Cloud Computing

PaaS Impressions

Five experts tested Oracle’s cloud platforms. Here’s what they learned.

by Chris Murphy

May 2016

“Are you sure you don’t need a mobile interface for those legacy apps?” Mia Urman asked the IT leaders at a client company—several times. The team assured her they just needed to modernize the applications’ look and feel, because these were “just back-office” applications used to record and report activity happening out in the field.

On the first day of that client engagement, Urman sat down with some employees who use those desktop apps every day. “Literally the first words that came out of their mouths were ‘Too bad we can’t run this system on a tablet,’” she says. Those front-line staffers knew they had people out in the field filling out paper reports that later had to be typed into the desktop applications. Mobility would save so much time and effort.

Urman is CEO of AuraPlayer, a firm specializing in mobilizing and modernizing the user interface of Oracle Forms and Oracle E-Business Suite applications. She sees this scenario again and again in her firm’s work: In many organizations, mobility is viewed as “nice to have,” even when line-of-business teams consider it a screaming “must have” to remain competitive, create revenue opportunities, and increase productivity.

The difference with Oracle Mobile Cloud Service is the difference between having a mobile app and having a mobile
strategy.”–Mia Urman, CEO, AuraPlayer

“Most of the projects that get funded today are where the house is burning down, like security or compliance,” Urman says. “And when you talk about mobility, for some reason, this doesn’t always fit into that mold of a mission-critical project.”

That may be due in part to the fact that IT departments haven’t had the resources to do all the support and compliance that comes after the confetti from the mobile app launch flutters down. What Urman sees changing, however, is the ease and speed with which IT can deliver and support an enterprise-grade mobile app, thanks to cloud-based platforms, or platform as a service (PaaS).

Urman’s clients use Oracle Mobile Cloud Service to build and deploy apps to the field, using AuraPlayer to integrate with the back-office Oracle Forms applications to replace the paper-based, write-down/input-later processes. Fortunately, the process to “plug into” the cloud with AuraPlayer requires no redevelopment or changes to their underlying systems. Oracle Mobile Cloud Service makes development easier, but even more importantly it lets the IT team cope with all the traditionally thankless tasks that come after an app gets launched: security, scalability, adoption and usage monitoring, error tracking, notifications, offline capabilities, location accuracy, and more.

“The difference with Oracle Mobile Cloud Service is the difference between having a mobile app and having a mobile strategy,” Urman says. “My eight-year-old son could probably build an app, with all the development tools coming out. But if you’re an enterprise, you can’t afford to just have an app.”

PaaS creates a lot of new possibilities beyond mobile apps. With cloud-based databases, for example, custom app development gets faster and cheaper—and easier to integrate with existing cloud apps, such as Oracle Enterprise Resource Planning Cloud. Cloud-based business intelligence (BI) lets line-of-business analysts test new ideas and datasources without a lot of IT hand-holding.

A select group of experts, including Urman, have spent the last few months working with Oracle Cloud Platform services—using them in client projects, creating proofs of concept, and doing their own testing and tire-kicking. These experts are known as Oracle ACE Directors, a designation earned based on their technical knowledge and their willingness to share that knowledge with fellow Oracle community members. We talked in depth with five of those Oracle ACE Directors about Oracle PaaS solutions, and what follows are some more insights and lessons learned about PaaS and how it fits into your business strategy.

It’s going to be very easy for people to know it’s going to work [in production], as opposed to hoping it’s going to work.”–Rich Niemiec, Executive Advisor to Rolta International Board
Dashboards, Not Clipboards

Digital dashboards are a popular way for companies to give everyone from executives to hourly workers the information most important to their jobs. The problem, says Glenn Schwartzberg, business intelligence practice lead at interRel Consulting, is that leaders at many companies think they can take a paper report and make it into a dashboard.

“That doesn’t work,” he warns.

Instead, they’re better off getting some of their data into a BI system and putting some options in front of the data users. And that’s where a cloud environment like Oracle Business Intelligence Cloud Service provides an edge.

“The initial dashboards they make probably aren’t the ones they end up with,” Schwartzberg says. “But you can do it much faster; you can prototype and build in an Oracle Business Intelligence Cloud Service environment much faster than you can on premises.”

