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The state of serverless: 6 trends to watch

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Christopher Null, Freelance writer

Serverless is the fastest-growing cloud service model right now, with an annual growth rate of 75%, according to RightScale's 2018 State of the Cloud report. That's hardly surprising, given the technology's ability to lower costs, reduce operational complexity, and increase DevOps efficiencies.

So, as the calendar was poised to turn to a new year, we asked several experts what to expect next from this rising technology. While we received a wide range of answers, everyone agreed that serverless will mature and see even greater adoption rates in 2019.

Stefan Bergstein, Chief Software Architect at Micro Focus, said the wheels were in motion for serverless adoption.

"We will see further adoption of serverless, especially in public clouds. The large cloud providers are going to invest into maturity, programming languages coverage and improved IDE integrations. These aspects will drive adoption."
Stefan Bergstein

Andrew Tunall, Principal Product Manager for New Relic, said that the ability to iterate and deliver quickly, and define clear cost benefits for certain workloads has always been attractive to companies, but market maturity is key in 2019.

"I think the maturation of the ecosystem will give enterprise customers the confidence they need to start fully adopting serverless."
Andrew Tunall

And that's just the start. Here’s a look at the experts' most frequently mentioned serverless trends to watch in 2019.

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1. Knative will drive standardization

With such a robust ecosystem of available platforms and tools, it's easy to forget that serverless is still a relatively new technology. As such, there's a lack of standardization and interoperability between cloud providers that the Cloud Native Computing Foundation has warned could result in companies getting locked in to one or more vendors.

But the recent release of Knative may speed up the standardization process, said Joe Fernandes, vice president of products for the cloud platforms business unit at Red Hat. The open-source project—jointly developed by Google, Pivotal, IBM, SAP, and Red Hat—leverages enterprises' Kubernetes experience. The goal is to simplify the building and deployment of container-based, serverless applications that can deploy and run on any cloud.

"In the same way that Kubernetes and containers enabled a hybrid abstraction for applications that can span a hybrid cloud environment, we expect Knative could do the same for serverless."
Joe Fernandes

Through standards such as cloudevents, users don't have to feel locked into a single cloud service provider for services anymore, and his company expects growth in the creation of "polycloud applications" through functions that consume services from multiple providers as part of a single solution.

But should you expect that serverless application code will become easily portable across various cloud providers? "I don’t think so," says Berstein. "Efficient serverless code often depends on cloud specific services like messaging and databases."

2. Serverless will expand into hybrid IT

AWS Lambda has been driving serverless computing adoption in the same way that AWS EC2 and S3 did for public cloud IaaS. But, Fernandes noted, enterprise customers still have application needs that are inherently hybrid. Some apps will run on AWS, others will run in the enterprise's on-premises data center, and still others are designed to run across public clouds.

By enabling hybrid serverless models that span data center and multi-cloud environments, adoption could expand greatly. Expect serverless to become more mainstream in enterprise applications and more integrated with other technologies, such as microservices and traditional application architectures, Fernandes said.

"There is no one size fits all, and we expect serverless to continue to be a growing part of the enterprise application mix."
—Joe Fernandes

But Bergstein isn't so sure. "I don’t foresee of a lot of hybrid serverless models that span data center and multi-cloud environments due to the lack of common APIs." But he adds, because of popularity of Kubernetes, we'll see more hybrid containers-as-a-service models in the future.

3. Serverless security will improve

Serverless shifts many server-level security concerns to the cloud service provider. But it also tends to redirect an attacker's attention to more-exposed targets, mainly the applications themselves. That's not great news. A recent audit of 1,000 serverless applications by Israeli security firm PureSec found that one in five contained one or more critical vulnerabilities.

As more companies adopt serverless, you're likely to see an even more pressing need to address the unique challenges of serverless app security.

Gadi Naor, CTO at cloud-native security firewall vendor Alcide, said he expects products that will allow policies that can be managed for complex applications, just as they are managed for simple applications, whether you are using AWS Lambda or another serverless provider.

"We expect security vendors to deliver solutions that uncover blind spots and control serverless. We also expect companies to adopt new distributed policies for compliance and control requirements."
Gadi Naor

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4. Better testing options will become available

Application testing in a serverless environment is necessarily more complex than doing it locally. While some providers facilitate remote testing, it's often only at the level of an individual function rather than at the serverless application level. The lack of uniform testing models has forced developers to come up with and share their own testing protocols, which are often fragmented and laborious.

API testing and integration testing are likely to be challenging in an serverless environment, said Malcolm Isaacs, senior researcher at Micro Focus. Many functions and components need to be tested, and there will be dependencies between them.

"That means that mock objects and stubs will be indispensable in unit testing. Also, because the responsibility of executing the code devolves to the cloud, how do you monitor the code and gather performance and other metrics?"
Malcolm Isaacs

Naor expects the state of testing tools to change as more organizations adopt serverless in the coming year.

"With testing being a key component for delivery, better testing frameworks and tools will emerge as serverless matures.
—Gadi Naor

5. Observation and monitoring will get easier

The complexity and high level of abstraction of serverless architecture make monitoring and observability an extreme challenge. In fact, it was one of the biggest challenges cited by developers in a recent DigitalOcean Currents quarterly report on developer trends in the cloud.

Monitoring support varies across providers and often has to be supplemented with external services and DIY methods. If you're working with a distributed system with hundreds of functions, that can make identifying and resolving an issue or understanding metrics a nightmare.

Alcide's Naor anticipates visibility into serverless systems will improve in the coming year as the demand to build more complex applications grows. And Micro Focus' Bergstein agrees that tool vendors will begin to address this situation  in 2019. 

"Both serverless platforms and application management tools are going to improve and simplify the monitoring and observability of serverless application service and code."
—Stefan Bergstein

Open source infinitives like OpenTracing and OpenMetric are likely play a key role across serverless technology stacks, he added.

"Just like what we see with containers, but amplified in serverless, application observability is key for building, testing, and operating serverless-based applications. It will open the door for more complex applications."
—Gadi Naor

6. Use cases will expand

Many organizations have dipped into serverless via services such as AWS Lambda for processing scheduled tasks such as manual scaling or periodic data processing, New Relic's Tunall said. But now he's seeing large enterprises adopt serverless for more critical tasks, such as essential web applications and data processing. He believes the trend will continue in the coming year, particularly in areas such as the IoT and media and entertainment applications.

"Some of our customers are just starting to use serverless at the edge for content modification, and that has the potential to be a huge growth area in the year ahead."
Andrew Tunall

A bright outlook

Like any emerging technology, serverless is going through its growing-pains phase, and that's causing its share of headaches and confusion in the market. But experts agreed that these challenges are more than surmountable, with 2019 likely to be a clear turning point for the model that pushes it well into the mainstream.