Let a Thousand PaaSes Bloom

A brief but unassailably accurate history of deploying web apps:

The point here is that Heroku was genuinely amazing. Rails started a revolution in web development ~2006 with a “highly opinionated” web framework that leveraged an incredibly expressive, high level language in Ruby. There was a huge problem though, which today is often forgotten because of the advanced CI/CD tooling available. Back then, most web servers were still hand-configured Apache httpd and Ruby as a server-side language was extremely finicky to set up. The same went for Django (written in Python) and other new server side web frameworks.

The folks at Heroku addressed this problem with a highly opinionated solution of their own: You uploaded your code and it magically figured out how to run it across a fleet of managed servers. And thus the Platform-as-a-Service was born.

Heroku’s engineers invented a whole methodology for building PaaS-friendly apps which reverberates today. Amazon (Elastic Beanstalk) and Google (App Engine) both shamelessly copied Heroku.

And then Docker happened, and monolithic web apps became very un-cool, Heroku’s new owner Salesforce stopped investing in it, and Heroku kinda died on the vine. Also it was kind of expensive and not feasible for apps with very large user bases.

But I would argue the idea of Heroku, the beautifully engineered, highly opinionated, cool-kid deployment platform never died.

And the world changed again around 2013 when Angular and React were released and quickly gained popularity. Now developers could build powerful, real-time-ish applications and deliver them directly to the browser. But! The Javascript development toolchain was (and probably still is?) an even bigger nightmare than getting a Ruby app to run under Apache.

This led to the so-called Jamstack, an architectural approach to building web applications made up of Javascript, APIs, and simple Markup. Developers now had new, exciting, productive, and highly expressive frameworks to create cool apps with, but staying on top of the complex and constantly changing build/deploy toolchain was a huge cognitive tax. Thus the scenario that led to Heroku was re-created!

Another generation of PaaS providers, directly inspired by Heroku, has filled this gap: Netlify (which hosts this blog), Vercel, Fly.io, and doubtless others I don’t know about are capturing developer hearts.

And why should I, a lowly cloud architect, or you, the reader of this post, care? Because we put enormous effort into the guardrails that will allow our developers to safely and effectively use IaaS primitives to deploy their apps, but a coming generation of developers raised on Netlify et al. are going to bypass that stuff altogether. Governance in some form will still be needed, but what does that look like?

I’ll be sure to let you know here as soon as I figure it out.