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Showing posts with label AWS. Show all posts
Showing posts with label AWS. Show all posts

Sunday, May 28, 2017

An essential guide to the serverless ecosystem

Serverless computing is gaining momentum in the IT industry, and for good reason. Despite being a relatively new capability, it has captured the imagination of many technologists with the promise of delivering such benefits as shortened time to market, improved operational and security practices, and a revolutionary economic model based on pay-as-you-go pricing.
You may already understand the essentials of serverless architecture. But what does the overall serverless ecosystem look like, and what options do you have? In this guide I map it all out for you. I'll start with function as a service (FaaS), the linchpin of serverless computing, and expand into the cloud services used for building serverless architectures across major public and private cloud providers. From there I'll review the frameworks and tools you can use when building systems using a serverless stack. Finally, I'll draw the boundaries around "serverlessland" and show you where it lives in the overall world of cloud services.
The essential guide to serverless technologies and architectures

It all started with FaaS

Despite vendor claims that serverless computing was born long ago, it actually started with the arrival of FaaS. The preview release of AWS Lambda, announced in November 2014, put FaaS firmly on the cloud computing map. (Amazon promoted Lambda to general availability status in April 2015.)
Yes, it was possible to run applications without directly managing servers before FaaS, using Google App Engine, Heroku, AWS Elastic Beanstalk, and others. But those compute services never offered a function-oriented execution model or per-invocation billing. Instead, they usually provided elastic scalability for server- or application-oriented workloads.
After AWS arrived, the other big public cloud providers began working on their own FaaS platforms. Azure Functions was released in preview in March 2016 and became generally available the following November. The preview release of Google Functions was released in February 2016 and promoted to beta on March 2017. The date of general availability is still unknown. There are many other FaaS platforms out there as well. 

Why functions are not enough

While FaaS provides a way to execute arbitrary business logic using the function as a deployment and execution unit, by itself it’s not particularly powerful. The power of a serverless platform is only realized when you can integrate functions with many other services to build complete architectures.
Many people use the terms FaaS and serverless interchangeably, but there's an important distinction between the two concepts.
  • FaaS is a compute service that uses functions as the primary abstraction for deployment, scalability, execution, and billing. 
  • Serverless is a form of platform as a service (PaaS) that's ideal for event-driven, potentially volatile workloads. It combines FaaS with other cloud services to build complicated systems, while offering scalability, operability, integrated security, and pay-per-use billing.

Serverless platforms: The options

At the moment the most effective way to build serverless architectures is to pick one of the many serverless platforms on offer and take full advantage of all of its capabilities. Here are your choices:

Amazon Web Services

Amazon was the first major cloud provider to roll out FaaS capability, in the form of AWS Lambda.
The power of a serverless platform is determined to a substantial degree by the number and quality of capabilities you can leverage within it. On AWS, functions can be triggered by an increasing number of other services. These include notifications from S3 buckets, HTTP requests from API Gateway, record changes in DynamoDB tables, messages arriving on SNS topics, and Kinesis streams. Lately, AWS has placed more emphasis on FaaS as the primary, or even sole, compute service that integrates with many of the new services.
You can use AWS Lambda functions to power IoT back endsAlexa skills, conversational bots using Lex, and workflows with step functions. And the FaaS compute approach is being pushed into other execution environments, such as when using functions to augment the behavior of CloudFront, Amazon’s content delivery network, and even into IoT devices, with AWS Greengrass.
As with any other distributed system, building serverless architectures requires excellent support from IT operations. AWS Lambda integrates seamlessly with CloudWatch, the monitoring and logging service. Besides providing out-of-the-box log aggregation and metric collection, AWS CloudWatch lets you use Lambda functions to customize the operational capabilities of the platform.
Functions can be triggered by CloudWatch events (which can support scheduled function execution) and by CloudWatch log streams, and can react to CloudWatch metric alarms via a social network service.
Recently, X-Ray, a distributed tracing service, started supporting AWS Lambda (preview release) so that you can monitor and trace complex data flows. And AWS IAM, the identity and access control service, provides an integrated and fine-grained security model for function execution.

