Look Before You Leap into Serverless Computing

Cloud providers are quickly scaling up their serverless computing capabilities in their efforts to capitalize on the growing demand for enterprise-class services. But is this something the enterprise should embrace to a significant degree? And are there risks to simply pushing code onto a third party without any knowledge of how it will be supported on an infrastructure level?

By now, most organizations should be familiar with the concept of serverless computing. Workloads are, in fact, hosted on a server, it’s just that the cloud provider takes full responsibility for provisioning and managing those resources so the enterprise can concentrate on service- and application-level performance.

In many ways, this is the fulfillment of the cloud’s promise to offload platform and infrastructure concerns from the enterprise, essentially turning IT into a utility that is consumed rather than a construct that must be built and maintained. As Avalara CTO Peter Horadan explained to Datamation recently, this can produce upwards of a 100-fold decrease in the already low cost of the cloud because it allows organizations to pay by the number of functions they require per day, not the amount of resources they need to preallocate.

Like everything in the data ecosystem, however, serverless is better at some use cases than others. Since billing can now be based on execution time, code optimization is critical, says Adapt’s Kevin Linsell. That means highly complex applications must be scrutinized with a fine-toothed comb in order to make them as cost-effective as possible. In general, functions in which developers handle tasks that respond to events, such as those found in the IoT, can be supported in a serverless fashion, as well as back-end operations in a mobile app. And as the tools and techniques for serverless platforms evolve, we can expect to see its usage expand as well, particularly as containerized microservices gain in popularity.

One of the few organizations to go serverless is MindMup, an online “mind mapping” service that helps people organize their thoughts. As described by software consultant Gojko Adzic, the service went completely serverless on the AWS Lambda platform earlier this year and has seen a 50 percent drop in hosting costs despite a 50 percent gain in the active user base. His take is that serverless is the culmination of platform-as-a-service, and as such it should be used as a means to connect hybrid cloud resources, not just to lower the cost of traditional app hosting. Simply pushing code onto serverless architectures won’t make things cheaper all by itself, and in fact might increase costs if care is not taken to ensure that the enterprise is not paying for the same function multiple times.

Organizations should also be concerned that they don’t get locked into a single, proprietary serverless architecture, says MSPMentor’s Christopher Tozzi. Already, open frameworks like Platform9 are starting to emerge that promise an integrated architecture across multiple providers. Platform9 uses the Kubernetes container management system to provide an “infrastructure-agnostic, SaaS-managed” solution built using open code. This offers smaller MSPs an opportunity to not only build their own serverless offerings quickly and easily, but to then pool their resources to levels that may rival those of the hyperscalers like AWS and Microsoft Azure, and perhaps even outperform them in areas like resiliency and availability.

If anything, serverless computing is likely to increase the diversity of the cloud rather than emerge as its primary value proposition. The enterprise is under the gun these days to support a wide range of data and application requirements, so it will need a broad spectrum of support solutions at its disposal as the digital economy heats up.

Shedding responsibility for server provisioning and management is one way to meet performance obligations, but it is not the only way, nor the best in all situations.

Arthur Cole writes about infrastructure for IT Business Edge. Cole has been covering the high-tech media and computing industries for more than 20 years, having served as editor of TV Technology, Video Technology News, Internet News and Multimedia Weekly. His contributions have appeared in Communications Today and Enterprise Networking Planet and as web content for numerous high-tech clients like TwinStrata and Carpathia. Follow Art on Twitter @acole602.