Through catchwords and corny phrases, our current landscape of cloud providers sits in obscurity. Annoyingly enough, it is almost always appended with the now common: “as-a-service”.
But if everything is a service then why use the appended phrase?
I agree that there is huge value in it, as it allows those that innovate in the cloud to differentiate their architecture.
Yet, still, it gets very confusing.
So I’ve decided to explore and expand upon the whole concept of “as-a-service”.
Let’s Get Some Context Going
I really like to Braai (“br-eye”). For our international followers, a barbeque.
It’s basically open-fire cooking.
And to successfully host a braai, I need to do the following:
- Have access to a braai / barbeque mechanism. (I am a Weber fan, myself)
- Make sure that it is squeaky clean.
- Have firelighters or some form of kindling.
- Have charcoal (or wood) prepared.
- Assemble the meat, garlic bread or food items to braai.
- Wait patiently for the fire to reach the right temperature.
- Cook everything to chargrilled perfection.
- Serve to your eager guests.
- Enjoy eating good food with friends and family. It’s the absolute best!
For us locally, this is the sort of thing that we develop an interest in from a very young age.
We become involved in every step of the process. We highly revere the mentors who taught us the art. And as we grow older, we make bold, and sometimes polarising, claims of being the absolute best at it.
Now bear with me, I am going to jump to technology on that cliffhanger.
(I promise, it will make sense shortly.)
In the cloud world, there are three primary “as-a-Service” offerings. Those being Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS), Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS), and Software-as-a-Service (SaaS).
Each of them offer a varying degree of involvement from the provider and the customer, from what is essentially a hardware rental agreement to a fully-managed solution offering.
I will unpack each one individually now.
IaaS provides the best in-breed compute mechanisms for hosting applications. This includes CPU, Memory, Storage and Network. This is then made available on a consumption-basis for the end client.
The client is not responsible for managing firmware, failed disks or network management, however they are still responsible for the configuration of the underlying operating systems hosting their code. They also need to make sure that the integration of their solutions work.
If we go back to my love of open-fire cooking, this speaks to steps I list on how to host a successful braai.
Let’s assume I want to host a braai, but do not have all the requirements in place. It could be an expensive first braai if we have to start from scratch and buy all the items we are missing. But if we are able to rent and use it and not worry about it thereafter, it is a very promising option.
IaaS essentially speaks to the first four items in hosting a braai:
- Have a braai / barbeque mechanism;
- Ensure that it is clean;
- Have firelighters or kindling;
- Have charcoal.
As the customer, I still need to prepare, cook and then serve the food.
If we look at this from a deployment of a business system, you’re essentially not buying your own hardware or having to worry about operating system licenses.
You’re able to get top-tier hardware at a rate you can absorb and never have to worry about maintaining it. This means the business can focus on the things it does best without the need for world-class infrastructure resourcing and equipment on site.
IaaS is often used in the monolithic world where software and systems still have difficulties in catching up to modern practices. This means that it is often the first foray into the cloud for most organisations.
IaaS does have its caveats, however.
Apart from mitigating infrastructure, risk related to aging hardware, and viability to host the systems, there is little to no real innovation happening in the application architecture.
It also is not free, or even low cost, by any measure of the phrase. Companies absorb operational expenditure they did not previously have.
Additionally, it is not cut and dry from a technical perspective and does flip some of the traditional infrastructure concepts on its head.
So for that reason, approaching a specialist partner or consultancy for this first step on the cloud journey is often the best way to go about it.
The next step in the cloud journey is giving the hyperscaler more autonomy.
All of the major providers have solutions-based offerings, which further reduces the technical complexity for the customer. This extends to many things, such as managing databases, firewalls and network mechanisms. Or making something inherently complex vastly more intuitive to use, such as data pipelines, or push-pull mechanisms.
The logic exists with options for barebones configuration or even more, but the idea is that the provider has increasing involvement in the success of the solution.
The term platform refers to a hosted, semi-managed component in your architecture which you just leverage in your wider solution.
If we relate this back to the braai, this would address the full first six items on the to-do list:
- Have a braai / barbeque mechanism;
- Ensure it is clean;
- Have firelighters or kindling;
- Have charcoal;
- Prepare the items to braai;
- Get the fire to the right temperature.
As the client, we are still responsible for the overall cooking and serving of the meal. However, we have a lot less upfront work to do and we don’t have to worry about missing something along the line.
From a solutions perspective, it means we can identify slices of our solution, which would typically require bespoke development. Or it might be something we need, but don’t wish to actually manage it. From that approach, we simplify the solution and focus further on the core.
Once again, platform offerings from the providers are not without caveats and are by no means a silver bullet.
They still do have some inherent complexity and the fact that a lot of what they can do is managed by the provider brings up questions relating to data sovereignty or protection. Another concern is around how comfortable you are with the solution being reliant on a component you don’t have full control over.
In the world of modernization, it starts playing a crucial role. Platform offerings will always be part of a blended approach, with componentry existing primarily on IaaS and dependencies being modernized into platform offerings within the provider.
It offers a lot of power and flexibility and can help mitigate the risk of old code and outdated practices very easily. And that’s without abusing the drawing board too heavily.
SAAS completely abstracts technical knowledge on the part of the customer. It is management-free, zero-touch and consumption only.
What this means is that you look at modernizing your business systems and realize that this in-house application is not worth the effort to refactor or rebuild. So we decided to find a product.
Cloud providers are often the hosting mechanisms for organizations selling SaaS solutions. Some of the bigger providers have their own SaaS solutions, such as Microsoft 365 or Google Workspace.
However, the SaaS world is dominated by specialist firms developing multi-tenant software solutions for consumption by businesses such as ERP and Payroll systems, or monitoring.
It requires technical expertise on the use of the tool or product, but zero expertise on how it runs. SaaS often also includes the data protection mechanisms needed to put the customer at ease.
If I go back to my braai scenario, then we basically have a fully-catered function from equipment, to raw products to cooking and serving.
All we have to do as the customer is consume!
Which is a very convenient situation when you want the braai experience without having to actually braai.
SaaS makes the world of sense in most organizations. Even technology firms with a large technical contingent of resources use other solutions partners to make their solutions more robust.
This helps bring best of breed peripherals without having to build best of breed ourselves.
All the SaaS providers are pushing for more integration, as well. Giving us real opportunities to add functionality, that we are not experts in, to our solutions or ways of work.
There is also the least amount of maintenance and management needed in a SaaS scenario. We free up our resources to focus on being experts in their fields.
Importantly, these are some things to watch out for when considering SaaS:
- Costs. Although often consumption-based and rather flexible, add up quickly and need to be understood.
- Data protection and sovereignty. Making sure you know where the data is being kept and how it is being protected.
- Solution lock-in. SaaS offerings are often engineered to keep you using that platform, so be prepared for a long engagement, or a complex migration process, should you wish to move to a different provider.
This isn’t an official option and is basically the closing statement.
In the cloud world, prepare yourself to see “As-a-Service” reveal itself in new forms. Even in the consulting spaces we are starting to talk about access to tech resources in “As-a-Service” terms.
By understanding the above 3 major classifications, it won’t be difficult to navigate the jargon and it will additionally ensure that you are armed with the knowledge to build your businesses using the components and partners that best fit your business needs.