Microsoft Azure

Despite joining the serverless race quite a while after AWS, Azure is making steady progress toward becoming a competitive platform. At this point, Azure Functions can be triggered by Azure Storage blob notifications, HTTP (REST or webhook) requests, events from Azure Event Hubs, or messages from storage queues or service bus queues or topics, or the triggers can be based on a schedule.
Azure adopts a more structured configuration model for its functions. It allows input and output bindings to be attached to the function, greatly simplifying—or completely removing—the code required to integrate with other services from within the function itself. Contrast this with AWS, where the SDK must be used for any form of integration. Similarly, Azure enables a few external integrations out of the box. For example, you can send text messages via Twillio or email messages using SendGrid.
When it comes to operational support for the serverless platform, however, Azure falls a bit short of AWS. Monitoring metrics are only available when using the App Service plan, which requires running a function on virtual machines managed by the cloud tenant. Is that really serverless?
And if functions are executed on the provider-managed compute, no monitoring information is available. Instead, Azure provides a set of guidelines. Also, it defines security policies for functions implicitly, based on input and output bindings, rather than explicitly configuring them using a dedicated service, as with AWS.

Google Cloud Platform

Google has yet to make its Google Cloud Platform (GCP) FaaS capability generally available, but it already provides some of the same core integration capabilities as AWS and Azure. You can trigger Google Functions by Cloud Storage bucket notifications, HTTP requestsCloud Pub/Sub events, and a few types of Firebase events (Firebase is Google’s mobile-back-end-as-a-service platform).
Operationally, GCP provides well-integrated support for the functions in Google's Stackdriver monitoring service. As with AWS, logs emitted from Google Functions are automatically stored, in this case by Stackdriver. Logging and metrics are recorded by Stackdriver Monitoring, and GCP offers a Stackdriver Debugger that you can use to investigate the behavior of function’s code. That's quite helpful when troubleshooting. GCP’s security model is somewhat different from that of AWS, however, and it doesn't yet provide support for fine-grained security policies.

IBM Bluemix/OpenWhisk

IBM Bluemix is a PaaS offering that includes Apache OpenWhisk, an open-source FaaS/serverless platform with capabilities similar to offerings from the big three public cloud providers. Because OpenWhisk is an open-source project, you have complete visibility into the workings of the FaaS platform, and it's extensible and customizable. When running Bluemix, you can run OpenWhisk on your own infrastructure on-premises, in the cloud, or as a fully managed platform.
Functions (called "actions "in OpenWhisk) can be triggered by HTTP requests, messages from Apache Kafka or Message Hub topics, changes in Cloudant noSQL DB tables, scheduled events, or virtually any type of external system, provided an integration has been created for it.
From an IT operations point of view, OpenWhisk focuses mostly on the visual presentation of activities associated with function execution but also allows command-line interface-based polling for activity logs. Sadly, metrics, logging collection, and storage are not yet available, and the security model is not very well defined or documented. Developers may need to manage it explicitly, without a great deal of support from the platform.

Other FaaS platform choices

Many other products and projects are competing for a place in the serverless space. Some only offer FaaS capabilities (optionally with HTTP access to functions), while others provide a few other services, such as messaging or storage. Most started as BaaS providers and have rebranded themselves as serverless products. A few of note include: 
  • Iron.io, one of the most complete platforms in this group. It offers a FaaS product called IronWorker, as well as a distributed queue service (IronMQ) and cache service (IronCache).
  • PubNub, which allows for arbitrary code, called blocks, to execute within real-time messaging flows while it takes care of managing scalability of the compute stack.
  • Webtask.io, a mobile BaaS platform that you can use for running arbitrary code. It's packaged as "webtasks" and offers good support for creating Slack bots.
  • Hook.io, a similar product that offers its own key-value data store, as well as integrations with many cloud storage services.
  • You'll also find many open-source projects that provide FaaS abstraction on top of container schedulers. These include FunktionFissionKubelessFuncatron, and FaaS.

Frameworks and tools

While serverless platforms sounds great, they don't always offer the best developer experience. That's why it makes sense to create or use frameworks and tools. In fact, the serverless space is experiencing something like the Cambrian Explosion when it comes to available tool options. New offerings are emerging rapidly, and you have many choices.
The Serverless Framework (formerly JAWS), which offers integrations with all major platform providers, is the most popular option today. Others you might consider include Chalice (Python, AWS), Zappa (Python, AWS), ClaudiaJS (Node, AWS), Dawson (Node, AWS), Shep (Node, AWS), Sparta (Go, AWS), and Lambada Framework (Java, AWS).
Besides frameworks, you can find many tools that can help you build and deploy functions or serverless architectures. For example, you can use HashiCorp Terraform as an alternative to your provider's own infrastructure-provisioning capabilities (such as AWS CloudFormation). Other popular tools include ApexGordon, and Kappa.

