Saugatuck Technology Founder and CEO Bill McNee asked a perfectly good question during one of his panels at the consulting and research firm’s annual cloud summit in midtown Manhattan last week: What is Platform as a Service - or PaaS - really all about?

Off the top of my head I'd almost raised my hand instinctively. I’d have said PaaS is all the developer tools and services for creating and/or customizing IT and integrating software for folks who want to use hosted computing rather than own it. PaaS might be the whole spectrum of activity that falls between simple turnkey multitenant apps and a pure developer lab for building and bridging something substantial from ground up.

But Bill raised a point I hadn’t thought through, and he was right. Compared to more easily understood software as a service (ready to use apps in salesforce.com, NetSuite or Workday are large-scale examples) and infrastructure as a service (CPU, storage and network to support IT), platform as a service has been mumbled about like the redheaded stepchild of cloud. Who does it belong to? 

As he said, PaaS is different things to different people and his panelists’ answers very much reflected Bill's view. 

Joe McKendrick, a blogger who turns up at Forbes and at our sister pub Insurance Networking News, thinks of PaaS in terms of middleware, application server and databases. Development is the core but there is also deployment and management in PaaS. Therefore, he thinks platforms will involve multiple vendors: the infrastructure vendors might excel at one part, the app vendors another.  

Colleen Smith, VP at Progress Software, an industry veteran who plainly knows software and architecture, said the platform of today and the future looks a lot different than it did 30 years ago.

“It’s not just a language and a database, that doesn’t come close to what’s required,” Smith said. She said a platform “needs to be transparent and incorporate services, whether they are business services, process services, data services, a lot of different components.”

Smith’s vision of platform addresses underlying infrastructure where users want elasticity and the ability to self provision, but also covers the functionality and business processes in the applications. The new innovative platforms will allow users to address business rules, “not just data or app to app integration but the underlying messaging and all those capabilities.” That, she says, is what the platform needs to look like going forward.

Ali Shadman, SVP at Infor, said PaaS most simply is meant to develop, deploy and integrate cloud-based applications, whether public, private or on premise. But, he added, look at the entire stack and you’ll see pretty much everything within becoming commoditized over time, making the process level the layer of value. “Often it ends up being business processes at the top, orchestrated in composite systems you can control and everything beneath that becomes plumbing systems. Whatever we can do to move to the apex of that is what we should be doing,” he said.

Scott Skellinger from a company called Illumina, which studies human genetic variation for drugs and testing, also joined the panel. He said we should also think toward the edges of the enterprise to the mobile device, the tablet specifically, as the new consumption platform in the enterprise. “Anywhere that thing goes is where we need to enable the workforce and there is a way to stitch together the boundary-free enterprise and the master architecture in the sense that business processes are still king along with the business rules that support them.”

It’s about the outcome, to be more efficient and differentiate at the role level. “From an infrastructure perspective it’s a way for us to be progressive and drive toward the loosely coupled architecture founded on the new enterprise platform,” Skellinger said. "The key is the customer obsession, we expose services externally to the end user platform. It’s not about on or off network, it’s about executing the process.”

McNee feels when all is said and done we will have shifted “from professional developers and ISV geeks who can manage PaaS environments, to user environments, whether they be internal IT or business units directly using PaaS.”

Whether they are SaaS or PaaS or homegrown, Skellinger said, will depend on the value of the utility being offered. “From a PaaS persective you’re going to do what’s easiest. If I make it easier for you to go to door 2 than door 1, you’ll go to door number 2.”

And that is the ringing truth. Despite compliance and security and SLA and personnel issues (and already, fears of vendor lock-in) waiting in the wings, I have listened to a great deal of informed and outspoken reinforcement of this viewpoint in recent months from CIOs, analysts and vendors who are very close to the execution layer. It doesn’t mean all organizations will buy in. Some will struggle to manage their resources in any flexible way; others, it is speculated, won’t survive the transition if they cannot get their back offices redirected from their current burdens.

The rest of us are by stages managing migration to the service platform. As someone put it, if you were a startup business today would you seek to own or contract for your IT resources? Though the great majority of us have no choice but to wrangle resources as the service economy catches up, I can’t name a new startup business doing other than the latter.