What Lambda Is
Thursday, November 13 2014

To quote Joe MacMillan from Halt and Catch Fire, “The computer’s not The Thing. It’s the thing that gets us to The Thing.”

I sense another Thing approaching.

Fundamentally, the idea behind AWS Lambda is nothing new. Although the relationship to lambda calculus is tangential at best, the analogy is a helpful one: these are functions. Containerized, distributed, aggressively managed functions, yes, but still functions. What else can you do with functions? cat "dog" | grep "Terrier" | wc -l perhaps? Or maybe even thumbnail | compress | tweet?

I have previously touched upon the trend towards small applications that do one thing well, and am seeing it unfold through services such as Blockspring, Webscript, and now AWS Lambda. What these services enable is an ecosystem of code-at-your-fingertips. Want to MD5 hash a file but can’t remember which Python module to import? No problem, here’s a cloud function that’ll do it for you. Want to automate the terribly boring task of filtering your album of 1000 Instagram-bound images but don’t have the slightest clue how to use ImageMagick? You don’t have to worry anymore!

So we’ve nailed the simplicity aspect of the Unix design philosophy; now it’s time to work on teamwork. Having a piece of code in the cloud ready to be run at a moment’s notice is cool, but what’s really smashing is when you can start combining your functions. Imagine all the possibilities!

Lambda may seem like a lot of things to different people, but to me it provides a means for incredible innovation and an entirely “new” way of thinking about application development. It’s the thing that gets us to The Thing, and I for one can’t wait to see what The Thing is.


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