Where serverless fits in the cloud computing landscape

Many technologies and products provided PaaS and BaaS capabilities before either FaaS or serverless became popular. You had lots of SaaS products offering anything that could possibly be consumed either as an end-user functionality or a third-party product that could be integrated into an application or a system.
These categories are still relevant now, even with FaaS and serverless entering the cloud computing landscape. To recap:
  • FaaS is a high-abstraction compute service where the service provider takes full control over managing compute resources, including the runtime process executing the code.
  • Serverless describes a specialized PaaS that combines FaaS for compute with other managed cloud services in order to create scalable architectures that are cost-effective to operate.
  • BaaS offers back-end capabilities to browsers or mobile apps. It can be delivered on top of the serverless stack, as well as on a container-as-a-service (CaaS), infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS), or other technology stack.
  • SaaS just means any software-based system offered without the need to run it on your own infrastructure. SaaS systems can be built on any technology stack; what matters is how users consume it.
No doubt, the word serverless will be used to describe all of these other services, and that may confuse many people. But that’s okay, as long as in the end the IT industry experiences even greater innovation. Your businesses will certainly benefit from the increased business agility that comes from adopting serverless computing.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Your Company Blog Is Still Just as (or More) Powerful Than Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook

Today, it can be easy to disregard something like blogging as un-sexy and outdated in terms of being a viable channel to market your business. Plus, with a new social media platform arising virtually every year, neglecting blogging is easier now than ever before.
Despite this, having an active, curated company blog is just as important today as it was 10 years ago (if not more important).
In this article, you will discover a handful of reasons why you should still blog even if you’re killing it on much newer, hipper social media platforms. You’ll also learn four strategies on how to maximize blog traffic and the influence of your blog.

Why You Should Still Write a Blog

1. Longer Lifespan of Content

For the most part, Instagram and Snapchat content doesn’t show up in Google’s search results. On top of that, the lifespan of a Snap is a mere 24 hours. On Instagram, posts are lucky to stay relevant longer than 13 hours.
The short life cycle of this social media content is certainly a double-edged sword: the fact platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat are so real-time means they facilitate the fluid exchange of ideas and information. All this makes them timely and relevant, thus powerful tools.
On the flip side, it also makes content on the same platforms fleeting, causing it to be difficult for businesses to keep up with the “digital Joneses” when it comes to social media. It is in the best interest of these social media platforms to ask for more content. It is in the best interest of Google to ask for the best content.
By having a company blog, customers could potentially be reeled in years down the road, all with a single piece of high quality content.

2. Impact on SEO

Image Credit: VerticalResponse.com
Despite the amount of media attention given to Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and company, you shouldn’t forget that there are approximately 3.5 billion Google searches conducted every single day.
Comparatively, Facebook sees an estimated 2 billion searches per day, and Pinterest approximately 2 billion searches per month. Instagram’s total monthly user count just recently reached one-fifth of Google’s number of daily searches, and Snapchat is even further behind.
It’s clear Google is still the world’s top search engine. In order to get the most out of Google, you should be taking SEO (search engine optimization) into close consideration. When it comes to SEO, writing quality blog posts is a terrific way for your company to climb up the search rankings.
The higher your SEO, the higher your probability of landing a client who stumbles across your work through Google in the future.

3. Ownership

Time and again, history has proven that the relevance of social media networks is a hard thing to predict. Just remember, Myspace was king from 2005 to 2008, Tumblr was popular from 2007 to 2013, and Vine was hottest from 2013 to 2015.
Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, and the rest are all terrific platforms to use in order to garner the attention of your audience and to grow an audience, but using them as your company’s “home base” could prove unwise.
Blogs are much different. They are yours and only yours. No one else can take them away from you…well, except GoDaddy or Google Domains, but you get the point.

Successful Blogging Strategies

Now that you know a handful of reasons why blogging is still an indispensable marketing strategy, the real work begins. To help you, here are some tips and best practices to use to make sure your blog is getting the maximum exposure it deserves.

Leverage Platforms Like the One You’re Reading on Right Now — Medium ;)

It’s no surprise that today’s online landscape is saturated, and the blogosphere is no different. That’s why fresh platforms like Medium are such a valuable asset to have to increase the traffic and influence of your company blog.
Medium provides the perfect venue to showcase your own blog because it is (more or less) a blog in itself. It is a channel designed specifically for written content.
Additionally, Medium provides users with something they can’t automatically get from a standalone blog: a built-in audience of more than 30 million monthly users. Medium gives users the scale that would otherwise take years to build and nurture with a standalone blog.
Ready to get started? Here are some pointers:
  1. Read Quincy Larson’s article, which analyzes the best practices of the top 252 Medium articles in 2016.
  2. Use tools like Rabbut and Upscribe to seamlessly capture your reader’s emails, preferably after offering them a freebie (ebook, video course, etc.) in exchange for their email address.
  3. Use Medium to republish content from your company blog, and be sure to include a link to the original post so readers can stay in touch with you.
  4. Try your very best to get published on a large, relevant publication. To do this, reach out to the respective editor (via email or Twitter) with a link to your 100% completed article. Include a quick pitch going over why your content would be a great fit for the publication.

