How Serverless Enables Agencies to Innovate Faster

This article is an excerpt from GovLoop’s recent guide, “Emerging Tech in Government: What It Means for Your Career.” Download the full guide here.

An interview with Steve Michelotti, Senior Program Manager, Microsoft

A growing number of agencies are exploring ways to further leverage the promise of cloud computing. Although initial Infrastructure-as-a- Service (IaaS) capabilities provide agencies with significant benefits, such as cost savings and improved security, there are still untapped advantages of cloud that agencies have not fully realized. One of those advantages gaining momentum is serverless computing.

To better understand what the term means in a government setting, GovLoop sat down with Steve Michelotti, Senior Program Manager, Azure Government, Microsoft.

“Serverless computing is the natural evolution of the promise of cloud computing, and cloud vendors like Microsoft are bringing this capability to bear in government,” Michelotti said.

Serverless is the abstraction of servers, infrastructure and operating systems, Michelotti explained. It’s where cloud vendors make server management and capacity planning invisible to developers, while the cloud platform enables auto scaling and addresses critical security and data requirements. This means agencies can focus on innovating and delivering apps faster instead of worrying about infrastructure.

A significant feature of serverless is instant scaling, which also simplifies DevOps efforts. Agencies can go from nothing to tens of thousands of concurrent functions in seconds without requiring configurations. Serverless reacts to events and triggers in near-real time. This also enables micro-billing, which means agencies only pay for resources consumed or the actual time code is running.

For IT personnel, serverless means they can focus on business logic and architecture, rather than software versions, installations and managing servers. The same is true for government employees on the frontlines. They can spend their creative energy on innovation and getting technology and services to citizens faster.

“Agencies want to be more efficient in how they’re innovating and delivering on their mission,” Michelotti said. “That’s why we’re starting to see interest in serverless from government. It’s an exciting time for agencies ready to take the lead in this area and reap the benefits.”

When agencies use serverless computing in a dedicated, government-only cloud, such as Microsoft Azure Government, they also benefit from the protection, mission-critical security and compliance provided by that cloud environment.

“To reap the benefits of serverless, agencies must start with cloud and move up the IT stack from IaaS to higher-level capabilities delivered by PaaS (Platform-as-a-Service). This is the evolution of your cloud journey,” Michelotti said.

To better understand this, Michelotti said it helps to look at how apps have historically been built to the compute options available today.

On-premise servers entail owning hardware, installations, and hosting data centers. Maintenance is complex, resource intensive and costly. Myriad considerations include size and number of servers, scaling, selecting an operating system, patching, physical security, disaster recovery, and more.

IaaS is the next phase and marks the first move to cloud. “You’re essentially renting virtual machines from a cloud provider like Microsoft,” which means vendors are charged with responding to power outages or hardware failures. While IaaS takes away the burden of hardware, there are still many things to worry about including number of servers rented and how they’re monitored.

PaaS is a significant improvement to IaaS, where agencies no longer have to worry about patching or monitoring servers, however they still must think about things including server size and scaling.

Serverless provides the ultimate PaaS experience, where agencies pay only for actual compute time and can focus on deploying code rather than infrastructure management. “There’s no provisioning of services, no analyzing, no scaling. Just specify your connections and go.” Any function that needs to respond to an event is a candidate for serverless.

According to Michelotti, serverless computing with Microsoft supports many scenarios agencies often face, including real-time stream processing of data, timer-based processing that follows a specific schedule, and real-time bot messaging where features like translation and sentiment analysis can easily be injected.

Azure Functions, an event-driven, code-focused service, frees users to focus on building apps instead of managing servers. With Functions, for example, an administrator could provide an endpoint enabling a visitor to look up information from a database with just two or three lines of code.

Michelotti also noted Azure Logic Apps, which automates workflows without requiring any code. Logic Apps allows developers to connect the apps and services their organization relies on.

For agencies that are wary of jumping into serverless computing, there are opportunities to try the technology for free, including Microsoft Azure serverless quick starts. But the benefits are clear for government, and serverless is on the rise.

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