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W3C Headlights Program – Cloud Computing Report


The W3C headlights program (see also a separate blog) is a process at W3C whereby new, possible areas of activities are explored. These are technical areas which may have a large impact on the future of the Web, but in which the W3C has not previously been involved. For each of these areas, the fundamental question that has to be answered is “Should the W3C community become involved in this area?”. A number of informal groups have been set up to explore the areas listed. The plan is to make a decision on W3C’s involvement (or not) in these areas in July 2012.

One of the technical areas is Cloud Computing. This is a report from the Cloud Computing area based on discussions over four telephone conferences and several email exchanges. The report consists of three parts: Introductory Discussion, a Possible Approach and a Charter for a Proposed Cloud Computing Community Group.

Introductory Discussion

The following core ideas were generated by the team during a series of conference calls:

  • There is a great deal of ferment in Cloud Computing including a general movement from IaaS to PaaS (see below for a detailed explanation of these terms). Perhaps too early to standardize.
  • There are already a large number of standards activities in the Cloud space. We should not add to these without good reason.
  • Most of the Cloud Computing API work is based on URIs and REST, concepts developed by the W3C. It may be best for the W3C to concentrate on developing such fundamental technologies. See, for example, the proposed Linked Data Patterns WG

Ferment in Cloud Computing

In September 2011 NIST published a report that classified Cloud computing into three categories:

  1. Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS). The capability provided to the consumer is to provision processing, storage, networks (networking within IaaS is occasionally referred to as Network as a Service, NaaS), and other fundamental computing resources where the consumer is able to deploy and run arbitrary software, which can include operating systems and applications. The consumer does not manage or control the underlying cloud infrastructure but has control over operating systems, storage, and deployed applications; and possibly limited control of select networking components (e.g., host firewalls).
  2. Platfom as a Service (PaaS). The capability provided to the consumer is to deploy onto the cloud infrastructure consumer-created or acquired applications created using programming languages, libraries, services and tools supported by the provider. The consumer does not manage or control the underlying cloud infrastructure including network, servers, operating systems, or storage, but has control over the deployed applications and possibly configuration settings for the application-hosting environment.
  3. Software as a Service (SaaS). The capability provided to the consumer is to use the provider’s applications running on a cloud infrastructure. The applications are accessible from various client devices through either a thin client interface, such as a web browser (e.g., web-based email), or a program interface. The consumer does not manage or control the underlying cloud infrastructure including network, servers, operating systems, storage, or even individual application capabilities, with the possible exception of limited user specific application configuration settings. Examples of such services include DBaaS (Database as a Service)

IaaS Industry Focus

Within the IaaS cloud space there are implementations that let you switch from one Cloud provider to another, like Delta Cloud; other vendors claim you can just move your applications to the Cloud without any reprogramming, like CloudSwitch and others. Thus, there is continuing development about exactly how the IaaS Cloud will be used. In addition to the large companies, there are a number of start-ups in the arena, each with a slightly different take on the situation. It’s not clear when the innovation will plateau or exactly what the stable landscape will look like.

An open source effort that is attracting a great deal of interest is OpenStack. This provides a "Cloud Operating System" and an "eventually consistent" replicated object store along with an identity service, an image service, and an interface. Several companies, both small and large, have become part of the OpenStack family either to build IaaS services on top of OpenStack or, perhaps, merely to use the interfaces which may become a de facto standard.

Many Cloud Computing Standards

To a large extent, industry standardisation has already occurred within the IaaS cloud. The majority of the APIs offered by IaaS clouds, and IaaS standard based interfaces are based on URIs and REST. lists most of the efforts. It also lists organizations that try and make sense of the standards and offer best practices. Some of the more important ones are listed below:

In addition, there are international Cloud standards efforts in INCITS/DAPS38 and ISO JTTC1/SC38. There are also Cloud Standards efforts in the EU.

Web Applications and the Cloud

The majority of cloud standards aim to address IaaS based cloud technology. They do not address PaaS. There is, however, increasing buzz around PaaS. See, for example Open Cloud Conference. In general, the approach taken by PaaS-based clouds restricts web application portability. There is an opportunity for the W3C to utilise its experience in standardising web technology to aid PaaS web application portability and redefine how web applications can be structured to utilise cloud resources. There are a number of existing and ongoing standardisation and development efforts within the W3C which could be leveraged in this endeavour. This is why the W3C is the perfect place to investigate and drive this effort.

