Serverless is a State of Mind

The point is focus — that is the why of serverless

Ben Kehoe
12 min readMar 17, 2019

Functions are not the point
If you go serverless because you love Lambda, you’re doing it for the wrong reason. If you go serverless because you love FaaS in general, you’re doing it for the wrong reason. Functions are not the point.

Sure, I love Lambda — but that’s not why I advocate for serverless.

Don’t get me wrong, functions are great. They let you scale transparently, you don’t have to manage the runtime, and they fit naturally with event-driven architectures. These are all fantastic, useful properties.

But functions should end up being a small part of your overall solution. You should use functions as the glue, containing your business logic, between managed services that are providing the heavy lifting that forms the majority of your application.

Managed services are not the point
We are fortunate to have such a wide range of managed services for so many different parts of our applications. Databases, identity and access management (so glad I don’t have to own that myself!), analytics, machine learning, content delivery, message queues for all sorts of different patterns.

Managed services provide the functionality you need with less hassle. You’re not patching the servers they run on. You’re not making sure the autoscaling is correctly providing the required throughput without a lot of idle capacity. Managed services lowers your operational burden significantly.

Managed services are great — but … they aren’t the point.

Ops is not the point
It’s great to know that you can apply fewer operations resources to keep your applications healthy. It is especially great that the resources you need scales mostly with the number of features you ship — not with traffic volume.

Reduced operations is more efficient — but … it’s not the point.

Cost is not the point
Ok, sometimes all the business wants you to do is reduce cost — and that’s all you care about. And serverless will help you do that. But in general, your cloud bill is not the point.

Your cloud bill is only one component of the total cost of your cloud applications. First of all, there’s the operations salaries— and that cost is lower if you have fewer ops resources. There’s also your development costs.

There are a lot of cost advantages — but … none of these are the point.

Code is not the point
Not only is code not the point, code is a liability. Code can at best do exactly what you intend it to. Bugs detract from this. You can only lose points through more coding. The more code you own, the more opportunities exist to depart from your intended value. Understanding this is a cultural shift.

Technology has been hard for a long time. It’s taken clever people to create value through technology. So developers started to believe that cleverness was inherent and good. We’ve spent so long crafting Swiss watches that we’ve failed to recognize the advent of the quartz Casio — and impugn the evolution as lacking in elegance.

Instead of applying our cleverness to solving technology problems, we really need to be understanding and solving business problems. And when you have to code — you are solving technology problems.

Technology is not the point
The reason that we’re doing this, any of this, is in service of some business goal. The business value that your organization is trying to create is the point.

Now, sometimes, what you’re selling is literally technology. But even if your product is technology, that may not be the value of what you’re selling.

There’s an old adage that people don’t buy drills, they buy holes. When you need a hole in your wall, you don’t care how fancy the drill is — you care how well it creates that hole you need.

At iRobot, we don’t sell robots. We don’t even sell vacuums. We sell clean homes. Roomba gives you time back in your day to focus on the things that matter to you. So if technology isn’t the point, what are we here for?

The point is focus
Serverless is a way to focus on business value.

How do functions help you deliver value? They let you focus on writing business logic, not coding supporting infrastructure for your business logic.

Managed services let you focus on writing your functions. Having less operations resources frees up people and money to be applied to creating new value for your customers.

Observability gives you tools to address MTBF and MTTR, both of which are a measure of how often your customers aren’t getting value. Spending less on the cloud means you can spend that money more directly in support of creating value.

Focus is the Why of Serverless

You should go serverless because you want to focus on creating value — and at your company you endeavor to apply technology toward the creation of business value.

Going back to cost, Lyft’s AWS bill, $100 million per year, has been in the news recently. Many people chimed in to say they could do it cheaper — they couldn’t, but that’s beside the point.

Would Lyft’s bill be lower if they switched to Lambda and managed services for everything they possibly could? Probably. But what would that do as they spent time rearchitecting? They would lose focus.

The company is at a stage in its journey where growth is more important than cost control. Eventually, that might change. Public companies are responsible to their shareholders, and so cost reduction can deliver value to them. But for Lyft right now, delivering value to their customers means executing with their current applications and processes. They are making the serverless choice.

What I’m telling you is that serverless has never been about the technology we call serverless. So what does the technology that we call serverless have to do with it?

Serverless is a consequence of a focus on business value
Technology is a consequence of how you’re trying to deliver value. Dev and ops teams have traditionally been separated with the notion that they have different focuses. But we’re seeing that trend changing.