With a cloud-based platform, business users don’t need the level of IT support needed with conventional BI systems. “It puts the ‘business’ back into BI, because it allows the business users to do more of their own things,” Schwartzberg says. And, prototype iterations can happen on the spot, rather than waiting for developers to come back with a new version.

Schwartzberg believes one key element of Oracle Business Intelligence Cloud Service is Oracle Visual Analyzer, a web-based data visualization tool that competes with standalone tools such as Tableau. Analysts can use this drag-and-drop, graphical interface to try different ways of looking at data—scatter charts, tree maps, bar charts, or other graphical representations.

Because the Oracle Visual Analyzer tool in Oracle Business Intelligence Cloud Service relies on a database, it can handle larger data sets than products that rely entirely on spreadsheets. But the cloud interface means a user doesn’t have to be a DBA to do analysis or to add new data elements, so it’s much quicker and cheaper to get started.

You can prototype and build in an Oracle Business Intelligence Cloud Service environmentmuch faster than you can on premises.”–Glenn Schwartzberg, Business Intelligence Practice Lead, interRel Consulting

Big and small companies will use Oracle Business Intelligence Cloud Service in different ways, Schwartzberg predicts.

For big companies that might have an on-premises Oracle Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition investment, Oracle Business Intelligence Cloud Service offers agility. Today, to bring a datasource into Oracle Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition, it has to be blessed and validated as enterprise-ready by the database owners. But teams now want to be more nimble with data—to bring in a new source and just see if it’s worth putting into a model, or to use it once for a quick gut-check analysis. Oracle Business Intelligence Cloud Service lets an analyst start small and test new datasources and analytical approaches. The cloud service also has data visualization included with the core service, so analysts have that tool immediately. And if the analysis or visualization proves valuable long term, they can shift that data directly into Oracle Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition, because it’s all on Oracle Database.

For smaller companies, cloud-based BI means analysts and other business pros outside IT can do high-powered data analysis and visualization that wasn’t possible for them before—because they didn’t have the resources to invest in and support Oracle Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition. “You can get started with very little background knowledge,” Schwartzberg says.

Faster Software Development

Sten Vesterli builds custom applications using Oracle Application Development Framework, and to him, doing development using Oracle Database Cloud Service looks identical to an on-premises Oracle Database. “I can’t tell the difference,” says Vesterli, a senior principal consultant at Scott/Tiger. “As a developer, it’s in the cloud or in the server room. It doesn’t make a difference.”

There is a huge difference, though, in the setup time involved, he says. Oracle Database Cloud Service and Oracle Java Cloud Service let him create a high-performance environment for development and testing from scratch in a matter of hours at most, compared with the weeks it can take a large company to order and set up an environment.

“The time from idea to running software is much faster,” Vesterli says.

Vesterli predicts platforms such as a cloud database will become increasingly important as more companies that have embraced software as a service (SaaS) look to add unique elements that give their companies an advantage. “PaaS for SaaS is really the killer feature from a functional standpoint,” Vesterli says. That simple integration of custom apps with SaaS apps is “something I can only do in the cloud,” he adds. “If I build it on premises, I have all kinds of integration challenges.”

For example, Vesterli could build a custom application to deal with your company’s unique sales incentive program that doesn’t quite fit the cloud-based HR application you’re using. With Oracle’s user interface, he can build that app to mimic the look and feel of Oracle’s SaaS apps, such as Oracle Human Capital Management Cloud.

DBAs aren’t going away. We’re going to finally do what we should be focused on.”–Jim Czuprynski, Senior Solutions Architect, OnX Enterprise Solutions

Vesterli does hear concerns about PaaS services, including its marginal cost. A cloud instance might require an expense, even if it’s small to start, that gets tracked more closely than those licenses. But companies with an enterprise Oracle Database license might have some spare licenses, which let them launch a new instance without added cash costs. “It seems free to the developer,” Vesterli says.

Still, Vesterli thinks the advantages of speed to customize apps will drive interest in development-related PaaS services. SaaS may efficiently deliver the standard systems, but running an HR system 5 percent faster or closing the books two hours sooner doesn’t drive competitive advantage. PaaS lets business leaders add new technology elements that reflect their company’s unique operating strategies.

“It’s actually in the platform part of the cloud where most of the cloud benefit is,” Vesterli contends.

Securing a Database Advantage

While leading a recent talk at a Chicago, Illinois–area Oracle user group, Jim Czuprynski shared his amazement at how many organizations hold extremely sensitive data in unencrypted databases.

