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Serverless computing supporters ponder NoOps

Envisioning a future with no servers to manage, some serverless-computing enthusiasts want to drop the 'ops' from DevOps, too.

BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- First, it was cloud computing, then it was platform as a service -- and now, the latest threat to the IT ops specialization, some say, is the rise of serverless computing.

The idea of NoOps -- the concept that automation, abstraction and outsourcing to cloud service providers eliminates the need for IT operations entirely -- has been around for years, but the IT ops species has yet to go extinct. Is it just a matter of time?

According to some attendees and presenters at ServerlessConf here last week, the answer is yes.

BuildFax Inc., an Asheville, N.C., company, which provides real estate property data to other businesses, already runs in a NoOps environment, according to its CTO, Joe Emison. The company outsources to software as a service providers whenever possible and develops websites that support hundreds of thousands of users with just two in-house developers.

"I'm interested in enterprise IT being out of a job," Emison said in a presentation about his company's app development philosophies. "They slow things down. The complexity slows things down. It's a pain."

Emison called himself a former engineer and said his focus is now exclusively on getting products to users faster. Outsourcing back-end services, he said, is the most cost-effective and efficient way to do it.

Other attendees differed with such a cut-and-dried view of things.

"Serverless computing is [about] solving some problems and surfacing new problems," said Patrick Debois, CTO and co-founder of Belgian startup Small Town Heroes, which makes apps for TV shows, and the founder of the DevOpsDays conference series.

With the rise of serverless computing, IT operations will move away from managing servers and into managing services, Debois said. 

In some cases, this means interfacing with services in technical ways, "like you're talking to a disk," he said, and other times, brokering agreements with service providers, "like you're talking to a hardware vendor."

For a long time, there's going to be a need for virtual machines to handle some functions. DevOps is going to be needed.
Greg ArnetteCTO, Sonian

IT ops specialists who don't evolve into such a role will still have jobs, but those roles will be with the big cloud service providers, according to Debois.

Serverless computing will force DevOps teams to change what they do, agreed Greg Arnette, CTO for Sonian Inc., an email archiving cloud service provider located in Waltham, Mass., but he stopped well short of calling for NoOps.

"For a long time, there's going to be a need for virtual machines to handle some functions," Arnette said. For example, he wouldn't run an app like Elasticsearch as an Amazon Web Services (AWS) Lambda function: "DevOps is going to be needed to take care of that ... and even Lambda will require some kind of operational oversight."

AWS previews open source project

AWS made its presence felt at ServerlessConf, with keynote presenter Tim Wagner, general manager of the AWS Lambda and Amazon API Gateway products, introducing a new open source project, called Flourish, to offer consistent rollback of Lambda functions during product development and testing by users.

Flourish also will offer a specification and a downloadable JSON file as a framework for development teams to manage applications built out of collections of Lambda functions, according to Sonian's Arnette.

"Right now, we're evaluating where Lambda plays a role in what we do," Arnette said. His company is especially intrigued by the pricing, which charges per function, rather than per virtual machine and per hour.

"There's an economic advantage if you can figure out how to make Lambda work for your workload," he said.

Code for Flourish is not yet available, but will be posted in the coming weeks. Amazon reps would not disclose whether Flourish will eventually become a full-fledged AWS offering.

Amazon's plan with Flourish looks very similar to what third-party projects such as the Serverless framework and SwaggerHub have done with serverless computing and API gateways. BuildFax's Emison said he vastly prefers a third-party company's service, Auth0's Webtask, to AWS Lambda.

Basically, Amazon has "take[n] all the complexity that exists in enterprise computing [and] just lifted and shifted all that complexity into [products]," Emison said.

Flourish and the open source Kappa utility developed by former Amazonian Mitch Garnaat for managing Lambda functions only point out the deficiencies in the product as it currently exists, according to Emison. Services such as Auth0 don't require the same level of granular, hands-on management as AWS Lambda and API Gateway, Emison said.

Beth Pariseau is senior news writer for TechTarget's Data Center and Virtualization Media Group. Write to her at [email protected] or follow @PariseauTT on Twitter.

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