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Serverless 101: Revolution or Evolution

“Disruptive technologies” incite passionate debates in the technology industry. While blockchain and AI are more widely hyped, in the cloud and infrastructure space, Serverless or Functions-as-a-Service (FaaS) is the latest technology that is considered by many to be THE FUTURE. In some ways, Serverless is a continuation of moving up-the-stack, allowing developers to focus on applications with less concern about the underlying infrastructure, that follows in the footsteps of server virtualization and containerization. It is a significant change in building and operating applications. Unlike virtualization or containers, Serverless isn’t a tool, rather it is an execution model.

The cliplist at the bottom of this article is an 11 minute video made up of executives, thought leaders, start-ups, and practitioners explaining not only what Serverless is, but why it is critically important for how we build applications in the future.

Similar to cloud computing in the early days, the definition is still a bit fuzzy, and there are basic arguments on the naming and the validity of the technologies and trend. Gabe Monroy of Microsoft Azure defines Serverless as “invisible infrastructure, micro-billing, and event based programming model.” There was a great cartoon that said “there is no cloud, it’s just someone else’s computer”, so of course, this has been updated for Serverless:

Are there servers underneath serverless? Here’s Dell’s GM of servers with a ServerlessConf shirt

There is no serverless – it’s just someone else’s fully managed execution environment that I only pay a fraction of a cost for whatever my function is run. (courtesy of A Cloud Guru t-shirts in photo on the right)

The earliest solution in the market that I heard of that has been called Serverless was from Iron.io. When AWS launched Lambda in 2014, there was a wide ripple in the industry that this could be a significant change to the industry. AWS does not hype terminology, rather the company has steadily built on its dominance in IaaS to position its new offerings (Lambda being the first) as the convergence of IaaS and PaaS. Without needing to promote the underlying technology, AWS Alexa Skills, which uses AWS Lambda, has reached very broad developer usage. At AWS re:Invent in 2017, Serverless was pervasive in solutions that used, embedded, or enhanced AWS’ various offerings (here’s a great collection of Serverless news from the event). For users that are building cloud native applications, Serverless is the latest evolution of application platforms that started with IaaS and PaaS.

Quick disclaimer: unlike IaaS or containers where you can lift-and-shift existing applications, you can’t simply migrate existing applications to FaaS just because you want to only pay per execution. 

Why is Serverless so exciting? Just as public cloud enabled startups to not focus on large upfront capital expenditures of infrastructure, Ryan Kroonenburg of A Cloud Guru said that Serverless let’s you “focus on code and you don’t need to worry about any of the normal administration behind it, and it’s ridiculously cheap.” A Cloud Guru is an online training organization that focuses on cloud; the company was built using Serverless, and they created the ServerlessConf events. Another startup in the Serverless ecosystem is IOpipe that allows you to see inside AWS Lambda. In clip playlist below, IOpipe co-founder Erica Windisch explains that it is still very early in determining the use cases for Serverless. She said that it is “very promising for machine learning, artificial intelligence, IoT,” but maybe not for certain batch processes (see clarifying tweet) or environments that can’t be parallelized. AWS CEO Andy Jassy made a statement that if Amazon.com was to be built today, it would be on Serverless. On theCUBE, he clarified that this was “directionally what Amazon would do…we still have plenty of capabilities and features and functionality we need to add to Lambda, and our various services.”

Simon Wardley of the Leading Edge Forum (2 clips below and see the full interview here) has stated that Serverless is one of those transformational events that will determine the fate of companies. Asked about how the landscape will play out, Simon says that “the land of despair will be getting stuck behind the inertia barriers, dismissing it…it’ll surprise you because it’s an exponential growth. The land of happiness are the utility [cloud] providers who’ll be extremely happy about the growth of their industry, another area of happiness will be some of the novel and new things built on top…one-two person company who builds a function which is sold through something like the marketplace and everybody uses and they sell it for a billion. Inflated expectations, one of the big lies will be, Serverless is going to save me money in terms of reducing my IT budget. I’m afraid not. This is Jevons Paradox, this has been going on since 1865…IT becomes more efficient, but we’ll do more stuff because we’re in competition, so we’ll spend exactly the same as we’ve always done, but just doing vastly more.”

While AWS currently is the dominant player in Serverless, it is not limited to AWS, or even only to public clouds. James Kobielus evaluated six open-source Serverless frameworks (OpenWhisk, Fission, Gestalt, Nuclio, Fn, IronFunctions) that can be used for private/hybrid cloud deployments. The Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF) has a Serverless working group that is looking at the intersection of cloud native and Serverless. An initial effort CloudEvents is a vendor-neutral specification for defining the format of event data. Just as Serverless is not the “death of servers”, it also does not replace things like containers and Kubernetes (containers can be part of the underlying make-up of functions). It does impact users in that there is yet another new consideration as they create their infrastructure and application strategies.

Action Item

Like cloud before it, Serverless can be revolutionary for users and vendors that jump to the next curve. The ecosystem is maturing rapidly, so it will be possible for many to take advantage of evolutions in platforms that deliver the value of this new technology. Serverless is not a silver bullet, but it is easy to get started with and users should identify how best to begin leveraging the platforms and tools to support managing and modernizing applications. 

Serverless Cliplist

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