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The Key to Cutting Information Technology Costs

February 2012
By Paul A. Strassmann, SIGNAL Magazine

 
The adoption of platform-as-a-service (PaaS) has opened up new opportunities for reducing information technology costs. Now, the U.S. Defense Department must enter this option into its planning.

In fiscal year 2011, the department spent 54 percent of its total information technology budget of $36.3 billion on its infrastructure. The remainder was spent on functional applications. Compared to commercial practices, the size of the Defense Department infrastructure is excessive. The department never has managed to share its infrastructures—programs were built as stand-alone silos, each with its stand-alone infrastructure.

For example, even the simple effort to consolidate what should be a commodity application—such as a common email for the Army—has run into problems. The Army email consolidation effort is difficult because of several reasons: no shared standards; numerous local network modifications; inconsistent versions of software; and incompatible desktops. The idea of placing parts of supply chain management, human resource systems, financial applications or administrative systems on shared platforms is too hard to imagine.

Now, PaaS platforms enable sharing of the operational infrastructure. PaaS calls for the separation between the software that defines the logic of an application and the method that describes how that application will be placed in a computing environment.

A PaaS cloud provisions data center assets, data storage capacity, communication connections, security restrictions, load balancing and all administrative requirements such as service-level agreements. That cloud can be private or public, and it can support local needs or serve global requirements. A system developer can concentrate exclusively on authoring the application logic. When that is done, the code can be passed to the PaaS platform for the delivery of results.

PaaS produces results without the cost and complexity of managing operations. In this way, the total budget for a new application can be reduced. Programmers can concentrate on the business logic, leaving it to PaaS to take care of the hard-to-manage infrastructure. When using PaaS, all of the infrastructure components already will be installed. A PaaS cloud then can support hundreds and even thousands of shared applications infrastructures. Consequently, the total cost of Defense Department operations will decrease.

PaaS is an attractive solution except that each of the platform providers will try to lock up applications into their environment. Once an application code is checked into a vendor’s PaaS, it will be difficult to ever check it out. Hundreds of vendors will add refinements to their PaaS so that any extrication to another PaaS will remain as a restraint.

What a customer wants is not a vendor lock-in, but the ability to port applications from any PaaS to another. The customer then can shop for different terms of service from multiple suppliers. Portability of application code across PaaS services makes price competition possible. Availability of multiple PaaS clouds also makes for more reliable uptime.

To deal with the problem of interoperability across different PaaS vendors, the company VMware has just introduced the PaaS platform called Cloud Foundry. What is unique is that this is open source software. A number of firms already have signed up to support this approach. The only restriction is that all of the applications must conform to compatible software frameworks such as Spring for Java apps, Rails and Sinatra for Ruby apps and Node.js.

An open source cloud platform prevents vendor monopoly. It allows for competitive procurement, makes cross-cloud support available and offers the exercise of multiple options for how services can be delivered. Such arrangement will assure customers of improved quality and maintainability.

In the next few years, the Defense Department will have to depend on cloud technologies that are available from several hundred contractors. A defense customer would contract for a PaaS platform offering with features that are desired. In effect, the PaaS vendor delivers data center services, while the customer retains full control over the application software.

A Defense Department policy of October 16, 2009, provides guidance regarding the use of open source software. Currently, VMware PaaS meets the definition of commercial computer software and must be given statutory preference.

The broad peer review enabled by publicly available open source code supports software reliability and security efforts through the identification and elimination of defects that might otherwise go unrecognized. The unrestricted ability to modify software source code then enables the Defense Department to respond more rapidly to changing situations, missions and future threats that otherwise would be constrained by vendor licensing.

The availability of the Cloud Foundry platform opens a new approach for how to proceed with the migration to cloud computing. The more reliable PaaS may not take over unless the Defense Department will change its thinking about how to organize the development and operations of information technology.

Paul A. Strassmann is the distinguished professor of information sciences at George Mason University. The views expressed are his own and not necessarily those of SIGNAL Magazine.