Does 'platform as a service' mean developer lock-in?

The first release of Google App Engine has developers concerned about getting their applications out of Google's 'cloud' and into another.

As people get their heads around Google App Engine , they see some things they may not like. Namely, the dreaded "lock-in."

Tim O'Reilly dissected whether Google's App Engine is a lock-in play on Monday, and RedMonk analyst Stephen O'Grady hit the issue head-on with his excellent Q&A on what Google App Engine actually is.

Developers for years have been clamoring for more openness and standards. They are tenets of the open-source movement.

But as more application development moves to hosted platforms , does data and application portability get lost in "the cloud"?

Given that we're at an early point in platform-as-a-service offerings, I'd say lock-in, to some degree, is inevitable. Most people consider Salesforce.com's Force.com closed, as it's based on the company's database and query language.

But Google? The search giant is hosting a Web development conference next month, not to sell more software stacks or subscriptions, but to encourage more apps--and people--to move to the Web, it says.

Still, O'Reilly takes Google to task for the lack of application portability--at least in this first iteration of Google App Engine.

"Now, it may be that this is a temporary oversight, and that Google does intend, long-term, to make it easy for developers to export their applications. After all, Eric Schmidt says he reminds his employees all the time, "Don't fight the Internet."

But it's also possible that this is one more sign that one of the big guys is forgetting the principles--the Internet as a platform (not "my company as a platform"), harnessing the power of user contribution (which, as John Musser pointed out, means that you always "pay the user first"), small pieces loosely joined--that brought their success in the first place.

Think his concerns are overblown? He's not the only one.

Within a few days of its release, programmer Chris Anderson wrote some open-source software, called AppDrop, that shows that you can conceivably run an instance written for Google App Engine on Amazon.com's Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2), Amazon's hosted server platform.

Developer Alex Bosworth listed lock-in as his top concern with Google App Engine.

It's likely that Google will allow applications written with other languages, like JavaScript. But the nub of online-platform lock-in comes from the data store, Bosworth said.

One thing both Amazon and Google could do to really show they are serious about their platforms is open up their data engines, which are really the core of most Web applications--open-source BigTable and SimpleDB . This would really reduce lock-in and make development easier, and it might even lead to some help improving their services.

O'Grady at RedMonk, too, argued that Google should open-source portions of its infrastructure or offer an API (application programming interface) to its data store that would ease portability to other databases.

Google appears to already be on the case of data portability. On the Google App Engine Blog, software engineer Kevin Gibbs said that one planned feature is large-scale data import and export.

"With Google App Engine, you own all the data in your app. As stated in our terms, you always have the right to get your data out of Google App Engine at any point. We wouldn't have it any other way," Gibbs wrote.

Once again, Google gets tongues a-waggin', even when it isn't the first to a party.

But it's good to see these issues raised and for developers to push for more openness. After all, standards, portability, and interoperability have been good to the Web.

Updated at 8:45 a.m. PT with information from Google App Engine blog on planned data migration tools.
 

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