/administration functions that are relevant to the runtime and those that are relevant to the deployed applications. Their usual role definitions are more structured along the lines of what actions you can perform rather than on what entities you can perform them. From a runtime perspective, the applications are not well isolated from one another either, which means that in real life you have to consider the entire system (the middleware and all deployed applications) if you want to make changes in a safe way.

The good reason for the current lack of separation between application administrators and middleware administrators is that middleware products have generally done a good job of supporting development innovation and optimization. Frameworks appear and evolve to respond to the challenges encountered by developers. Knobs and dials are exposed which allow heavy customization of the runtime to meet the performance and feature needs of a specific application. With developers driving what middleware is used and how it is used, it’s a natural consequence that the middleware is managed in tight correlation with how the application is managed.

Just like there is tension between DBAs and the “application people” (application administrators and/or developers), there is an inherent tension in the split I am advocating between application management and application platform management. The tension flows from the previous paragraph (the “good reason” for the current amalgam): a split between application administrators and application platform administrators would have the downside of dampening application platform innovation. Or rather it redirects it, in a mutation not unlike the move from artisans to industry. Rather than focusing on highly-specialized frameworks and highly-tuned runtimes, the application platform innovation is redirected towards the goals of extreme cost efficiency, high reliability, consistent security and scalability-by-default. These become the main objectives of the application platform administrator. In that perspective, the focus of the application architect and the application administrator needs to switch from taking advantage of the customizability of the runtime to optimize local-node performance towards taking advantage of the dynamism of the application platform to optimize for scalability and economy.

Innovation in terms of new frameworks and programming models takes a hit in that model, but there are ways to compensate. The services offered by the platform can be at different levels of generality. The more generic ones can be used to host innovative application frameworks and tools. For example, a highly-specialized service like an identity management system is hard to use for another purpose, but on the other hand a JVM can be used to host not just business applications but also platform-like things like Hadoop. They can run in the “application space” until they are mature enough to be incorporated in the “application platform space” and become the responsibility of the application platform administrator.

The need to keep a door open for innovation is part of why, as much as I believe in PaaS, I don’t think IaaS is going away anytime soon. Not only do we need VMs for backward-looking legacy apps, we also need polyvalent platforms, like a VM, for forward-looking purposes, to allow developers to influence platform innovation, based on their needs and ideas.

Forget the guillotine, maybe I should carry an axe around. That may help get the point across, that I want to slice application administrators in two, head to toe. PaaS is not a question of runtime. It’s a question of administrative roles.

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