Don’t Be Afraid to Pay

Don’t be too shy to pay to promote your blog in the form of social media advertising (via Facebook ads, LinkedIn ads, and Twitter ad, etc.).
Social media moguls like Gary Vaynerchuk think Facebook advertising is single most valuable commodity in the online marketing world today, so it could definitely be worth your while to put some dollars behind the medium.
To get started, watch this short tutorial video covering how to create and manage Facebook Ads.

Use Quora

Neil Patel, digital marketing expert and founder of four multi-million dollar companies, preaches to his audience to search on Quora to discover which questions are being asked most often in your niche. You can find these questions in the Top FAQ section of the website.
After you find a question you like, write an answer to it in the form of a blog post. This will increase the likelihood others will search for and see the post, find it valuable, and come back for more.

Network

You never can go wrong with networking, and tools like Meetup.com, Facebook Groups, and LinkedIn Groups make meeting like minded people easier now than ever before. Set aside an hour to search for groups and meetups in your niche.

If you enjoyed reading this post, please recommend and share it to help others find it!


Call to Action

If you really enjoyed this article and want to receive the shortened, PDF version of The 7 Mindset Shifts Needed for Successful Social Media Marketingthen click here to receive it now!

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Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Future of Serverless Compute

Key Takeaways

  • Serverless compute, or Functions-as-a-Service (FaaS), will be transformational in our industry - organizations that embrace it will have a competitive advantage because of the cost, labor and time-to-market advantages it brings
  • Many Serverless applications will combine FaaS functions with significant use of other vendor-provided services that provide pre-managed functionality and state management
  • Tooling will significantly improve, especially in the area of deployment and configuration
  • Patterns of good Serverless architecture will emerge - it's too soon to know what they are now
  • Organizations will need to embrace the ideas of 'true' DevOps and autonomous, self-sufficient, product teams to reap the full time-to-market benefits that Serverless can offer
It’s 2017 and the Serverless compute revolution is a little over two years old (do you hear the people sing?). This revolution is not coming with a bang, like Docker did, but with a steady swell. Amazon Web Services put out new Lambda features and products on a regular cadence, the otherbig vendors are releasing production-ready versions of their offerings one-by-one, and new open source projects are frequently joining the party.
As we approach the end of the early-adopter period, it’s an interesting exercise to put on our prediction goggles and contemplate where this movement is going next, how it’s getting there, and most importantly what changes we need from our organizations to support it. So, join me as we look at one possible future of Serverless compute.
Note to readers from the actual future! You’ll probably get a good kick out reading this. How far off was I? And how is 2020? Please send me a postcard!

A vision of Serverless capabilities

Compute

The last decade has seen the emergence, and then the meteoric rise, of cloud computing. Nine years ago, virtual public cloud servers were ‘toys’ for startups but in a relatively short time have become the de facto platform for large swaths of our industry as it considers any new deployment architecture.
Serverless compute, or Functions-as-a-Service (FaaS), is a more recent part of this massive change in how we consider ‘IT’. It is the natural evolution of our continuing desire to remove all baggage and infrastructural inventory from how we deliver applications to our customers.
A huge number of applications we develop consist of many small pieces of behavior. Each of those are given a small input set and informational context, will do some work for a few 10s or 100s of milliseconds, and finally may respond with a result and/or update the world around them. This is the sweet spot of Serverless compute.
We predict that many teams will embrace FaaS due to how easy, fast and cheap it makes deploying, managing and scaling the infrastructure necessary for this type of logic. We can structure our use of FaaS into various forms, including:
  • Complete back-end data pipelines consisting of a multitude of sequenced message processors
  • Synchronous services fronted by an HTTP API
  • Independent pieces of ‘glue’ code to provide custom operations logic for deployment, monitoring, etc.
  • Hybrid-systems consisting of traditional ‘always on’ servers directly invoking platform-scaled functions for more computationally intensive tasks.
Businesses that embrace FaaS will have a competitive advantage over those that don't because of the cost and time-to-market benefits it brings.

