My colleague John Rymer expects platform-as-a-service (PaaS) technology to “cross the chasm” into mainstream status over the next three years (2012-2014). Today, PaaS solutions, which provide application development and deployment tools abstracted from the underlying cloud infrastructure on which they run your apps, fall into four types: 1) Pure cloud integrated development environments (IDEs); 2) Traditional IDEs that offer the option of cloud deployment; 3) IDE-neutral cloud runtimes that can run apps built by multiple types of IDEs; and 4) PaaS solutions designed for use by business developers. John sees all four of these categories aiming to cross the chasm in this timeframe but doesn’t expect all four segments to succeed in making that transition.

Why does this matter? PaaS is one of the easiest and most productive ways to take advantage of cloud economics, and the elasticity of the cloud, by providing an easily consumable elastic app platform. Today, most apps for the cloud either lack the ability to automatically scale up or down in their use of cloud resources, based on demand, or else gain that ability through complex programming to low-level APIs and frameworks. PaaS provides access to the cloud without all the drama. Only through taking full advantage of these attributes of the cloud can your business realize the full benefits the cloud theoretically provides.

PaaS is not without its risks: These solutions often have a proprietary nature that locks you in to the platform. Apps built this way are hard or even impossible to move to other platforms (read: rewrite). But sometimes PaaS will be worth the risk: for example, when the PaaS is part of a broader cloud solution, running a software-as-a-service (SaaS) app into which your business has already bought. In this case, you’ve already taken the risk, so you might as well reap the additional rewards that can come from being able to rapidly deliver additional application capabilities to the business. In other cases, PaaS will be worth the risk because it's such a good fit to the needs of business developers and has no more lock-in risk than the tools they are already using.

Forrester has designated PaaS and elastic application platforms (EAP) as two of the top 10 technology trends enterprise architects should watch in the period 2012 to 2014. Be sure to check out this research to equip you to more effectively plan the use of new information technology in your enterprise, whatever kind of architect you are – enterprise or application. And if PaaS options look attractive for your business, check out John's research, too.