Look Ma, No Server: Corporate IT Expects ‘Serverless’ Computing to Trigger Big Changes

Corporate IT executives see promise in an emerging technology in which the physical and virtual servers that are traditionally used to run applications becomes invisible to the developers building the apps.

It’s called serverless computing, and according to General Electric Corp. ’s chief technology officer, it’s what the “cool kids” are thinking about.

GE CTO Chris Drumgoole predicts widespread adoption of the technology could be seen between 2019 and 2026, but analysts caution that it’s part of the continuing shift to cloud services, which requires a drastic organizational change within enterprises.

Analysts say serverless computing refers to the use of infrastructure usually offered by a cloud provider, in which developers run applications on the cloud provider’s services instead of on their own servers. As a result, they can focus only on writing code, without having to manage servers. The process, in essence, becomes “serverless” for the customer.

The provider runs the customer’s application on its own servers or inside “containers,” where they’re broken into small pieces and placed into software shells, allowing the pieces to be distributed to any sort of device, in a digitally orchestrated manner, and at lower cost. Enterprise customers or IT departments pay the provider every time their code is triggered, instead of doling out cash up front for machines or virtual servers that they may not need.

It’s an evolution of a move toward cloud computing and greater efficiency, which began years ago when physical servers largely were replaced with virtual technology or software.

“If you’re moving into the next generation of big shifts like [artificial intelligence] and machine learning, the underlying infrastructure that supports that stuff will be serverless,” said Mr. Drumgoole following a Monday conference hosted by the Open Networking User Group, where business IT leaders advocate for creating open networking standards.

Companies pioneering the use of so-called serverless computing include International Business Machines Corp., Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Amazon.com Inc.’s Amazon Web Services, which has been offering server less computing services with AWS Lambda since late 2014.

With Lambda, there are no servers for the customer to deploy or manage. Rather, software developers write applications and upload their code to the Lambda compute service.

Lambda manages the code and runs it on AWS’s own servers. Lambda then executes those applications at scale and bills for every millisecond that a code is triggered.

Matt Wood, general manager of product strategy for Amazon Web Services, says Lambda eliminates the need for customers to buy, manage or maintain any virtual or physical servers.

“It’s…a world where developers just have to worry about the code they write,” said Dr. Wood, who holds a Ph.D. in machine learning and bioinformatics.

Other cloud services companies are launching competitors to Lambda. Google Cloud Functions, which is currently open to limited customers for testing, launched in February. IBM also launched a Lambda competitor in February, known as Bluemix OpenWhisk. IBM’s serverless computing platform runs on open source software, so developers can install it on their own machines and plug in their own services.

“One of the largest pivots in cloud computing that we’re going to make in the next couple years is moving into serverless computing,” said Damion Heredia, vice president of IBM Bluemix’s cloud platform and design. “That’s why we bet on it being open, because without that, you’re locked into each vendor.”

As businesses continue their shift to cloud computing, serverless computing will become a permanent feature of cloud services, analysts say. It’s particularly useful when running applications for internet-connected devices such as Amazon’s Echo, because the apps require massive amounts of requests of short duration.

But companies have different needs, so the technology will never be used unilaterally, said Yefim Natis, vice president and research fellow at Gartner Inc. It’s still years away from even becoming mainstream, he said.

“It cannot take on the world,” Mr. Natis said. “What we have today is Day One.”

This article was originally published in the Wall Street Journal on October 26, 2016.