Managing Application State

One of the prerequisites of such a large adoption of FaaS is a solution, or set of solutions, for fast and simple approaches to state management. Serverless compute is a stateless paradigm. We cannot assume that any useful state exists in the immediate execution environment of our running functions between separate invocations. Some applications are fine with this restriction as it stands. For example, message-driven components that are purely transformational need no access to external state, and web service components that have liberal response-time requirements may be ok to connect to a remote database on each invocation. But for other applications this is insufficient.
One idea to solve this is a hybrid architecture that manages state in a different type of component than that executing our FaaS code. The most popular such hybrid is to front FaaS functions with other services provided by the cloud infrastructure. We already see this with context-specific components like API Gateway which provides HTTP routing, authorization, and throttling logic that we might typically see programmed in a typical web service, but defined instead through configuration. Amazon have also recently shown their hand in a more generic approach to state management with their Step Functions service, allowing teams to define applications in terms of configured state machines. The Step Functions service itself might not become a winner, but these kinds of codeless solutions are going to become very popular in general.
Where vendor services are insufficient, an alternative approach to a hybrid system is for teams to continue to develop long-lived components that track state. Those might be deployed within a CaaS (Containers-as-a-Service) or PaaS (Platform-as-a-Service) environment, and will work in concert with FaaS functions.
These hybrid systems combine logic in long-running components and per-request FaaS functions. An alternative is to focus all logic in FaaS functions, but to give those FaaS functions extremely fast retrieval and persistence of state beyond their immediate environment. A possible implementation of this would be to make sure that a particular FaaS function, or set of FaaS functions, have very low latency access to an external cache, like Redis. This could be provided by enabling a feature similar to Amazon’s same-zone placement groups. While such a solution would still incur more latency than memory - or disk-local state - many applications will find this solution acceptable.
The benefits of the hybrid approach are that frequently accessed state can stay in-environment with the logic using it, and that no complicated, and possibly expensive, network co-location of logic and external state are required. On the other hand, the benefits of a pure-FaaS approach are a more consistent programming model, plus a broader use of the scaling and operational benefits that Serverless brings. The current momentum suggests that the hybrid approach will win out, but we should keep our eyes open for placement group-enabled Lambdas, and the like.

Serverless collaboration services

Beyond orchestration and state management, we see the commoditization and service-ification of other components that traditionally we would develop or at least manage ourselves even within a cloud environment. For instance we may stop running our own MySQL database server on EC2 machines, and instead use Amazon’s RDS service, we may replace our self-managed Kafka message bus installation with Kinesis. Other infrastructural services include file systems and data warehouses while more application-oriented examples include authentication and speech analysis.
This trend will continue, reducing still further the amount of work we need to do to create or maintain our products. We can imagine more pre-built messaging logic (think of a kind of ‘Apache Camel as a Service’ built into Amazon Kinesis or SQS), and also further developments in generic machine learning services.
A fun idea here is that FaaS functions, due to their lightweight application model, can themselves be tightly bound to a service leading to ecosystems of FaaS functions calling services that themselves call other FaaS functions, and so on. This leads to ‘interesting’ problems with cascading errors, for which we need better monitoring tools, as discussed later in this article.

Beyond the data center

The vast majority of Serverless compute so far is on vendor platforms running in their data centers. It gives you an alternative to how you run your code but not where you run your code. An interesting new development from Amazon is to allow their customers to run Lambda functions in different locations, for instance in a CDN with Lambda@Edge, and even non-server locations, e.g. IoT devices with Greengrass. The reason for this is that Lambda is an extremely lightweight programming model that is inherently event driven and so it’s easy to use the same intellectual ideas and style of code in new locations. Lambda@Edge is a particularly interesting example since it provides an option for programmed customization in a location that never had it before.
Of course, a drawback to this is even deeper vendor lock-in! For those organizations that don’t want to use a 3rd party vendor but do want many of the benefits of Serverless compute they will be able to do this with an on-premise solution, just like Cloud Foundry has done for PaaS. Galactic FogIronFunctions and Fission, from Kubernetes, are early efforts in this area.

The tools and techniques we’ll need

As I wrote previously there are significant speed bumps, limitations and tradeoffs when using a Serverless approach. This is no free lunch. For the Serverless user base to grow beyond early adopters we need to fix or mitigate these concerns. Fortunately, there is good momentum in this area.

