Vercel, Netlify, and the new era of serverless PaaS

An emerging set of vendors is trying to simplify the job of web development, again. Is this the next generation of platform as a service, or something completely different?

Vercel, Netlify, and the new era of serverless PaaS
Kevin (CC0)

Back in the mid-2000s, the software industry and the venture capitalists funding software startups became interested in the idea of platform as a service (PaaS), promising a simple, one-stop-shop platform for software developers to take their ideas from source code to production.

Despite the early success of some of these platforms—most notably Heroku, which is now a Salesforce company—PaaS never became a mainstream way to build enterprise-grade applications, as developers generally sought out greater control and scalability on their own terms. This led us instead to the container and Kubernetes era.

But now, as the task of software development continues to become more and more complex in the cloud-native era, there is an emerging set of platforms that is making similar attempts to those of the PaaS providers of yore: providing an elegant developer experience for building your applications, and a simple route to getting those applications in front of users.

As RedMonk analyst James Governor wrote in 2020, “There is a host of new platforms and approaches designed to make it easier for developers to maintain flow, with solid automation. New companies have been founded on the basis of opinionated tooling that really understands how modern developers want to work. That’s new code rather than glue code.”

The new PaaS power players

At their heart, these providers—most notably Vercel and Netlify, plus a flood of fast-followers—promise to separate the task of front-end web development from the job of actually running that code in production.

By building out global edge networks on top of the major cloud providers, these vendors offer a managed route to deploying modern web applications, without breaking flow or having to employ a devops team to worry about running them at scale.

This approach has given rise to what Kleiner Perkins investor Bucky Moore calls “third-party serverless infrastructure solutions.” By being serverless, these platforms promise total abstraction of the back-end tasks required to host and run a web application, including auto-scaling, patching, backup, maintenance, and replication.

The maturation of these serverless capabilities, combined with the rise of modular web design and popular web frameworks like React, has opened up a significant opportunity for a small group of founders to not just provide managed access to serverless infrastructure, but attempt to truly revolutionize the developer experience.

Millions of developers have already flocked to these platforms in search of a better developer experience, and their low-code approach has clearly caught the eye of venture capitalists too, which have invested more than a combined $500 million in Vercel and Netlify to date.

Vercel: a CDN for front-end developers

Vercel “collapses distinctions between development and production with highly productive workflows, doing the grunt work of setting things up for the developer. It’s a [content delivery network], but made for front-end developers,” RedMonk analyst Governor wrote.

Founded in San Francisco in 2015 by Guillermo Rauch, Vercel has been built on the popularity of his Next.js JavaScript framework for the largely Facebook-maintained React library. Like Ruby on Rails before it, React has become the dominant mode of modern web development, making it the most popular framework according to Stack Overflow and powering the popular websites of Hulu, Hilton, Reddit, Twitter, and the BBC.

“We wanted to make the building, deployment, and collaboration on top of front-end projects really streamlined,” Rauch told InfoWorld. “We pivoted from using servers and invested in serverless and edge computing to not just hide complexity, but actually remove it.”

Vercel’s native understanding of Next.js is what eventually drove engineers at Branch Insurance to switch from a largely self-assembled AWS stack of S3, CloudFront, and Lambda@Edge in late 2021.

“In a microservices architecture, the idea is that you can move things around to find the best way to handle certain problems,” Joe Emison, Branch Insurance’s CTO, told InfoWorld. “It makes less sense to stay with an Amazon service that is worse than a competitor now.”

As front-end developer Thom Krupa wrote in a review of the product, “Vercel feels very much like Apple but in the front-end world. The platform is like MacBook, and Next.js is like MacOS. They fit. Maintaining the infrastructure and working on software is a great advantage and gives a next-gen user and developer experience.”

This commitment to developer experience was on full show when Vercel hired the creator of the much-loved Svelte compiler, Rich Harris, in November 2021. “Both Svelte and Vercel want to make building for the web both enjoyable and fast,” Rauch wrote at the time.

Netlify: Jamstack forms the basis of this CDN and back-end services pairing

Vercel is often spoken about in the same breath as Netlify, a similar platform based on the Jamstack development model. Using this architecture, developers are served a prerendered Jamstack interface that is deployed over a content distribution network, which mirrors content across multiple servers so that it can be delivered at low latency to anyone in the world.

