The decline of Heroku

Even Heroku’s founders recognize that the revolutionary web development platform has run out of steam. How did Heroku lose its magic, and could a new, modern Heroku revive the PaaS?

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Where Heroku continues to make sense

Like everything in software, Heroku’s recent struggles may partly reflect simple fashion trends. Just as some developers will build applications on bare metal today, some will build on Heroku, but fashion would dictate building on Kubernetes. “That doesn’t mean it is better to do things on AWS or Kubernetes,” Jacob said. “In fact, it is objectively worse than Heroku for stuff that would comfortably sit on Heroku and be a Git push away.”

Today’s Heroku users more typically come from well-funded companies with well-suited use cases for a highly opinionated PaaS, with deep enough pockets to keep running Heroku at scale, like current customers Everlane, Bonobos, Yobota, and Cambly.

Take PensionBee, which consolidates various pensions into a single plan for customers to access through web and mobile apps.

“I wanted to ship product as quickly and with as little effort as I can, so a PaaS like Heroku is an appealing place to start,” CTO Lister Parsons said. “We are making sure that Heroku and Salesforce is fit for when PensionBee has a million customers. Yes, we have started to pluck other things off the shelf that are the best fit for whatever the use case is, and we aren’t 100% wedded to [Heroku and Salesforce], but they are the foundational platforms.”

Does this mean that Heroku is destined to remain a legendary technology that is now limited to being deployed as a premium, niche service for those who can afford it, like taking your kids to school in a Ferrari Testarossa?

“We often think in terms of an outsized success like AWS, which is something for everyone, and I don’t think Heroku is that. It is for a narrower audience and it does that well,” Wiggins said.

“Heroku isn’t dead, it is a massive business with hundreds of employees and will stay not dead for a long time,” Jacob said. “But the technology will wind up being a glorious moment in time that people will talk about for years to come, like The WELL.”

A possible new serverless chapter for Heroku?

Heroku may have lost its luster in a Kubernetes world, but does the promise of serverless applications open the door to a glorious second act for the platform? Do the economic and architectural criticisms start to melt away as customers only pay for what they use?

“A serverless Heroku would be cloud-native Version 2.0, where all infrastructure functions are hidden and assured by the provider,” said Gartner’s Natis. “For Heroku to remain relevant, they have to be serverless, because what they pioneered is now legacy.”

For Heroku cofounder James Lindenbaum, “serverless is super interesting” in how it relates to Heroku, because “it is that next step of ephemeralization. … However, no one has yet figured out how to bring that together into a nice mental model for developers,” he said. “That is probably the next thing we would have tackled at Heroku, had we stayed. Those are the kinds of things typically the founders have to do. You need a lot of moral authority to take that risk.”

It’s unclear at this point if serverless is the direction of travel for Heroku, which is currently led by Patrick Stokes, general manager of the wider Salesforce Platform. But the general availability of Salesforce Functions later this year signals a shift is on the horizon.

“The next big thing for Heroku is the deep integration of its capabilities with the rest of the Salesforce Platform via Salesforce Functions,” a Salesforce spokesperson said. Salesforce Functions “lets developers write code that integrates with their data and events on the Salesforce Platform, then run it on-demand with elastic scale in a serverless environment.”

If serverless were to become the next industry standard, there is certainly an opportunity there for Heroku to reshape itself for that next wave of change. “I would leapfrog microservices for serverless if I did this again today,” said PensionBee’s Lister Parsons. “Serverless could be the ‘phoenix from the ashes’ moment for Heroku.”

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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