How serverless computing will transform cloud economics

While cloud computing has had a profound an impact on IT, the level of technical innovation associated with the cloud has been relatively slight. Virtual machines that were once run in a local data center have been moved to a highly automated shared public cloud that exposes underlying infrastructure using application programming interfaces (APIs).

But over the past year, increased innovation in the cloud has spawned multiple architectures that will compete to run a variety of application workloads. In addition to traditional virtual machines, it’s now common for containers to be deployed on public clouds. Beyond containers, however, serverless computing frameworks are starting to emerge that promise to radically alter the economics of cloud computing. In fact, a new report published by 451 Research suggests that serverless computing will be the least expensive cloud option by a wide margin for certain classes of workloads.

The reason for this is serverless computing frameworks use event-driven architectures to eliminate the need to provision, configure, and manage the underlying infrastructure. The term serverless doesn’t mean there are no servers. It just means the underlying infrastructure is invisible to the application developer.

Benefits of serverless computing

The report from 451 Research finds that if a serverless function is active for just three quarters of the month, it only takes a 10-minute saving in operational overhead for serverless to beat virtual machines on total cost of ownership—even when a virtual machine is hosting containers. Even without the savings in developer time, the ability of serverless to increase utilization means it is much less costly for a cloud service provider (CSP) to deploy than using VMs when the code is executed fewer than 500,000 times each month, the report explains.

Obviously, any framework that eliminates the need to provision, configure, and manage the underlying infrastructure has major implications for managed service providers. Virtual machines and containers won’t be going away any time soon. But in terms of pure costs, it’s already apparent severless computing frameworks will become a preferred approach whenever feasible for many customers. The 451 Research report notes that 37 percent of the IT decision-makers participating in a recent survey were already using serverless technology to some degree. In truth, MSPs might want to prepare for a price war as major CSPs compete more aggressively to drive as many workloads as possible away from local data centers.

Comparing serverless framework options

Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft, Google, and IBM are already well down the serverless computing path. The 451 Research report finds that IBM is currently the least expensive for 0.1-second duration scripts, and Microsoft Azure is cheapest for 10-second scripts. The report also notes that IBM offers a distinct cost advantage by allowing users to choose exact memory requirements, whereas other providers round up the figures, resulting in users paying for unused capacity.

MSPs should also track open source serverless computing frameworks, such as the OpenWhisk project being led by IBM and Adobe Systems. It’s only a matter of time before smaller CSPs use free serverless computing frameworks to fend off larger rivals.

Virtual machines and containers won’t be going away any time soon. MSPs should expected to be asked to manage cloud services based on virtual machines, containers, and serverless computing for years to come. But as cloud computing continues to advance, it’s clear the only viable path forward for most MSPs will be concentrating on applications because the underlying infrastructure being used in any given cloud environment will continue to disappear under multiple layers of impenetrable software-defined abstractions.

Photo: leolintang/Shutterstock

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