Formal Foundations of Serverless Computing

Abhinav Jangda, Donald Pinckney, Yuriy Brun, and Arjun Guha
ACM SIGPLAN Conference on Object Oriented Programming, Systems, Languages and Applications (OOPSLA), 2019
Distinguished Paper Award

Serverless computing (also known as functions as a service) is a new cloud computing abstraction that makes it easier to write robust, large-scale web services. In serverless computing, programmers write what are called serverless functions, and the cloud platform transparently manages the operating system, resource allocation, load-balancing, and fault tolerance. When demand for the service spikes, the platform automatically allocates additional hardware to the service and manages load-balancing; when demand falls, the platform silently deallocates idle resources; and when the platform detects a failure, it transparently retries affected requests. In 2014, Amazon Web Services introduced the first serverless platform, AWS Lambda, and similar abstractions are now available on all major cloud computing platforms.

Unfortunately, the serverless computing abstraction exposes several low-level operational details that make it hard for programmers to write and reason about their code. This paper sheds light on this problem by presenting λΛ, an operational semantics of the essence of serverless computing. Despite being a small (half a page) core calculus, λΛ models all the low-level details that serverless functions can observe. To show that λΛ is useful, we present three applications. First, to ease reasoning about code, we present a simplified naive semantics of serverless execution and precisely characterize when the naive semantics and λΛ coincide. Second, we augment λΛ with a key-value store to allow reasoning about stateful serverless functions. Third, since a handful of serverless platforms support serverless function composition, we show how to extend λΛ with a composition language. We have implemented this composition language and show that it outperforms prior work.

PDF available on arXiv

    author = "Abhinav Jangda and Donald Pinckney and Yuriy Brun and
              Arjun Guha",
    title = "Formal Foundations of Serverless Computing",
    journal = "Proceedings of the ACM on Programming Languages (PACMPL)",
    year = 2019,
    volume = 3,
    number = "{OOPSLA}"