Is serverless hitting the mainstream?
Image: Dallas Reedy / Protocol

Is serverless hitting the mainstream?

Protocol Enterprise

Welcome to Protocol | Enterprise, your comprehensive roundup of everything you need to know about the week in cloud and enterprise software. This Thursday: why serverless computing will be an important trend to watch in 2021, the launch of Protocol | Fintech and the funniest man in cloud computing.

(Was this email forwarded to you? Subscribe here.)

The Big Story

What's your function?

Every AWS re:Invent keynote delivered by CEO Andy Jassy in recent years has contained a data center's worth of information packed into three hours, and inevitably a few things slip by without much discussion. The 2020 edition a few months ago was no exception: Jassy revealed that Amazon passed a milestone that, on reflection, has enormous implications for the future of enterprise computing.

  • "Right now, if you look inside Amazon, and you look at all the new applications that were built in 2020, half of them are using Lambda as their compute engine," Jassy said.
  • Earlier in the year, monitoring company Datadog said that half of its customers on the AWS platform were using Lambda.

Lambda is a so-called "serverless" computing service, first introduced in 2014, that allows developers to write applications without having to know anything about the hardware on which their applications will run, a huge break with decades of software development reality. The tactics used in serverless computing have evolved in different ways over the past six years, but the broad approach is a natural extension of the journey from single-processor servers to virtual machines to containers, albeit one with a very different mindset.

  • AWS Lambda allows developers to write code based around events, such as a sudden spike in traffic or when a customer completes an online purchase.
  • Those events trigger functions: In the examples above, those functions could be "spin up more servers in Europe" or "send purchase data to the inventory database."
  • Normally, adding cloud capacity in the event of a traffic spike would require someone to notice the spike and authorize more cloud resources, but serverless applications can do that on their own within preset parameters.
  • And here's the best part: as of December on AWS, you only pay per millisecond of computing time that each function uses to carry out its task. Most standard-issue virtual machines are billed by the hour, whether you're using them the whole time or not, but serverless allows for much finer-grained billing.

The concept of serverless has been growing in scope. Microsoft and Google have also been investing in serverless computing designed around functions and events, with Azure Functions and Cloud Functions respectively. But all three companies have also expanded the ideas behind serverless computing to accommodate customers that want to package their applications in containers, following the runaway popularity of the Docker container format over the past several years.

  • Google, heavily invested in containers and Kubernetes, has made serverless applications designed around containers a big part of its product strategy with Google Cloud Run and Knative, an open-source project encased in Google's usual amount of open-source drama.
  • Microsoft got into the functions game in 2016 and has likewise extended the concept of invisible infrastructure to some container-based applications running on Azure.
  • And while AWS was a little slower to embrace Kubernetes than its counterparts, it turned heads in 2017 with Fargate, a serverless way to manage containerized applications.

In fact, "serverless containers" have come to overshadow the functions and events side of things among cloud services, which is why Jassy's statement is an interesting milestone for software development.

  • Lambda requires developers to write their applications in a fundamentally different way than they wrote older applications designed around virtual machines and containers: You can't "lift and shift" into serverless functions.
  • AWS and, by extension, Amazon are now conducting a big, live experiment on the reliability and functionality of Lambda, and the performance of those applications.
  • Datadog's customers are likely forward-thinking developers sold on the benefits of serverless computing — cost, flexibility and speed — and Amazon is, well, Amazon, But we do seem to be nearing a tipping point for serverless functions inside a wider variety of companies.
  • One of the biggest concerns about Lambda and other functions-as-a-service is that they lock you into your cloud provider even more than usual, which obviously isn't something Amazon worries about all that much.

New ideas take time to get a foothold in enterprise computing, as the cloud itself — preparing for its 15th birthday next month — shows. Serverless functions have been marinating for several years, and 2021 could be a year of sizable traction for the concept.



Two types of companies are emerging: digital disruptors and those being digitally disrupted. Now, as digital product becomes the epicenter of the digital business, new research reveals how companies like Ford, Match, and are using product analytics to place their digital bets. Read the report to learn more.

This Week On Protocol

Where the money is: We launched another vertical here at Protocol this week, Protocol | Fintech (sign up here and get the newsletter twice a week). Benjamin Pimentel took a look at how IBM is trying to build cloud services with banks and financial services customers in mind, who realized early in the pandemic that they needed to modernize their systems, and fast.