Then JavaScript components pull the relevant back-end services, like data from a database or additional functionality like user authentication or payments via APIs, all via a user-friendly dashboard.

Peloton and Nike are notable Jamstack converts.

“Netlify with Jamstack looked at modern developer workflows, built that into the platform, and saw that it is about that trade-off of either enabling everything and adding a layer of cognitive overhead, or of restricting things and making people more productive,” RedMonk analyst Governor told InfoWorld in an interview.

For Netlify CEO Matt Biilmann, it’s about finding the areas where developers want to be helped, and giving them options where they want to do things themselves.

“Developers haven’t magically evolved to handle more complexity than before. [So] we always have to shift complexity around and figure out how to allow them to focus on the complexity that matters for the problems they are trying to solve,” Biilmann told InfoWorld. “If you can find that line, you enable them to focus on doing what they do best.”

The edge providers seek to build dev tools on their CDNs

The content delivery networks are a key element in this new stack, so it’s not surprising that the likes of Cloudflare, Stackpath, and Fastly are looking to layer developer-friendly tools on top of their CDNs.

Cloudflare has been steadily inching into this space since the launch of its serverless Workers product in 2017. Now, it provides a range of options for static hosting, including Workers Sites and Pages, a full-fat CI/CD for Jamstack projects that launches straight from a GitHub repo. “We needed developer functionality for our network,” Cloudflare CTO John Graham-Cumming told InfoWorld.

And while Workers might not be as slickly packaged a developer experience as Vercel and Netlify, Graham-Cumming is pushing hard to change that. “Cloudflare has built Cloudflare on Cloudflare developer platforms,” he said. “We are an engineering-led company and driven by engineering to push on everything being good enough for developers.” If it doesn’t meet their standards, “you will hear about it,” he said.

Cloudflare is banking on its developer experience being able to match rival providers in this space, but it also hopes that its pricing, including not charging outbound data egress fees, is a compelling proposition.

RedMonk’s Governor said platforms like Cloudflare and Fastly do have some distinct advantages over their newer rivals: “These platforms genuinely offer a great experience on two sides, a faster end-user experience that feels snappier and more native, and, potentially, a better developer experience.”

What the cloud providers are doing

Where do the hyperscale cloud providers fit in to this new ecosystem? As Moore at Kleiner Perkins wrote, “What has been even more surprising is the cloud providers’ response, or lack thereof, to this growing threat.”

Amazon Web Services sticks with primitives, but AWS Amplify provides a different path

In fact, AWS CTO Werner Vogels doubled down on AWS’s focus on providing customers with primitives and not platforms towards the end of 2021. “You have always asked us for more of these components,” he said on stage at the vendor’s Re:Invent conference. “By now, we have over 200 of these services and, believe me, it is sometimes overwhelming. But remember, you have asked for this — it is basically your fault.”

Although some in attendance were disappointed by the lack of a distinct shift toward more opinionated platforms, AWS did announce the public beta of Amplify Studio, a low-code development environment for building web and mobile apps.

At its heart, Amplify Studio lets developers pick up a designer’s Figma design file and automatically translate it into React UI component code, where it can be deployed across the appropriate AWS resources and tweaked using a visual development interface.

“We want to make this the easiest way to build a front-end application, in an opinionated way, but one where you can always escape, with the extensibility to drop down to lower levels,” Ken Exner, general manager for AWS developer tools, told InfoWorld.

As service-oriented architectures continue to grow in popularity, developers can also use GraphQL, or even the managed AppSync service, to connect to legacy data stores or pull in pre-built components for maps, user authentication, or other multipurpose APIs. This is also a strong area of focus for Vercel and Netlify, the latter of which recently acquired the startup OneGraph, which focuses on helping developers use and connect these various GraphQL APIs.

“In the context of Amazon, Amplify has spent more time thinking about the developer experience than other products,” RedMonk’s Governor said. “The AWS Amplify team is doing an excellent job of tracking modern developer trends and needs, and is probably the most developer-focused product group in the company right now.”

