Ok I think we need to talk seriously about this serverless trend, there is still a server, just it's someone else's problem
— jessie frazelle (@frazelledazzell) March 11, 2016
The above statement is exactly correct. The idea that serverless literally means no servers is no more accurate than the argument that Salesforce.com does not sell software. There are servers behind serverless offerings such as AWS Lambda just as there is software behind Salesforce.com. If you want to get pedantic, you might argue that both of these statements are lies. While the pedant may be technically correct, however, a larger and more important truth is obscured.
Consider the challenge facing those who wish to compare private cloud to public cloud, as but one example. Even if you can counterfactually assume relative feature parity between private and public offerings, it remains a comparison of two entirely distinct product sets. The fact that they happen to attack the same functional area – base cloud infrastructure – should not be taken to mean that they can or should be directly compared. Private cloud solutions are about using combinations of software and hardware to replicate the most attractive features of public cloud infrastructure: dynamic provisioning, elasticity, and so on. Public cloud offerings, like any other as-a-service business, are as much about assuming the burden of someone else’s problem as they are the underlying hardware or software.
Which is why it’s interesting that IaaS, PaaS and SaaS providers don’t emphasize this distinction for the most part.
To some extent, this is logical, because it’s an inherently IT-unfriendly message – if a buyers’s problems are made a seller’s problems, it follows that some people from the buyer side are no longer necessary – and making unnecessary enemies is rarely a profitable strategy. It’s quite evident, however, that, while perhaps not unanimously, buyers are putting an increasing emphasis on making their problem someone else’s problem.
As they should. Because many of the problems that have traditionally been the province of the enterprise, shouldn’t be. In a world in which solving technology problems means upfront material capital expenditures on hardware and software, having high quality resources that can address those problems efficiently is important, if not differentiating. In the post-cloud context, however, this is far less important, because you can select between multiple providers in any given category that are likely to be able to provide a given service with greater uptime and a higher level of security than you can. There’s a reason, for example, that the two fastest growing services in the history of AWS are Redshift and Aurora: database and warehousing infrastructure is as expensive to maintain as it is tedious. Or put differently, what is the business value of having in-house the skills necessary to keep complex and scalable database infrastructure up and running? Is the value greater or less than the premium you’ll pay to third parties such as an Amazon, Google, Heroku, IBM or Microsoft to maintain it for you?
At which point the question becomes not whether this is literally server or software-less, but rather whether or not you want servers and software to be your problem or someone else’s. Increasingly, the market is favoring the latter, which is one reason the commercial value of on premise software is in decline while service based alternatives are seeing rapid growth. It is also why *aaS providers should be explicitly and heavily emphasizing their greatest value to customers: the ability to take on someone else’s problems.
Disclosure: AWS, IBM, Salesforce (Heroku) are RedMonk customers, Google and Microsoft are not currently customers.