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Fastly 2021 Predictions: Serverless at the edge will gain momentum in 2021

vmblog 2021 prediction series 

Industry executives and experts share their predictions for 2021.  Read them in this 13th annual series exclusive.

Serverless at the edge will gain momentum in 2021

By Tyler McMullen, CTO of Fastly

The next generation of serverless functionality -- at the edge -- is designed to benefit not just developers - but end users, too.  

Edge serverless architectures combine the power of central cloud compute with the responsiveness of local apps. In 2021, we'll see plenty of improvements and innovations, but here are my top three expectations:

We will see increased clarity on the value of and need for edge computing and serverless applications in developer toolkits 

There's no doubt that as a result of the pandemic and subsequent stay-at-home orders, the need for virtual connectivity skyrocketed. Which means developers' -- as the drivers of what those new, at-scale experiences look like and how to bring them to life -- day-to-days became a lot busier and high-pressure. As a result, edge computing, because of its unique ability to enable fast, reliable end-user experiences, played a pivotal role in many stacks, yet it can still be an under-utilized and misunderstood technology.

Traditionally, the client and an origin have been the two places where logic and computing can live, but there are actually a multitude of steps between those two spaces to carry out application logic. By moving data and applications as close to the end user as possible, it becomes much more feasible and economical to deliver fast, highly personalized experiences -- and not only for the purposes of IoT that quickly come to mind for many, but for a vast collection of functions and services.

Early-adopters that began leveraging the edge pre-pandemic found themselves better equipped to adapt, experiment, and transform their stacks to meet the moment, despite having to navigate uncharted waters. And their ability to not only survive, but thrive in 2020's uncertainty hasn't gone unnoticed by technical and non-technical leaders alike within organizations who haven't yet tapped into the edge. This year, developer teams have more leverage than ever before to add tools and technologies that enable scalable, secure, and reliable digital experiences to their tech stacks, and business leaders under pressure to gain competitive advantage will be motivated to empower them. 

While we'll see the edge become a more integral part of preparing for the known and unknown road ahead, serverless applications will gain more momentum as well. By reducing infrastructure overhead and freeing developers to instead focus on innovative new digital experiences, serverless applications -- built at the edge for greater speed, security, and performance -- will move beyond its current status as an up-and-coming answer to costly and complex innovation, into more tangible real-world use cases.  

With a focus on enhanced tooling, edge computing and serverless technologies will become more accessible and give developers a leg up on innovative new ideas 

Continued investment across the industry in open source technology to standardize the infrastructure and APIs in edge computing environments -- and now serverless at the edge models -- will be key to ensuring developers gain familiarity with this tech with minimal barriers to entry. To help support unfettered, scalable innovation, Fastly built its serverless compute environment, Compute@Edge, on top of its open source WebAssembly runtime and compiler. As a founding member of the Bytecode Alliance alongside Mozilla, Red Hat and Intel, an open source community, we continue to invest in the tools and standards of software development.

Enhanced tooling also needs to prioritize greater observability, as serverless computing platforms have historically not provided the same breadth and depth of analytics developers have had access to for other parts of their infrastructure. At Fastly, we've recognized the detriments this can pose to the ability to find and fix issues fast, so we've already implemented logging, tracing capabilities, and granular, real-time metrics within our serverless offering. Expanded language support, streamlined CLIs for building and deploying serverless applications at scale, and integrations that allow for treating infrastructure as code are all crucial tooling improvements that will continue to progress in 2021, giving developers more options to architect serverless applications the way they want. 

Lastly, generating applicable solutions for locality and consistency with state at the edge will be a crucial area of focus that, once implemented in the real world, will allow developers to build entirely new classes of things that weren't possible before. We'll see exciting progress here in 2021.

The benefits from all the work that has been done to improve serverless at the edge technology will begin to manifest as tangible improvements to the user experience. 

After two decades of efforts to remove layers of unnecessary complexity in the development process -- in some cases replaced by what we hope is useful complexity -- we're seeing more tangible benefits directly to the end user experience. For example, developers will begin deploying serverless apps distributed around the world, giving all users the same performant experience no matter how close they are to the central cloud. 

Additionally, end users will start to enjoy greater personalization that has historically been out of reach due to costs or complexity that serverless helps to alleviate. For example, at Fastly we've seen that travel companies using a tiered membership model for customers can assign tokens to specific users that grant access to content like discounted travel prices for platinum membership holders. This content is stitched together and served from the edge so that the free tier user sees different price recommendations than those with a paid membership. The unique user tokens are verified at the edge, meaning there are less calls to origin and therefore lower costs, as well as more tailored experiences that are served quickly. Overall, this approach to personalized interactions leads to better user experiences and supports higher conversion rates.

Edge computing and serverless applications built at the edge have the strength to drive powerful customer engagement, retention and observability for organizations when leveraged effectively. As we enter this new year, I'm looking forward to seeing how the industry progresses and works together to realize the potential of serverless at the edge, empower developers to build and innovate in times of uncertainty, and ultimately, provide customers with the digital experiences they rely on and crave.


About the Author

tyler mcmullen 

Tyler McMullen is CTO at Fastly, the leading edge cloud platform, where he is responsible for evolving the system architecture and the company’s technology vision. He leads a team of experienced technology innovators focused on internet scale, and works on future-facing, ambitious projects and standards. As part of the founding team at Fastly, McMullen built the first versions of Fastly’s Instant Purging system, API, and real-time analytics, while scaling the engineering team tenfold. Prior to joining Fastly, McMullen worked on large scale web applications, text analysis and performance. He can be found talking about edge computing, networking and distributed systems all over the world.

Published Thursday, January 28, 2021 7:44 AM by David Marshall
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