The State of Serverless, Circa 10/2019

The State of Serverless, circa 2019

My observations from Serverlessconf NYC and the current state of serverless, the ecosystem, the friction, and innovation

Back in the spring of 2016, A Cloud Guru hosted the first ever Serverless conference in a Brooklyn warehouse. In many ways, that inaugural conference was the birth of the Serverless ecosystem.

Serverlessconf was the first time that this growing community came together to talk about the architectures, benefits, and approaches powering the Serverless movement.

Last week A Cloud Guru once again brought top cloud vendors, startups, and thought leaders in the Serverless space to New York City to exchange ideas, trends, and practices in this rapidly growing space.

In addition to the “hallway track”, which was a great way to meet and (re)connect with talented and passionate technology experts — there were multiple tracks of content.

Collectively, these conferences are a great way to take the pulse of the community — what’s getting better, what’s still hard, and where the bleeding edge of innovation sits.

With apologies to the vendors and talks I didn’t manage to get to, here’s my take on the State of Serverless after spending nearly a week with many of its best and brightest.

Enterprise users have shown up — with their stories
Back in 2016, much of the content (and nearly every talk’s opening slides) at Serverlessconf was some flavor of “Here’s how we define Serverless.”

Content focused on how to get started and lots of how-to talks. Notably absent back in 2016? Enterprise users talking about their experiences applying Serverless in real life with the sole exception of Capital One.

While the latest Serverlessconf retains its technology and practice focus, it was fantastic to see companies like the Gemological Institute of America, Expedia, T-mobile, Mutual of Enumclaw Insurance, and LEGO up on stage in 2019 talking about adopting and benefitting from Serverless architectures.

Growing ecosystem
The highly scientific metric of “square feet of floor space devoted to vendors” continues to grow year over year. But more importantly, those vendors have moved from early stage awareness and information gathering to offering products and services in the here and now.

System integrators and consulting firms specializing in Serverless practices are also showing up — more evidence of enterprise traction in the space.

Configuration & AWS CloudFormation are still creating friction
The buzz was around whether declarative or imperative “Infrastructure-as-Code” is the better approach, alternatives to CloudFormation, easier ways to construct and deploy Serverless architectures. Topics like these featured strongly in both actual content and hallway conversations in 2019 — just as they did in 2016.

Whatever your position on recent approaches like AWS’s cdk and the utility of declarative approaches like AWS SAM, it’s clear that CloudFormation and other vendor-provided options still aren’t nailing it.

Vendors like Stackery.io got a lot of foot traffic from attendees looking for easier ways to build and deploy Serverless apps, while talks from Brian LeRoux and Ben Kehoe explored both the problem, and potential solutions, to the difficulties of using CloudFormation today.

Google and Cloudflare are playing the role of category challengers
Google Cloud Run is taking an intriguing approach — offering customers a container-based specification with the scales-on-usage and pay-per-request model of AWS Lambda. It’s still too early to call GCR’s product market fit, but it’s exciting to see Google step back and reimagine what a Serverless product can be.

Meanwhile, Cloudflare workers exploit that company’s massive edge infrastructure investment to run chunks of computation that make Lambda functions look huge by comparison. It’s not necessarily a solution to general compute, but given expectations that the bulk of silicon will live on the edge, rather than in data centers, in the future, I’d keep my eye on this one.

Serverless innovation isn’t over
Johann Schleier-Smith talked about UC Berkeley’s position paper on Serverless and the growing attention that Serverless is getting from the research community.

Yours truly laid out a recipe for building the Serverless Supercomputer, starting with Serverless Networking that opens the door to building distributed algorithms serverlessly.

Chris Munns reviewed the pace of innovation for AWS Lambda since its launch in 2014 and hinted at more to come at next month’s AWS re:Invent in Las Vegas.

With their amusing name helping to grab attention, The Agile Monkeys presented a Serverless answer to Ruby on Rails with a high-level object model that compiles down to Lambda functions and other serverless componentry.

It’s still not easy enough
Serverless might sound like a technology stack, but it’s really a vision for software development. In contrast to the ever-growing complexity of servers and Kubernetes, attendees at a Serverless conference are looking for ways to do more with less — less infrastructure, less complexity, less overhead, and less waste.

But while a desire for simplicity and “getting the business of business” done unites the attendees at a conference like this, it’s still the case that too much non-essential complexity gets in the way.

Tools, IDEs, debuggers, security, config & deployment, CI/CD pipelines…a lot of energy from vendors to startups to consultants to enterprise adopters is flowing into getting Serverless projects across the finish line. It may be way easier than servers (and containers), but it’s clearly still not easy enough.

Conferences like this help, but more and better documentation, more sharing of best practices, and tools that can truly streamline the job of delivering business value on top of Serverless remain a work in progress…leaving a lot of untapped potential opportunity in the space still to explore!

Author disclosures: I presented at Serverless NYC ’19 for which I received a registration fee waiver. I’m a former employee of both AWS and Microsoft and currently an independent board member of Stackery.io. I received no compensation from any of the companies or organizations cited above for writing or distributing this article and the opinions provided are my own.


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