Serverless computing growth softens, at least for now

After much excitement about serverless computing — seen as the next evolution of cloud — IT professionals have lately taken a more cautious line with the approach. In a recent survey, adoption and plans for adoption have even slipped somewhat over the past year. Nevertheless, those enterprises with serious serverless initiatives in place are doubling down on its usage. 

clouds-road-to-cloud-bucks-county-cropped-photo-by-joe-mckendrick.jpg
Photo: Joe McKendrick

These are among the takeaways from a recent survey of 501 IT professionals released by Cloud Foundry,in conjunction with its summit in Philadelphia. Serverless computing is where backend computing functions are managed by a cloud provider — some call it a combination of Backend as a Service (BaaS) and Function as a Service (FaaS). After a sharp increase in evaluation of serverless in September 2018, the survey report’s authors say their data points to a pullback today. In last year’s survey, 19 percent were using serverless in their organizations, a number that has slipped to 15 percent in the current survey. 

Plans or intentions for serverless implementations have slipped as well, the Cloud Foundry survey also shows. Currently, 36 percent report evaluating serverless, compared to 42 percent in the previous survey. 

Some of this may be attributable to the statistical aberrations that occur within surveys that are conducted within months of one another — don’t be surprised if the numbers pop again in the fall survey. Diving deeper into the adoption and planned adoption numbers, the survey’s authors point out that within organizations embracing serverless architecture, usage is actually proliferating. For users and evaluators, 18 percent say they are broadly deploying serverless across their entire company, double the percentage (9 percent) who said that only one year ago.  

Still, it is telling that there is some degree of caution being exercised when moving to serverless architecture. What’s behind the caution? A recent study out of the University of California at Berkeley may help shed some light on the challenges that arise with what is otherwise a promising approach to application building and management. 

Storage in serverless settings is one area where more work needs to be done, the Berkeley team, led by Eric Jonas, states. The challenge is to be able to assure “low latency and high IOPS at reasonable cost,” they observe. “The stateless nature of serverless platforms makes it difficult to support applications that have fine-grained state sharing needs. This is mostly due to the limitations of existing storage services offered by cloud providers.” 

The need for improve security is another challenge, as “serverless computing reshuffles security responsibilities, shifting many of them from the cloud user to the cloud provider without fundamentally changing them,” Jonas and his co-authors warn. “However, serverless computing must also grapple with the risks inherent in both application disaggregation multi-tenant resource sharing.”

The fact that much of the cloud runs on x86 processors also introduces performance issues on the backend of serverless computing, they add. 

Ultimately, the Berkeley researchers are highly optimistic about serverless, predicting these challenges will be or are being addressed, and its use will “skyrocket,” due to its ease of use and relatively low costs. “Serverless computing will become the default computing paradigm of the cloud era, largely replacing serverful computing and thereby bringing closure to the client/server era,” they predict. 

Serverless will gain popularity because “by providing a simplified programming environment, serverless computing makes the cloud much easier to use, thereby attracting more people who can and will use it,” Jonas and his co-authors state. “It obviates the need for manual resource management and optimization that today’s serverful computing imposes on application developers, a maturation akin to the move from assembly language to high-level languages more than four decades ago.” Even relatively non-technical users may be able to “deploy functions without any understanding of the cloud infrastructure,” while experts will be able to “save development time and stay focused on problems unique to their application.” In addition, serverless may save money since enterprises only pay for what they use from the backend.    

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