AWS’s bid to ‘strangle the monoliths’ with serverless

Chief architect Glenn Gore on streamlining migration to Lambda, and doing five certifications in a day

CSIRO’s head of  transformational bioinformatics Denis Bauer took to the stage at an Amazon Web Services event on Wednesday to proclaim: “Once you go serverless you never go back”.

Serverless computing – otherwise known as functions-as-a-service (FaaS) – is an approach to architecture in which code execution is fully managed by a cloud provider.

FaaS takes away the need for developers to concern themselves with managing, provisioning and maintaining servers and other infrastructure worries, so they can concentrate on writing application code. It lends itself well to event-driven functions, particularly those that are sporadic or bursty in nature.

It has worked for Bauer and her team, who have gone serverless to deploy a tool which finds unique patterns in genomes to find the best sites in the sequence for editing.

The team used their “inner scientist” to rigorously evaluate the architectural approaches to the problem, a summary of which is available here. Serverless came out on top.

The approach has taken a firm hold within AWS’s engineering ranks too, the company’s chief architect Glenn Gore told Computerworld on the sidelines of the AWS Public Sector Summit in Canberra.

“Our own engineers: We often joke amongst ourselves when we’ve been using Lambda for example. It’s so quick and easy when we go back to something like EC2 which is still cutting edge technology, we’re like ‘oh man we’re having to deal with the operating system and patching and things like that’,” he said.

“It’s still a big difference from that true freedom you have just writing your code, deploying your code, stitching things together, having that component based recyclability – it’s truly liberating for someone trying to develop that cool idea that they have,” Gore explained.

AWS launched its Lambda service in 2014. Microsoft followed suit with Azure functions in 2016, a year which saw Google release Cloud Functions, and IBM launch a service of the same name based on Apache OpenWhisk.

“Even containerisation which is also a really exciting area, is still pretty heavyweight compared to that pure Lambda function,” Gore added.

A spate of recent surveys have each indicated massive growth in the service type.

A Cloud Foundry survey earlier this year found nearly half of companies questioned were evaluating or using serverless computing, 10 per cent more than last year. A RightScale survey found serverless to be the top growing cloud service, with a growth rate of 75 per cent. Some 12 per cent of surveyed companies were using serverless last year, while 21 per cent were in 2018.

The market seems sold on serverless. Not quite, Gore explained.

“The struggle to be honest with you is still trying to migrate most of the industry to VMs. Let alone VMs to cloud, cloud to containerisation, containerisation to Lambda,” he said.

The real rise in serverless will come from the breaking down the ‘monolith apps’ at the heart of many businesses, Gore says.

“How can we break it up? How do we define the service boundaries around it? How do we start chipping away? How do we strangle it down over time and surround it with these new microservices and serverless components so that the organisation is able to take advantage of some of the new features and innovations and ideas they want to do – but at the same time still support what is at the very core of their business and contains the business logic?” he said.

AWS’s future work will be focused on helping to “streamline the migration through those different architectural types” Gore revealed. The future will be “a hybrid of the monoliths and the new world of the serverless working together in harmony”.

Poking the bear

As part of the Canberra event, many public servants took Lambda workshops to ready them for certification.

Despite his position in the company Gore revealed he still takes the certification exams, and once did five in a single day after he was mocked by colleagues.

“I didn’t get certified for a while and the team were making fun of me at a ReInvent, saying to people, ‘you shouldn’t talk to Glenn, because he’s actually not certified’,” Gore said.

“So I said – ‘well if you want to play this game’. I was like alright – I’m going to get certified on five in one day. They said ‘there’s no way you can’. People were watching, others tried to join in but one by one they dropped off. And at the end of the day I got my five certs – don’t poke the bear!”

It was worth the effort, and allows Gore to “look CIOs in the eye” to recommend they send staff on AWS courses. Many do, including NAB which is giving more than 2000 NAB employees the chance to become certified ‘cloud practitioners’.

The five certifications in a day feat is impressive, although Gore is involved in setting the curriculum and some of the exam questions.

“I did actually have to answer some of my own questions,” he said, “I may have got one of them wrong!”