“If AWS had the developer experience of Vercel, they would get all of my money for the rest of my career,” developer Simon Willison tweeted during Re:Invent. As Exner said, “It is a customer base that is not particularly forgiving of a poor user experience.”

Still, beyond AWS’s nascent efforts with Amplify Studio, none of the big three cloud providers have so far looked to go toe to toe with Vercel or Netlify.

Microsoft: Its ‘integrated innovation’ doesn’t nail the developer experience gap

Microsoft has long been considered to be in the best position to pull all these approaches together, given its hugely popular Visual Studio Code editor, the ubiquitous GitHub source code repo, CI/CD through Actions, and deployment across Azure. “That said, Microsoft has a long way to go to fulfill the promise of what it used to call ‘integrated innovation’ and really nail the developer experience gap,” Redmonk’s Governor wrote.

Google: No opinionated collection yet, but that may change

Google also has some heritage in this space with its Firebase developer platform and its Cloud Run service for simplified serverless deployment, but it also has yet to pull these pieces together in an opinionated way.

Google did recently hire the former head of developer experience at Netlify, Sarah Drasner, who spends as much time as anybody in the industry thinking about how to make web developers more productive.

The serverless successors to PaaS and Heroku may have limited utility

Are all these projects not just platform as a service for the React era? “I think in some ways yes, but incorporating important elements of infrastructure, platform, and CDN for an end-to-end platform for succeeding on the web,” Vercel’s Rauch said.

“Maybe this is PaaS; we haven’t used that terminology,” Cloudflare’s Graham-Cumming said, “I think of it more as a new way of writing code to not worry about the OS, or scaling or the network part, but in whatever language you want. That is the slight difference here.”

Netlify’s Biilmann is unashamedly influenced by Heroku and, in fact, Heroku cofounder Adam Wiggins was a seed investor in Netlify. However, Biilmann is determined to avoid making the same mistakes that saw many customers abandon the Heroku platform when they reached a certain scale. “I spend a lot of time thinking about how to avoid that. Anything we offer should scale from hobby project to massive enterprise scale,” he said.

AWS’s Exner also hailed Heroku as a “phenomenal” developer experience. Now, he sees efforts like Amplify Studio being built “in that image” of the original promise of PaaS, but without seeing users “hit that wall” that was typically involved with those platforms.

There has even been speculation that Heroku is looking to pivot into the serverless era under Salesforce, especially after the launch of Salesforce Functions. Salesforce Functions are currently deeply linked to the Salesforce platform, however, and, although Heroku and Salesforce Functions can be made to work together by developers willing to put in the work, they remain distinct ways to build enterprise applications.

Jonathan Lister Parsons, who built the UK pension consolidation service PensionBee on Heroku back in 2014, says that if he could do it all over again today, he would leapfrog microservices for a serverless architecture.

“I see serverless as a reaction to the fact that building something scalable on a microservices architecture is too complex,” he told InfoWorld. “Working in a serverless world makes an API call to your own function and someone else’s almost identical.”

And while today “Heroku is not an environment that is geared up for serverless functions,” Lister Parsons believes that serverless and nonserverless applications can live in harmony within an enterprise environment, so it is about picking the best tool for the job.

Is the new serverless PaaS viable for the long term?

RedMonk’s Governor believes these serverless platforms are operating within a “narrower aperture” than the previous PaaS providers, one that suits “a particular way of building apps that is popular at the moment.” That doesn’t mean they aren’t powerful, but it might just limit their longevity.

Although Gartner analyst Fintan Ryan sees good early momentum for these platforms among teams building greenfield consumer-focused applications with significant scale demands, he said that “the enterprise will be slow to get to this.”

He still believes this underlying trend “will last, because people want a massive distribution of an application or experience across edge networks without latency issues.” At the moment, Vercel and Netlify are the latest in a long line of tools that are benefiting from being “shiny and new, and that mean-time-to-dopamine part is key to adoption.”

Kleiner Perkins’s Moore remains “bullish on serverless infrastructure solutions that differentiate on design and end-user ergonomics. It’s clear that developers will be interfacing with them more, and cloud providers less, over the coming years.”

Regardless of what we end up labeling this category and who comes to dominate it, any developer team looking to get from idea to live application as quickly and painlessly as possible will find it increasingly difficult to resist their allure.

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.