Get ready for a serverless world

By Angus Dorney, GM and Director, Rackspace ANZ
Friday, 19 May, 2017

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If digital disruption comes in waves, then this year we might just see a tech tsunami. Bubbling under the surface of the major tech trends from last year was the concept of ‘serverless architectures’. So far, discussion of serverless has been largely confined to dev circles (it’s not even on the latest Gartner hype cycle).

But I think this is the year it will break into mainstream tech consciousness.

Why? Because it has the potential to rewrite business models and shake up markets (again). As the saying goes, every company has to be a technology company.

However, there is a vast difference in the systems and capabilities between, say, a core tech firm such as Amazon and a small family-run logistics company that uses e-commerce and customer management platforms to take orders and manage deliveries.

Yet they share the same market environment and each has to leverage the right technology for its business to remain competitive.

The differences will be magnified by the next stage of digital transformation. When the Internet of Things achieves critical scale it will result in a colossal increase in the volume of data flowing between interconnected devices at the network edge and data centres.

Many organisations, for whom technology is not their core business, may struggle to take advantage and fall farther behind the big players.

This is why serverless architectures are so exciting. Serverless computing combines backend-as-a-service and function-as-a-service to bring the power of hosted, managed services to the compute layer.

In relative layperson’s terms, serverless architectures enable developers to upload code to a hosted environment, where the code is activated and orchestrated in response to a trigger and then, to all intents, the hosted environment disappears until it is needed again.

Upsides for IT teams and businesses

Like infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) and platform-as-a-service (PaaS), serverless architectures free developers from worrying about provisioning or configuring infrastructure environments and virtual machines.

However, serverless architectures go much further than these established approaches, with potentially transformative effects for businesses everywhere.

1. Faster time to market or to develop solutions. With no requirement to provision environments, developers can create, test and run code quicker than ever before. It doesn’t just make a developer’s life easier; serverless approaches can empower businesses to experiment with new ideas and rapidly reiterate existing projects, giving them a level of agility that is constrained only by their own mindset.

2. Next level scalability. The next great advantage of serverless architectures is that scaling is taken care of automatically. You don’t need to provision extra machines, capacity or compute resources as applications become used more frequently — these will be orchestrated in real time by the cloud platform. This frees up the business to focus on growing its user base without fear of hitting bandwidth boundaries and delivering poor user experiences when demand reaches a certain level.

We are already seeing platform-as-a-service deployments reaching vast scales. Our customer Domino’s recently completed one of the largest global PaaS rollouts on Microsoft Azure to deliver an elastic solution that manages hyper spikes and up to 11 million page views per month.

Serverless has the potential to enable an even greater scale of deployment.

3. Cost that reflects use. Cost-efficiency is the other side of the scalability coin — with serverless you only pay for the compute time used. When instances pop up and are gone within milliseconds, the savings over a PaaS approach with virtual machines running in the background can be significant.

Consider the impact for businesses running monetised apps or microservices — as long as the business has worked out the correct cost model at the start, it can grow as fast and as far as it wants, sustainably, without having to re-budget or invest upfront in additional capacity.

Cost and scalability models become far more important when IoT devices are brought online in the anticipated numbers. With the deluge of data, especially real-time data, it is cost-prohibitive for businesses in many use cases to process it and act on it.

Serverless computing makes it much more inexpensive by charging you only for the fraction of the time it takes to run your functions.

4. From ‘DevOps’ to ‘NoOps’. Serverless architecture accelerates the momentum towards NoOps. With virtual testing and execution environments created by the cloud platform for only as long as they are required by the customer, there is far less need for the customer to retain an operations team to manage those environments.

It is a continuation of a trend where we are seeing customers such as OFX and Domino’s using DevOps approaches and hosted environments to slash development lead times and release cycles from months to days.

What’s the downside?

So far everything with serverless architectures seems almost too good to be true. However, as with any immature IT concept, there are a few potential pitfalls to consider.

First, if you want to get into serverless now, you need to be prepared to commit to one vendor and their cloud platform. The different approaches pursued by each of the major cloud players are not perfectly compatible. As with any migration, joining up these different clouds and/or migrating between them might become time-consuming and draw away resources from developing your core solutions and growing your business.

Second, one of the inherent restrictions of serverless is the relative lack of control or ability to customise your environments. For some use-cases these considerations could be deal-breakers, though I expect to see the options available adapt rapidly as the serverless environment and cloud platforms mature.

Where to from here?

Amazon is pioneering the serverless architecture concept through its Lambda product. Microsoft has Azure Functions, Google is also building it out its capabilities in this area and the solutions and interfaces available will continue to grow.

The first great revolution of SaaS — ‘multitenancy’ — enabled businesses of all sizes to get enterprise-grade applications for customer relationship management, accounting, marketing, hiring and more, at prices they could afford.

Serverless architectures takes us to a whole new level — it will enable any organisation to run custom code and applications at great scale, great speed and at low cost.

The potential opportunities for businesses are constrained only by their imagination. Get ready for the next wave of disruption.

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