"Highly concentrated": AWS was named in last year's tech antitrust report issued by the House Judiciary Committee, but interest in hauling the cloud leader into antitrust court does not appear to be top of mind for the Biden administration at the moment. I talked to several competition experts who described what regulators might be looking for — and what might be hard to find — should they change their minds.

Cloud of the State: Salesforce is going to build a private version of its CRM software for the U.S. Department of State, Protocol's Joe Williams reported. It would be the first time Salesforce would be "building a completely private system for a single customer," and could be an interesting model for SaaS companies and government agencies going forward.

Five Questions For...

Emily Heath, chief trust and security officer, DocuSign

What was your first tech job?

I started my career in law enforcement, serving as a detective for the Cheshire police in the U.K. I ultimately left for my first tech job at WebConcepts, which developed vendor-managed inventory software for movie studios, essentially a planning and replenishment platform that managed DVD distribution back when DVDs were a thing! I worked closely with architects and developers to create the features and functionality.

What was the first computer that made you realize the power of computing and connectivity?

My first computer was a Sinclair ZX Spectrum. I wouldn't say it demonstrated connectivity, but it did fascinate me enough to learn basic commands at a young age. I wrote code that created pop-up boxes and visuals on screen. It was fascinating to see things appear as a result, like magic. I also spent a lot of time playing Manic Miner or Daley Thompson's Decathlon, which at the time was the coolest thing I'd ever seen.

What was the biggest reason for the success of cloud computing over the past decade?

Over the past decade, access anywhere has become the core of cloud computing. The immediate move we've made to working remotely in the last year has only reinforced this: With digital transformation substantially sped up, the ability to access from any device, anywhere in the world, with speed and agility, to get the information you need is just good for business and for life.

What will be the biggest challenge for cloud computing over the coming decade?

The proliferation of data and all of its privacy aspects and implications will continue to accelerate. The world runs on data. Legislation is moving in one direction to protect the rights of the consumer, while continuous technological innovation that requires vast amounts of data to foster the types of personalized experiences customers want and expect is moving in the opposite direction, creating a difficult balance to strike.

Will the pandemic usher in a new era of remote working, or will we all come back together when it is safe to do so?

I believe it will be a blend. I think there will be more willingness from organizations to be flexible and allow more remote work, but humans crave the company of other humans, and we have a need to come together personally and professionally. It will be interesting to see how we all adapt to this new normal, as it is a lot easier being remote when everyone is remote. When you have a mix of people in-person and remote, it becomes much more challenging: it's harder to read people, to read the room, and give airtime to those who aren't physically present.

Around the Cloud

  • Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has marveled at the "seven-year head start" given to AWS by the rest of enterprise tech, and this week on Clubhouse former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer conceded the obvious: "Azure, I wish we probably started a year or so, two years earlier," he said, according to CNBC.
  • Years before it was pitching the U.S. government on how it would safely prevent TikTok data from falling into the hands of the Chinese government, Oracle was marketing its data broker software to … the Chinese government, The Intercept reported.
  • New Jersey put out an urgent call for help modernizing its tech infrastructure in the early days of the pandemic, and Bloomberg reported last week that they're now regretting having called Microsoft.
  • A 65% jump in quarterly revenue had Twilio investors excitedafter its earnings report Wednesday, sending the stock up 10% in after-hours trading.
  • Parler is back on the internet after getting kicked off AWS. It set up its own infrastructure with help from SkySilk, a cloud-hosting provider in Los Angeles.
  • Microsoft's quantum-computing plans hit a setback earlier this year after it discovered errors in experiments that had supposedly led its researchers toward the discovery of a quantum particle that was to be the basis for its quantum strategy, according to Wired.
  • A hacker infiltrated servers belonging to Accellion, a secure file-sharing company, and stole some of its sensitive data, according to the law firm Jones Day.
  • Microsoft's Dapr hit 1.0. The project, which borrows ideas from a variety of cloud tech (including serverless) to help developers build modern applications, reached the milestone this week and could be heading to a foundation soon.
  • Low-code companies continue to be hot: Outsystems just raised $150 million at a $9.5 billion valuation.
  • The DOJ asked Salesforce for details about its Slack deal, although it appears to be a routine step before the deal is expected to be approved.
  • Not yet familiar with Corey Quinn, the clown prince of cloud computing? The New York Times has you covered.



Two types of companies are emerging: digital disruptors and those being digitally disrupted. Now, as digital product becomes the epicenter of the digital business, new research reveals how companies like Ford, Match, and are using product analytics to place their digital bets. Read the report to learn more.

Thanks for reading — see you Monday.

Recent Issues