PaaS Application Portability

The arrival of cloud technology lowers the cost of entry for many web application developers. The emerging Rest-based standards do support the creation of portable IaaS based applications. This is achieved by providing a programming language independent interface based on HTTP (Rest). The cloud industry is, however, moving away from the traditional IaaS provider model to a PaaS provider model where the application can be run on a platform without the user having to configure and manage machines, storage and networks.

Currently, there is no PaaS standard and the problems discussed in this section will be ameliorated when there is one but as of now, the facilities offered by PaaS vendors differ significantly. IaaS standards cannot be used to support portable applications within the PaaS world. This is because the cloud (PaaS) platforms often provide programming language specific interfaces, and the traditional cloud resources (compute, storage and networking) are often presented in more abstract ways to those visible to IaaS developers. As an example, within PaaS, computing can be realised as a process, not a full virtual machine.

Additionally, PaaS vendors provide language-specific platform services that can be used by applications such as message queue, servlet container and database, but differ from provider to provider. This has resulted in an environment where a number of cloud platforms exist with each supporting differing sets of programming languages, and each platform providing its own set of platform services. In this environment, moving an application between platforms requires, at best, that the developer rewrite the portions of their application which interact with the platform services. At worst, it means that the developer must rewrite their entire application in a different programming language.

To summarise, there are three core issues which currently limit PaaS application portability:

  1. There are widely differing abstractions of traditional cloud resources available within the PaaS industry. This makes it hard for developers to create applications which can port easily between PaaS providers.
  2. The varying set of platform services available on PaaS providers means that a developer who commits to using one set of technology with a chosen provider may find that the same technology is not available on other PaaS providers.
  3. The URI and Rest approach to standards taken within the IaaS Cloud environment doesn’t provide application portability for PaaS. Even if the URI / REST based interfaces are available with PaaS, as the supported languages available from each PaaS provider can differ, the developer will still have to re-implement their application code in a different development language to move between PaaS providers supporting different languages.

These issues are affecting web application developers using PaaS providers to develop new sites and services. This limited interoperability forces developers to focus on a specific technology, and therefore a provider.

Leveraging the Power of the Client and Cloud

The increasing use of HTML5 within the client and the adoption of concepts such as Web Workers allow the client components of a web application to become more complex. This is offering new application architectures and structures.

A typical web application is structured as follows: A web server provides a browser with a set of assets which compose the application; these are HTML, CSS, JS and images etc. Once downloaded the browser effectively executes the client side of the web application. During the lifetime of the application the client side code will typically call back to the issuing domain via, e.g., xHTTP requests; these in turn provide the client application with access to the services provided by the cloud environment. For instance calls back to the domain could request additional compute or data storage for the client. To support this model the developer effectively creates a working REST based API, which provides an interface between the client front end and the cloud provider's services. This is essentially boilerplate code. Creating and maintaining that boilerplate is an additional cost to the developer.

One Application Many Development Environments

Maintaining, managing, and developing in multiple languages and technologies results in additional costs and development time for web application developers. Web application developers are traditionally forced to do this by the client (JavaScript/HTML) / server (PHP, .NET, SQL, C etc) technology differences.

Consider the LAMP stack as an example; a developer produces a web application in PHP, Perl, or Python and stores any application data in a mySQL database. The Web application developer will also write client code to render the application and provide the user experience. The front end experience for most platforms can now be implemented in JavaScript and HTML5. For any given application implemented using a LAMP stack the web application developer will need to be familiar with at least 3 distinct languages and technologies, for instance, PHP, SQL, and JavaScript. The same is true for other technology stacks, including Java and .NET based applications.

Ultimately the developer has to keep several different parts of their application in several different languages, and then needs to keep all of the functionality in lock step and in sync. New feature development requires both server code and client side code changes, and can often also mean changes to the underlying database structures. This increases application complexity, increases the time and costs of developing and maintains applications.

