Cloud

Why serverless computing makes Linux more relevant than ever

As developers focus more on functions than underlying infrastructure, that infrastructure remains more important than ever before.

Despite the rise of cloud computing, containers, and a zillion other things that superficially seem destined to pulverize the operating system, Linux (and Windows) keep chugging away. In fact, if anything, the OS has become more relevant than ever. How did this happen?

A place to call home

Everything about the cloud seems like it should be a major downer for the OS. Most recently, serverless computing has gained momentum, with developers increasingly fixated on their application code without much thought to underlying operating systems.

And yet...even in serverless land the OS remains critical, in large part because no enterprises are 100% invested in any one public cloud, not to mention the reality that all enterprises of any scale have acres of legacy infrastructure sitting around.

SEE: Serverless computing: The smart person's guide

Into this world of hybrid infrastructure steps the OS, as Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst has said:

The vast majority of customers I speak with plan to use more than one public cloud. So portability becomes a major requirement. And since [the] OS is where the application ultimately touches computing resources, having an OS that can consistently run across all major platforms becomes even more important. As with any single platform provider, optimizations for provider-unique hardware, architectures, or services may address specific situations in the OS and we have all seen how that played out in the single-source, vertically integrated Unix stacks - hence Linux.

The reality of enterprise IT is that developers introduce new or different infrastructure into the organization on a regular basis as they seek services to support their applications. The best a CIO can hope for is, as Whitehurst suggested, to put a common layer across these disparate services, bringing sanity back to an otherwise chaotic mess. The OS is this harbinger of restored sanity.

Growing old with you

A second and related benefit of an OS is that it allows for long-term support. The public cloud vendors have been amazing at introducing new innovations, whether Google BigQuery or Azure Functions or AWS Aurora. They've been far less inclined to stop the cycle of innovation long enough for CIOs to build out long-term support plans. Indeed, the clouds seem almost allergic to this concept.

SEE: The 2 biggest problems with serverless computing

Not so the OS vendors. Red Hat, SUSE, and others offer 10-year support life-cycles for patching and supporting their enterprise OSes. To accomplish this they have to invest over half of their engineering resources on old technology. This simply isn't the business model for the clouds, and likely won't become such for many years.

Importantly, and a third reason for the persistence of the OS, Whitehurst called out that "new application models like containers and microservices are bringing the operating system to the forefront." Though it's easy to overlook the importance of the OS in this containerized, cloudy world, Whitehurst stressed: "Each and every container has its user-space dependencies in Linux in it, and therefore requires management of those components in the container regardless of where that container runs."

All of which means that, as much as we've been trying to minimize the importance of the OS with things like serverless, the reality is that operating systems, and particularly Linux, promise to play a central role in enterprise computing for years to come.

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Image: iStockphoto/domoyega

About Matt Asay

Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.

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