The traditional model put the focus on technology — dev tech vs ops tech. But we’re seeing people realize that the focus should be on the value — the feature being delivered, including both how it’s built and how it’s run.

When we take this notion of focusing on business value, and run it to its logical conclusion, we get serverless.

When you want to focus on delivering value, you want to write functions. When your function needs state, you want a database. To get it from someone else, you use DBaaS — and you choose between your options based on how well it lets you focus.

And when you’re choosing managed services, some of them may even be user-facing. If you can use social login instead of owning your own accounts, that’s one less thing you have to manage, and one less piece of the user experience table stakes you need to own.

Now, for everything you are outsourcing, you are still accountable. Your users don’t care if their bad experience is caused by a third party you’re using, it’s still your problem. You need to own outages to your users while accepting that you don’t fully control your destiny there. This is an uncomfortable place to be — but it’s worthwhile.

You can’t win points on these things — but you can lose points. This means that you need to know what “bad” looks like. That requires having enough knowledge about the outsourced pieces of your product and your technology to know that you’re delivering enough quality to your users.

Note that deep expertise in a focus area, and broad but thin knowledge of adjacent areas is exactly analogous to the T-shaped skills concept — applied to organizations and teams.

Serverless is a trait
Serverless is a trait of companies. A company is serverless if it decides that it shouldn’t own technology that isn’t core to delivering its business value. Few companies are really totally serverless. But within a company, you can still have parts that are serverless.

If your team decides to focus only on the value it’s delivering, and delegate anything outside that either to another team, or ideally outside — then your team is going serverless. And you can’t always choose to use an outside technology — that’s fine, you can still make the best choice given the constraints.

And with a big enough organization, it can cease to matter. When uses Lambda, that’s fully serverless, even though it’s on-prem in some sense. But what if it’s just you?

What if you’re excited about serverless, but you feel completely alone at your company? What if you’re far removed from actual business value — if you’re patching servers for a team that serves a team that serves a team that creates user-facing content? I want to convince you that you can go serverless today, yourself, in any situation.

Serverless is a direction, not a destination
I used to talk about serverless as a spectrum, because I knew there wasn’t a bright line separating serverless technology from non-serverless technology. I mean, there almost never is a bright line separating any given grouping of anything, so I was pretty safe in that assumption.

I talked about how something like Kinesis, where you need to manage shards, is serverless, but less serverless than SQS, where you don’t. How you don’t have to patch instances with RDS, but you do need to choose instance types and number. These technologies are all various shades of serverless.

But recently I’ve come to realize a problem with portraying serverless as a spectrum is that it doesn’t imply movement. Just because you’re using something designated serverless of a sort doesn’t mean you should feel comfortable that you’ve attained serverless — that it’s acceptable to keep using that and think you’ve checked the serverless box.

Climb the serverless ladder
I’ve started to think of serverless as a ladder. You’re climbing to some nirvana where you get to deliver pure business value with no overhead. But every rung on the ladder is a valid serverless step.

If you move from on-prem to a public cloud, that’s a rung on the ladder. If you move from VMs to containers, that’s a rung on the ladder. If you move from no container orchestration, or custom orchestration, to Kubernetes, that’s a rung on the ladder. If you move from long-lived servers to self-hosted FaaS, that’s a rung on the ladder. But there’s always a rung above you, and you should always keep climbing.

Climbing the serverless ladder corresponds to using technology further to the right on this graph from Simon Wardley.

One thing the “ladder” doesn’t convey is that it’s not linear. Moving from VMs to containers to Kubernetes while staying on-prem are rungs on the ladder, but so is moving your VMs from on-prem to the cloud. There’s often not a definitive “better” in these cases.

I thought of the metaphor of many paths leading up a mountain, but one thing I like about the ladder is that it can be infinite. There isn’t an end state. I love Lambda, but I am always looking for better ways of delivering code that keep me more focused on value.

Serverless is a State of Mind

Serverless is about how you make decisions — not about your choices. Every decision is made with constraints. But if you know the right direction, even when you can’t move directly that way, you can take the choice that’s most closely aligned, and then you’re moving up another rung. So, how do you adopt this mindset? How do you make serverless choices?

Configuration is your friend
I think many developers look down on configuration as “not real programming”. There’s an idolatry of coding today. We’ve been told that “software is eating the world”, and we’ve inaccurately translated that to “coding is eating the world”.