Deployment tooling

Deploying functions to Lambda using AWS’ standard tools can be complex and error-prone. Add in the use of API Gateway for Lambda functions that respond to HTTP requests and you have even more work to do for setup and configuration. The Serverless and ClaudiaJS open source projects have been pushing on deployment improvements for over a year, and AWS joined the party with SAM late in 2016. All these projects simplify the creation, configuration and deployment of Serverless applications by adding considerable automation on top of AWS’ standard tooling. But there is still plenty to do here. In the future two key activities will be heavily automated:
  1. Initial creation of an application and/or environment (e.g. both initial production environment, and temporary testing environments)
  2. Continuous Delivery / Deployment of multi-component applications
The first of these is important in order to more widely enable the ‘conception-to-production lead time’ advances that we’ve started seeing. Deploying a new Serverless application needs to be as easy as creating a new Github repo - fill a small number of fields, press a button, and have some system create everything you need to allow one-click deployment.
However, easy initial deployment is not sufficient. We also need good tools to support Continuous Delivery and Continuous Deployment of the type of hybrid application I mentioned earlier. This means we should be able to deploy a suite of Compute functions and CaaS / PaaS components, together with changes to any application-encapsulated services (e.g. configured http routes in an API Gateway, or a Dynamo table only used by a single ‘application’), in one click with zero downtime and trivial rollback capability. And furthermore, none of this should be intellectually complex to understand, nor need days of work to setup and maintain.
This is a tough call, but the tools I mentioned previously (together with hybrid tools like Terraform) are leading the way to solving these problems, and I fully expect them to be largely solved over the coming months and years.
This topic isn’t just about deploying code and configuring services, however. Various other operational concerns are involved. Security is a big one. Right now, getting your AWS credentials, roles and the like set up and maintained can be a hassle. AWS have a thorough security model, but we need tools to make it more developer-friendly.
In short, we need Developer UX as good as Auth0 have with their Webtask product, but for an ecosystem as vast (and as valuable) as AWS.

Monitoring, Logging and Debugging

Once our application is deployed we also need good solutions for monitoring and logging, and such tools are under active development right now by several organizations. Beyond assessing the behavior of just one component though, we also need good tools for tracing requests through an entire distributed system of multiple Serverless compute functions and supporting services. Amazon are starting to push in this area with X-Ray, but it’s very early days.
Debugging is also important. Programmers have rarely written code correctly for every scenario on first pass before now, and there’s no reason to believe that’s going to change. We rely on monitoring to assess problems in FaaS functions at development time, but that’s a stone-age tool of debugging.
When debugging traditional applications, we get a lot of support from IDEs in order to set breakpoints, step through code, etc. With modern Java-based IDEs you can attach to a remote process that’s already running, and perform these debugging operations at a distance. Since we will likely be doing a lot of development using cloud-deployed FaaS functions, expect in the future that your IDE will have similar behavior to connect to a running Serverless platform and interrogate the execution of individual functions. This will need collaboration from both tool and platform vendors, but it’s necessary if Serverless is going to gain widespread adoption. This does imply an amount of cloud-based development, but we’re likely going to need that anyway for testing...

Testing

Of all the Serverless tooling topics I’ve considered so far, the one that I think is least advanced is testing. It’s worth pointing out that Serverless does have some pretty hefty testing advantages over traditional solutions in that (a) with Serverless compute individual functions are ripe for unit testing and (b) with Serverless Services you have less code to write and therefore just simply less to test, at the unit level at least.
But this doesn’t solve the cross-component functional / integration / acceptance / ‘journey’ test problem. With Serverless compute our logic is spread out across a number of functions and services and so higher-level testing is even more important than with components using something closer to a monolithic approach. But how do we do this when we’re relying so much on execution on cloud infrastructure?
This is probably the most misty prediction for me. I suspect that what will happen is that cloud-based testing will become prevalent. This will occur partly because it will be much easier to deploy, monitor, and debug our Serverless apps than it is right now for the reasons I just described.
In other words, to run higher level tests we’ll deploy a portion of our ecosystem to the cloud and execute tests against components deployed there, rather than running against a system deployed on our own development machines. This has certain benefits:
  • the fidelity of executing cloud-deployed components is much higher than a local simulation.
  • we’ll be able to run higher-load / more-data-rich tests than we might otherwise.
  • testing components against production data sources (e.g. a pub-sub message bus, or a database) is much easier, although obviously we’ll need to be careful of capacity / security concerns.
This solution also has drawbacks though. First, cycle time to execute tests will likely increase due to both deployment concerns, and network latency between the test - which will still run locally - and the remotely-executing system-under-test. Second, we can’t run tests when disconnected from the internet (on a plane, etc.) Finally, since production and test environments will be so similarly deployed, we’ll also need to be very careful about not accidentally changing production when we meant to change test. If using AWS such safety may be implemented through tools like IAM roles, or using entirely different accounts for different types of environment.
Tests are not just about a binary fail-succeed - we also want to know how a test has failed. We should be able to debug the locally-running tests and the remote components they are testing, including being able to single-step a Lambda function running in AWS as it is responding to a test. And so all of the remote debugging, etc., tools I mentioned in the previous section will be needed for testing too, not just interactive development.
Note that I’m not implying from this that our development tools need to run in the cloud, nor that the tests themselves have to run in the cloud, although both of these will occur to a greater or lesser extent. I’m merely expressing that the system-under-test will only ever run in the cloud, rather than on a non-cloud environment.
Using Serverless as a test driving environment though can reap interestingly useful results. One example is ‘serverless-artillery’ - a load testing tool made up of running many AWS Lambdas in parallel to perform instant, cheap, and easy performance testing at scale.
It’s worth pointing out that we may, to some extent, dodge a bullet here. Traditional higher-level testing is actually becoming less important due to advances in techniques where we (a) test in production / use Monitoring-Driven-Development, (b) significantly reduce our mean-time-to-resolution (MTTR) and (c) embrace a Continuous Deployment mantra. For many Serverless apps extensive unit testing, extensive business-metric level production monitoring & alerting, and a dedicated approach to reducing MTTR and embracing Continuous Deployment will be a sufficient code validation strategy.

