Serverless architectures offer more than a catchy buzzword

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Serverless computing has become a popular yet confusing topic in the IT industry. The first time I heard the phrase serverless computing, I laughed it off as another meaningless buzzword. As an IT operations engineer, the phrase seemed baffling — perhaps even misleading — because it still relies on servers, right?

I laughed, thinking, “Try running an application without infrastructure,” before the flaw in my logic smacked me in the head. I was thinking of serverless computing with an operations bias. Having spent decades in IT operations, it’s no surprise that I was completely ignoring the developer’s point of view. To developers, serverless architectures are a game changer. It’s is more than a buzzword. It may be a terribly stupid name, but that doesn’t matter.

Serverless computing is the platform as a service (PaaS) that developers have always dreamed about. As with most new trends, especially in software, we don’t have a clear and consistent definition of what serverless actually is. The industry is abuzz with talk of serverless this and serverless that, but they all focus on a specific product.

To understand what serverless is, first we have to realize that it is a type of IT architecture and not simply a product or service. Serverless is a method of delivering IT services where the underlying compute resources are consumed as a shared opaque pool, rather than a server or container that someone must provision. That means application code doesn’t run on a server, or even a container, but instead runs on this shared pool of compute resources.

While the notion of masking the underlying hardware infrastructure is a core principal of cloud computing, most other architectures have the concept of a unit of compute, usually a server or container. Serverless architectures have no such concept. It is a cloud platform model that can deliver the true promises of cloud computing: infrastructure abstraction, scalability, ease of consumption and value pricing.

To understand why this is such a game changer for IT, we need to understand the typical IT application landscape. We build web servers, database servers and application servers. The code runs on the server. This gives us a very server-centric view when it comes to an application and creates a central problem: The application is tied to some underlying hardware.

Typically, we’ve abstracted that server with a hypervisor, but that doesn’t fundamentally change anything for the application. Virtualization is mostly about infrastructure abstraction and doesn’t address the business need to develop and push code faster. Containers arose to address that need, but I see that as a stopgap to a long-term transformation. Containers or microservices are an easy translation to existing infrastructure constructs and, as such, don’t fundamentally change us from a server-centric worldview. Moving to a microservices architecture has helped applications to be more agile and scalable, but at the end of the day, we’ve just made the compute construct smaller.

In serverless architectures, the code doesn’t run on a server or even a container anymore. It simply runs on that shared opaque pool of capacity. For a while, there was a popular metaphor that compared legacy servers to pets. They had names, you took care of them and people felt a sense of ownership. Containers were more like cattle — they didn’t have names. And if one got sick, you sent it out to pasture. With serverless architectures, there are no cattle, only the herd.

When I finally started to understand the value proposition of serverless architectures, I still couldn’t let go of the name. No matter how awesome the idea, the name still sucks. After all, we’ll still have servers. CPU and memory are physical components that can’t be completely abstracted away. When it all comes down to it, does the name even matter? We’ve hand plenty of stupid names in the IT industry. I have to learn to move on. It’s just a name.

Serverless architectures fill the gaps left by microservices. The push for agility and infrastructure abstraction isn’t going away. In fact, more abstraction is the way of the future. While serverless architectures are immature, there are plenty of PaaS platforms on the market. These services are far more mature than the serverless approach. PaaS still doesn’t completely address the problem, but it will remain a stopgap until serverless evolves. As such, I think most PaaS offerings will grow into serverless architectures and make today’s cloud model look old-fashioned.

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