We’ve come to believe that developers are the only important people in an organization, and that our sense of productivity is the only thing that matters. We want to feel in the zone, and that’s what coding provides. Any obstacle to this must be bad for the business. We’ve lost any sense of whether being in the zone is actually producing value faster and better than an alternative route.

Remember: Days of programming can save hours of configuration
Constraints are good. Removing options can help you focus. Obviously, not all constraints are good — but in general, the ability to do anything general comes at the cost of it taking longer to do one particular thing. Guard rails may chafe, but you’ll be faster than if you have to constantly watch the edge.

In this way, serverless is about minimalism. Removing distractions. Marie Kondo is big now, and the same advice applies. Find the components of your stack that don’t spark value.

Be afraid of the enormity of the enormity of the possible
Possibilities carry with them hidden complexity. For any technology, one of my primarily evaluation metrics is how much capability it has beyond the task at hand. When there’s a lot of extra space, there’s unnecessary complexity to both deal with and learn.

People tout Kubernetes as a single tool to accomplish every cloud need — and it can! But if everything is possible, anything is possible. For a given task, Kubernetes can go wrong because you haven’t accounted for the ways it acts for situations unrelated that task.

On the other hand, when you look at serverless services, you may have to choose between a 80% solution from your main provider, or a 3rd party provider with a service that better fits your needs. But what are the operations needs for that new provider? What’s the auth like? Those are hidden complexities that you’ll pull in — and you’ll need to trade that off with feature differences.

Accept the discomfort of not owning your own destiny
When you’re using a managed service, provider outages are stressful. There’s nothing you can do to fix their problem. There is no getting around it — this will always feel awful.

You’ll think, “if I was running my own Kafka cluster instead of using Kinesis, I could find the issue and fix it”. And that may be true, but you should remember two things:

  1. That would be a distraction from creating business value.
  2. You would almost certainly be worse at running it. You’d have more and worse incidents. It’s a service provider’s purpose in life to be good at it — and they have economies of scale you don’t.

Moving past the “I could always build it myself” attitude can be hard. Jared Short recently provided a brilliant set of guidelines for choosing technology.

In order, if you’re on a cloud platform, stay within the ecosystem when possible. You’re removing so many possibilities from the equation that way. But if you can’t get what you need on the platform, buy it from somewhere else.

If you can’t buy exactly what you need, can you rethink what you’re doing to fit what you can buy? This one is really important. It gets to the heart of time-to-market.

If you have something you think is valuable, you’ll want to ship it as soon as possible. But it’s better to ship something near to that faster, than to build the exact thing, You don’t know that it’s the right thing yet.

Waiting to build the exact right thing will not only take longer to ship, but your subsequent iterations will be slower — and maintenance of it will take resources that you could apply to shipping more things in the future. This applies even when the technology isn’t serverless: always ask if a tweak to your requirements would enable faster, better, or more focused delivery of value.

Finally, though, if you have to build it, own it. Find a way for it to be a differentiator. Now, this doesn’t mean everything you’ve built already you should turn into a differentiator. Look at only the things you can’t have bought as a service in a perfect world. Imagine what a completely serverless, greenfield implementation would look like, and find what needs to be built there.

Find your part of the business value
So fundamentally, you want to find your part of the business value. What is your technology work in service of? Maybe you’re far removed from user-facing product. You may only be contributing a small slice. But it’s there, and you can find it — and focus on that value.

Start with the immediate value you’re providing to others in the organization, and focus on that. And then start to trace the value chain. Make sure all your decisions are oriented around the value you’re creating. Make serverless choices.

I love this quote from Jessie Frazelle. You can turn it around; automate yourself out of a job, and keep demanding jobs.

Remember that you are not the tool. For any value that you’re creating — automate that creation. If you manage build servers, find ways to make them self-service, so what you’re delivering is not the builds per se, but the build tooling so teams can deliver the builds themselves.

TL;DR Serverless is a State of Mind

The point is not functions, managed services, operations, cost, code, or technology. The point is focus — that is the why of serverless.

Serverless is a consequence of a focus on business value. It is a trait. It is a direction, not a destination. Climb the never-ending serverless ladder.

Configuration is your friend. Days of programming can save hours of configuration. Be afraid of the enormity of the enormity of the possible. Accept the discomfort of not owning your own destiny

Find your part of the business value, and achieve a serverless state of mind.