Architecture: many questions to answer

What does a well-formed Serverless Application look like? How does it evolve?
We’re seeing an increasing number of case studies of architectures where Serverless is being used effectively, but we haven’t yet seen something like a ‘pattern grouping’ for Serverless Apps. In the early 2000s we saw books like Fowler’s Patterns Of Enterprise Application Architecture, and Hohpe / Woolf’s Enterprise Integration Patterns. These books looked at a whole collection of projects and derived common architectural ideas useful across different domains.
Importantly these books looked to several elapsed years of experience of the underlying tools before making any unifying opinions. Serverless hasn’t even existed long enough as a technology to warrant such a book, but it’s getting closer and within a year or so we’ll start seeing some common, useful practices emerge (anyone that uses the term ‘best practice’ today when it comes to Serverless architecture needs be given a significant raised-eyebrow look).
Beyond application architecture (how serverless apps are built), we need to think of deployment architecture too (how serverless apps are operated). I already talked about deployment tools, but how do we use those tools? For instance:
  • What do terms like environments mean in this world? ‘Production’ seems less clear-cut than it used to be.
  • What does a side-by-side deployment of a stack and slowly moving traffic from one set of functions/service versions to a different set of functions/service versions (rolling deployment) look like?
  • Is there even such a thing as "blue-green" deployment in this world?
  • What does roll-back look like now?
  • How do we manage upgrading / rolling-back databases and other stateful components when we might have multiple different ‘production’ versions of code running in functions simultaneously?
  • What does a phoenix-server look like now when it comes to 3rd party services that you cannot burn down and redeploy for cleanliness?
Finally, what are useful migration patterns as we move from one architectural style to something that is, or includes, serverless components? In what ways can our architecture change in an evolutionary way?
Many of these yet-to-be-defined patterns (and anti-patterns) are not obvious, most clearly shown by our very nascent ideas of how best to manage state in Serverless systems. There will no doubt be some surprising and fascinating patterns that emerge.

How our organizations will change

While cost benefits are one of the drivers of Serverless, the most interesting advantage is the reduction of ‘conception-to-production lead time’. Serverless enables this reduction by giving ‘superpowers’ to the vast majority of us engineers who aren’t experts in both systems administration and distributed systems development. Those of us who are ‘merely’ skilled application developers are now able to deploy an entire MVP without having to write a single shell script, scale up a platform instance, or configure an nginx server. Earlier I mentioned that deployment tooling was still a work-in-progress, and so we don’t see this ‘simple MVP’ solution for all types of application right now. However, we do see it for simple web services, and even for other types of apps deploying a few Lambda functions is still often easier than managing operating system processes or containers.
Beyond the MVP we also see cycle-time reductions through the ability to redeploy applications without having to be concerned about chef/puppet-script maintenance, system patch levels, etc.
Serverless gives us the technical means to do this, but that’s not enough to actually realize such improvements in an organization. For that to happen companies need to grapple with, and embrace, the following.

