On cloud PaaS: get new software quickly and flexibly
Application Platform as a Service (PaaS for short) is the tool of the moment. But what does this mean for the future of software development?
More fun for developers, low costs, flexible and scalable – Platform as a Service provides a whole host of benefits for companies. Swisscom tested its own PaaS solution for the first time at HackZurich.
Enough pizza to fill a tennis court, 20,280 working hours, almost 30 million keyboard strokes: HackZurich is the largest event of its kind in Europe and was sold out in 2015. More than 500 mostly young and extremely enthusiastic developers got together in the Zurich Technopark at the beginning of October; more than 1,200 had applied.
In a 40-hour, non-stop tour de force, the participants transformed their ideas into program codes – and the entire lobby of the Technopark into a hectic beehive with laptops, network cables, backpacks and sleeping mats. The programming was performed in small teams of two to four people.
The participants had little chance to relax between Friday evening and Sunday morning. Only with the help of a lot of caffeine could the 123 submitted projects be transformed into functioning software within the short timeframe. No wonder most of the hackers were almost impatient waiting for the hacking marathon to begin – not least because attractive prizes were awarded for the best projects.
1/5 Before the 40-hour hacking marathon gets under way, the participants seem really fresh. Pascal Reichmuth is taking part in HackZurich because of his passion for development – and because it gives him the opportunity to focus and achieve something for which he has no time in his day-to-day work.
2/5 Architecture and design are central elements of every software project. For planning, the HackZurich participants used all conceivable methods, from hand-drawn diagrams or Kanban boards through to project management software tools.
3/5 Intensive thinking requires sustenance for the body and mind. Thanks to sponsors, the HackZurich teams were well provided for. Over 4,000 square metres of pizza, thousands of sandwiches and huge volumes of Red Bull and coffee were consumed.
4/5 Code, build, test, review… a cycle that was repeated thousands of times during the Hackathon. The organisers recorded 29.7 million keystrokes, 2.18 terabytes of Internet traffic and six kilometres of Ethernet cable.
The user experience specialist Pascal Reichmuth took part in HackZurich for the first time with three colleagues. “We just really enjoy developing and can do something here beyond everyday working life that we otherwise never find time for,” he says, explaining what motivated them to take part. The four already knew each other; they all work at the same company. “We already have an idea, but we want to gain additional inspiration from the sponsors’ workshops. Then we will decide what we want to develop and with which platform.” Reichmuth also emphasises that the point of a hackathon is not to create a market-ready, polished solution. The aim is to build an initial prototype so that people can see what the team has achieved.
Very little time from the first line of code until the finished solution – a similar situation to that at HackZurich can also be found in business. Companies have to respond with agility to market requirements and cannot wait months until the project is implemented. The IT department, in turn, can provide the required agility only if it is relieved of the burden of routine tasks. Instead of spending a lot of time setting up servers first, they should complete such tasks immediately, not worry about operational details, and be able to scale the performance to the currently required level at any time.
Application Platform as a Service solutions (PaaS) promise to solve precisely this problem. They are cloud-based solutions that provide a complete platform for developing and executing software applications, complete with an operating system, middleware and runtime environment. Initially, PaaS services were used almost exclusively as development and test environments and were a niche in the market for a long time.
Back to HackZurich. A new PaaS solution premiered here: The Swisscom Application Cloud was available to a broad group of users for the first time following a long test phase. Marco Hochstrasser, Head of Application Cloud at Swisscom, was very satisfied: “The platform was available to all HackZurich participants free of charge. The solution was extremely well received – more than 300 developers registered for the app cloud and the topic was actively discussed on Twitter and other social media channels.”
The basis for the Swisscom Application Cloud is the open source platform Cloud Foundry, which is a decisive criterion for Marco Hochstrasser: “Cloud Foundry is experiencing great momentum on the market. And because it is an open standard, customers using Cloud Foundry-based PaaS services can choose and switch between providers more easily than with proprietary platforms.”
According to Hochstrasser, Switzerland is around two to three years behind the USA when it comes to PaaS. “However, we are now seeing that many developers have been waiting for precisely what we are now providing – the interest is there and the market is now ready.” However, so is the competition: The Swisscom Application Cloud is not the first and not the only PaaS solution that Swiss developers can use. As well as industry giants such as Google, Amazon and Microsoft, some smaller providers in Switzerland are also providing PaaS services.
The Swisscom solution nonetheless compares favourably with the competition. In contrast to the global players, Swisscom can guarantee customers that all applications and data are stored exclusively in highly secure Swiss data centers. The costs are invoiced in Swiss francs, so there are no currency rate fluctuations to plan for. And, compared to smaller providers, customers enjoy the benefits of a highly scalable, multiple redundancy infrastructure with high service availability.
Before the public launch, Swisscom tested the Application Cloud thoroughly and is already using it itself, as Marco Hochstrasser emphasises: “We not only want to promote the digitisation of Swiss companies with this solution, but also use the platform ourselves internally. It is important to us to transfer our own applications to this operating model more and more.” A number of business customers have also had the opportunity to test the Application Cloud already and will use it in the future, including an industrial company and an insurance company that do not want to serve the Swiss market only. “It is therefore essential that our solution also works globally,” Hochstrasser concludes.
“We didn’t win, but we had fun and learned a lot,” says Pascal Reichmuth, summarising his team’s experiences at HackZurich after the closing ceremony. “Along the way, we realised time and again that something extra was needed. By the end, we had integrated around ten different services into our application.”
“Taking part in HackZurich was definitely worthwhile, for the atmosphere alone, if nothing else”
Pascal Reichmuth, User Experience Architect
The team developed an intelligent housing search, which takes into account not only the size of the property, but also personal preferences as well as the ability to reach various destinations with a focus on public transport. “We built two Node.js apps and used a MongoDB. We chose Swisscom Cloud for operation, initially mainly because we wanted to try something new – we were already familiar with the IBM and Microsoft clouds.” The fact that Swisscom had a large number of specialist personnel on site turned out to be a stroke of luck for Reichmuth’s team: “We had no experience with the Swisscom Cloud and made errors in our thinking process at first. Together with the Swisscom experts, we were able to solve the problem quickly.”
Reichmuth’s conclusion is that taking part in HackZurich was definitely worthwhile: “For the atmosphere alone, if nothing else. I also found it amusing that all the clichés about developers were fulfilled. It started with pizza, we drank litres of Red Bull and slept for a total of four hours.”