Heroku boss: 1.5M apps, many not in Ruby

Byron Sebastian

In November 2010, Heroku was king of the platform-as-a-service startups, hosting 100,000 applications all written in Ruby. Today, Heroku is still arguably the PaaS king, but it’s operating on a slightly larger stage. It’s now part of the Salesforce.com family and, according to former Heroku CEO and current Salesforce.com (s crm) VP of Platforms Byron Sebastian, is hosting more than 1.5 million applications — an increase of approximately 15x in less than 18 months.

By way of comparison, most startup PaaS providers can only claim in the tens of thousands of applications. Force.com, the other PaaS offering within Salesforce.com, claims more than 200,000 applications, and I’ve similar estimates for Google App Engine (although that was before a pricing change that angered many developers).

Java and Python and Node.js, oh my!

And while it’s still a Ruby shop at heart and plays host a majority Ruby app population, Heroku can attribute some of its rapid growth to its new polyglot status. “Polyglot” means to be able to speak several different languages, making its adoption as an adjective for describing PaaS offerings particularly apt. On its new Celadon Cedar runtime environment, which Heroku released last year and which supports a handful of popular programming languages and frameworks, “at least 50 percent of the apps are in languages that are not Ruby,” Sebastian told me during a recent phone call. Java, Python and Node.js, in particular, are really catching on, he said.

Cloud Foundry at launch; it now supports PHP, Python and more.

From a business perspective, being polyglot is almost a no-brainer in the PaaS space: you can’t attract Java, Python and Node.js developers, for example, if your platform doesn’t support them. Many PaaS offerings began as single-language efforts — Ruby (Heroku, Engine Yard), PHP (PHP Fog), .NET (Windows Azure, arguably) (s msft), Python (App Engine) (s goog) — but have since expanded their scopes. When VMware (s vmw) launched its Cloud Foundry project and service last April, and when startup DotCloud launched a month earlier, they were polyglot from day one.

I suspect anyone not polyglot now (you know who you are) will make the move in time if their engineering budgets allow for it. In the end, it’s the platform experience, not programming language, that make the PaaS.

When apps change, platforms change

But Heroku also has one other, somewhat related, secret to its success — its Salesforce.com connection. “Twelve to eighteen months ago, all our traction was with individual developers,” Sebastian said (it added 34,000 in 24 hours after unveiling a Facebook partnership in September). Now, however, enterprise developers using Force.com look at Heroku for new types of applications not well-suited for that platform. Java support, as well as a general trust in the Salesforce.com brand, helps make that decision easier.

Really, though, it’s the promise that PaaS will provide a higher quality of life for next-generation applications that should float all boats in the space. Sebastian said companies are building customer-facing apps to drive consumer loyalty, or provide more services online, or to improve their distribution networks by training retail partners on products. They want lightweight, dynamic platforms to go along with lightweight, dynamic applications.

This is something we’ll be discussing at our Structure event in June in a panel that includes AppFog’s Lucas Carlson, DotCloud’s Solomon Hykes, and Derek Collison, the man behind Cloud Foundry and new co-founder and CEO of Apcera. Sebastian told me “it’s Heroku versus the status quo” for developers, but it’s really PaaS versus the status quo. As application development continues to evolve thanks to dynamic languages and mobile-first strategies, it looks more and more like PaaS could win.