‘True’ DevOps

DevOps has come to mean in many quarters ‘Technical Operations with the addition of techniques more often seen in development.’ While I’m all for increased automation and testing in system administration, that’s a tiny part of what Patrick Debois was thinking when he coined the term DevOps.
True DevOps instead is about a change in mindset, and a change in culture. It’s about having one team, working closely together, to develop and operate a product. It means collaboration rather than a negotiated work queue. It means developers performing support. It means tech ops folk getting involved with application architecture. It means, in other words, a merging of skill and responsibility.
Organizations won’t see the efficiency gains in Serverless if they have separated Development and Ops or ‘DevOps’ teams. If a developer codes an application but then needs someone outside of their immediate group to deploy the system, then their feedback gains are wiped out. If an operations engineer is not involved with the development of an application, they won’t be able to on-the-fly adapt a deployment model.
In other words, in the future the companies that have made the real gains from Serverless will be the ones who have embraced true DevOps.

Policy / access control changes

But even a change in team-by-team culture is not sufficient. Often times, in larger companies an enthusiastic team will come up against the brick wall of Organizational Policy. This might mean a lack of ability to deploy new systems without external approval. It might mean data access restrictions to all but existing applications. It might mean ultra-strict spending controls.
While I’m not advocating companies throw all their security and cost concerns out of the window, to make the most of Serverless they are going to need to adapt their policies to allow teams to change their operational requirements without needing team-external human approval for every single update. Access control policies need to be set up not just for the now, but what might be. Teams need to be given budgetary freedom within a certain allocation. And most of all experiments should be given as much of a free-reign sandbox as possible while still protecting the truly sensitive needs of an organization.
Access control tooling is improving, through use of IAM roles and multiple AWS accounts, as I mentioned earlier. However, it is still not simple, and is ripe for better automation. Similarly, rudimentary budget control exists for Serverless, again mostly through multiple accounts, but we need easier control of per-team execution limits, and of different execution limits for different environments.
The good news is that all of this is possible through advances in access control tooling, and we’ll see more progress in patterns of budget allocation, etc., as Serverless tools continue to advance. In fact, I think automation of access and cost controls will become ‘the new shell scripting’ - in other words when teams think of the operational concerns of their software they won't think of start/stop scripts, patch levels and disk usage - instead they'll think of precisely what data access they'll need and what budget they require. Because teams will be thinking about this so often engineers will automate the heck out of it, just like we did with deployment before.
Given this ability and rigor, in the future, even for the most data-sensitive enterprises, passionately experimental teams will use Serverless technologies to try out ideas that would never have made it past the whiteboard before, and will do so knowing that they are protected from doing any real intellectual or financial damage.

Product ownership

Another shift we’ve seen on many effective engineering teams over the last few years is a change of focus from projects to products. Structurally this often comes via less focus on project roadmaps, iterations and burndown charts, and instead more on a kanban-style process, lightweight estimates and continuous delivery. More importantly than the structural changes though are the shifts in role and mindset to more overlapping responsibilities, similarly to what we see with (true) DevOps.
For instance, it is very likely now that product owners and developers will collaborate closely on the fleshing out of new ideas - developers will prototype something, and product owners may dig into some technical data analysis, before locking down a final production design. And similarly, the spark of innovation - where a new idea or concept comes into someone’s head - could belong to anyone on the team. Many members of the team, not just one, now embrace the idea of customer affinity.
A Serverless approach offers a key benefit to those teams embracing a whole-team product mindset. When anyone on the team can come up with an idea and quickly implement a prototype for it a new mode of innovation is possible. Now Lean Startup-style experimentation becomes the default way of thinking, not something reserved for ‘hack days’, because the cost and time of doing so is massively reduced.
Another way of looking at this is that teams that don’t embrace a whole-team product mindset are likely to miss out on this key benefit. If teams aren’t encouraged to think beyond a project structure, it’s hard for them to make as much use of the accelerated delivery possibilities that Serverless brings.

Conclusion

Serverless is a relatively new concept in software architecture, but is one that is very likely to have an impact as large as other cloud computing innovations. Through technology advances, tooling improvements and shared learning in Serverless application architecture, many engineering teams will have the building blocks they need to accelerate, and even transform, how they do product development. The companies that adopt Serverless, and adapt their culture to support it, are the ones that will lead us into the future.

Acknowledgments

Thanks to the following for their input into this article: John Chapin, Chris Stevenson, Badri Janakiraman, Ben Rady, Ben Kehoe, Nat Pryce.

About the Author

Mike Roberts is an engineering leader and cofounder of Symphonia, a serverless and cloud technology consultancy. Mike is a long-time proponent of Agile and DevOps values and is excited by the role that cloud technologies have played in enabling such values for many high-functioning software teams. He sees serverless as the next technological evolution of cloud systems and as such is optimistic about their ability to help teams be awesome. Mike can be reached at mike@symphonia.io and tweets at @mikebroberts.