IaaS providers and technology developers do not address this technology rift. This is because IaaS developers provide only infrastructure. A future PaaS solution could address this, if it did so it would reduce technology complexity for 3rd party developers and make their web application development cheaper and quicker.

A Possible Way Forward

A single development language, a Lingua Franca, available across all PaaS providers, and which defines its own interfaces for PaaS cloud concepts, compute, storage and communication, would provide a platform which would enable portable PaaS based Web applications. The W3C could apply its existing web technology in the form of server side JavaScript with cloud extensions would address this issue.

As JavaScript can be executed on the client and the server, providing access to the cloud extensions within the browser via the same way as the server side JavaScript would allow developers to create applications within the one technology, lowering costs and simplifying the application architectures.

The adoption of the same interfaces removes the need for developers to create and maintain their own boiler plate code, further reducing the cost of cloud based web application development.

The introduction of a single, unified, and standardized set of JavaScript APIs for cloud computing, available both within the browser and the server side which provide the necessary abstraction on the top of the various PaaS providers, will allow developers to create new, simplified Web Application architectures which are portable and leverage the formidable possibilities offered by cloud computing.

However such a set of JavaScript APIs do not currently exist, and need to be created. There are various existing W3C technologies, specifications, and elements of work being developed by groups and individuals of on-going work which should be leveraged to address this. A short list of these is presented below:

Web Application Cloud Interface Community Group


The proposal is for W3C to establish a cloud computing Community Group to investigate the specification and possible implementation of a JavaScript based cloud computing interface, accessible both within and outside the cloud from a Web browser. The Community Group would investigate the concepts, contribute to a working implementation and evaluate its effectiveness.

At some point in future, considering the outcome of the Community Group's work, it will be decided whether the specification should be advanced to a W3C Recommendation, via a dedicated Working Group.

Proposed Charter Text

Creating a charter helps to aid the establishment of a community group, by providing focus and direction. The following is a proposed charter which aims to enable the group to investigate and evaluate the proposed approach. The charter allows the group to propose ways to realise its goals via the influence on other W3C groups, or by suggesting the creation of new groups.


The Web Application Cloud Interface (WACI) Community Group will provide a set of use cases and white papers which capture the identified gaps for web application developers inside the PaaS cloud ecosystem; application portability on PaaS clouds and lowering the cost and complexity of web application development. It will focus on a single interface for cloud compute, messaging, networking and storage available from both client and server (cloud) locations.

The group aims to leverage existing web technology being developed within the W3C to fulfill the requirements identified within the use cases and white papers.

This initiative will identify missing functionality which needs to be developed to address the use cases. Any such missing functionality, once identified, will be documented, and addressed in one of two ways:

  1. The group may suggest that specifications to address this functionality may be developed within an existing working/community group within the W3C
  2. The group may suggest that a new working/community groups should be formed to focus on the specific missing functionality

The WACI community group will not directly define standards, nor will it create technical specifications. Existing working groups will be leveraged, and new working groups recommended to be formed to define technical specifications and standards which meet the community group’s identified requirements.

As noted above the WACI CG will neither create technical specifications nor define standards. Therefore as defined in the Contributor License Agreement (CLA), there will be no new patent licensing commitments due to participation in this group.

Further Details

"Infrastructure as a Service" (IaaS) based cloud services defined the core components of cloud technology, like computing in the form of Virtual Machines, networking in the form of load balancers and firewalls, and network based storage. The PaaS cloud industry has taken these core concepts (compute, storage, and communication) further and has re-defined them as more abstract concepts (for instance compute is a process, not a full virtual machine). These PaaS abstractions are offered to users as language extensions or libraries. However, the widely differing implementations available within the PaaS industry make it hard for developers to develop portable applications, i.e., applications that can move among different PaaS providers.

Furthermore, Web Applications that intend to make use of cloud computing facilities are facing a wide range of development environments on the server side, from PHP, .NET, C, etc. to server side JavaScript, with the client side development being, usually, based on JavaScript with a wider range of client side APIs that form the Open Web Platform (most of these APIs are defined at the W3C). This multiplicity of environments creates a challenge for the development of Web Applications that could make use of cloud computing.