“We could have powered a small wave pool with all the heads nodding up and down in agreement,” says Czuprynski, senior solutions architect at OnX Enterprise Solutions. “A lot of companies focus on security only at the front door.”

Despite that, the #1 question Czuprynski gets about cloud databases is whether they’re sufficiently secure. Czuprynski notes that Oracle Database Cloud Service encrypts all data by default, and the cloud customer, not Oracle, holds the private encryption key. So while security may be the top concern IT pros raise today about cloud databases, security could become one of its top selling points in the future.

Czuprynski, in his work with OnX Enterprise Solutions, has been meeting with DBAs, database managers, and higher-level IT executives exploring interest in cloud databases.

He’s finding that data sprawl is another IT problem that could drive cloud database adoption. Data growth of 10 to 15 percent a year is commonplace among the companies he encounters, and IT leaders at those companies are struggling with where to put the data. That means an environment filled with perpetually multiplying datasources—all potential security risks.

In addition to volume, IT faces pressure to serve up that data for analysis very quickly when a business need arises. That can mean quickly standing up unsecure instances of test databases. “Companies don’t have time to wait to spin up a full-blown 20 terabyte data warehouse to do some simple big data analysis,” Czuprynski says.

Czuprynski hears the concerns, too, beyond security. IT executives worry about loss of control and vendor lock-in. Czuprynski understands those concerns, but he sees the upside of having one vendor accountable for performance, rather than “a finger-pointing game of it’s not storage, it’s networking; it’s not networking, it’s the DBAs.”

Czuprynski also senses lurking in the background the fear of some DBAs that they will lose their jobs. Czuprynski doesn’t doubt that cloud databases will change some of the work DBAs do. But with many organizations’ DBAs currently overtaxed, responsible for hundreds of databases, he sees cloud as enabling DBAs to focus more on database performance and creative uses, and less on duties such as uptime. “DBAs aren’t going away. We’re going to finally do what we should be focused on,” Czuprynski says.

Transform IT at Your Own Pace
PaaS for SaaS is really the killer feature from a functional standpoint.”–Sten Vesterli, Senior Principal Consultant, Scott/Tiger

Rich Niemiec worries about the questions that don’t get asked when people are in problem-solving conversations. “People don’t even ask questions internally such as, ‘Should I do the analytics on our historic data?’ because they know they don’t have the data capacity and the resources to buy all the hardware to do it,” says Niemiec, executive advisor to Rolta International Board, and the company’s former president of Oracle Consulting for the Americas.

But with cloud, companies don’t have to accept the infrastructure constraint. Today, a few developers using cloud resources and an agile methodology can test concepts quickly—whether it’s a new in-house data analysis or a customer-facing mobile app—and decide if there’s an avenue worth pursuing.

Niemiec sees the appetite for what Gartner calls bimodal IT, where companies maintain the legacy systems they’ve built on premises, but build their next generation of apps and functionality on cloud systems. He sees several reasons fueling this two-track strategy around cloud.

One is big data. Companies see the surge of data they’ll need to deal with, from sources such as the Internet of Things and social media analysis. Cloud offers a way to cope with that without sinking loads of capital and time into data centers. Another reason is that they have a lot of intellectual property in those legacy on-premises apps, and they don’t want to lose that value.

Niemiec has been testing Oracle Database Cloud Service to do development and testing of apps written for Oracle Database 12c. One great efficiency advantage is that the developer tools, the backup services, and everything else he needs are in one place, available as point-and-click services.

And, the Oracle Database environment is identical to what apps will run on on premises, once those apps go into production. “It’s going to be very easy for people to know it’s going to work [in production], as opposed to hoping it’s going to work,” Niemiec says.

Niemiec isn’t convinced that companies will shift a lot of old workloads to an Oracle platform; instead he envisions more of a focus on building new cloud-based apps on PaaS that can integrate with legacy apps. Oracle Enterprise Manager works with internal and cloud systems, he notes, making management of such coexisting cloud and on-premises environments easier.

But Niemiec is convinced that DBAs need to embrace cloud databases if they’re going to build the next generation of apps. “I tell DBAs, you’re a carpenter. You can still use a hand saw if you want, or you can use power tools,” Niemiec says. “But you have competition out there who are using power tools.”

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