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Looking to the future: how edge innovation sparked Fastly Labs

Nov 20, 2018 in Edge

Today, I’m thrilled to announce the launch of Fastly Labs — a hub of in-progress projects and experimental ideas we’re opening up to the developer community at large. These projects share our research and development from the early stages, so you can leverage them yourself, share your feedback, and get a direct look into how we’re innovating and where we’re headed. Fastly Labs embodies the spirit of trust and transparency with our community which are so integral to our values, and we couldn’t be more excited to share it with you.

Fastly Labs also offers something special for our internal teams: the space to let creative ideas flourish, and for our developers to experiment freely and securely. Because trust and safety on our platform are always of utmost concern, Fastly Labs doesn’t touch the network you and your users rely on. This allows us not only to develop safely, but also more rapidly in response to our community.

Before I delve into the projects themselves, I want to shed some light as to how Fastly Labs evolved. Because in many ways, it’s an extension of what Fastly’s been about since the beginning — and perhaps most interestingly, where we’re headed in the future.

Peering back at Fastly’s origins

We began building Fastly over seven years ago, and from the get-go, we were certain about a few key things. We knew the internet could be better. We knew we wanted to establish a company that embraced transparency, authenticity, and a sense of purpose. And we knew our products, and the customers using them, should always come first. Those things crystallized day one. But there were lots of unknowns, too.

I remember talking with our CEO Artur about the gaps in the market at the time, and where the technology was headed. We saw a clear opportunity to go beyond traditional Content Delivery Networks (CDNs), and we discussed the idea of an edge compute network — strategically moving our data and applications as close to the end user as possible. But in those early days, we didn’t know exactly how that would play out, or how people would use it. At that point, it was just a seed of an idea.

At first, the immediate gap we saw was between static content and dynamic content. That’s where Fastly initially came in. We took event-driven content as a foregone conclusion. So if the landing page of a news site needed to be updated, Fastly enabled them to push an instant purge, reload the page from cache, and then deliver it correctly to their readers. And to do so, we had to write application logic at the edge.

Today, as the internet evolves and buzzwords like serverless enter the scene, more and more application logic is being built at the edge. And now, everyone from junior developers to large-scale infrastructure teams understand its importance. To give you a sense, in Fastly’s early days in 2010, there were 150 edge computing papers published. Last year, there were 3,270 published.

That is to say, the edge is an increasingly essential element in the forecast of what’s ahead. Edge compute technology formed our backbone from the beginning — even if we weren’t fully aware of all its implications — and that’s exactly the direction we’re continuing to move in.

Defining the edge

Let’s ensure we’re all aligned on what we even mean when we say “the edge.” Everyone seems to have a slightly different take on what the edge is. It’s just not as easy to nail down as other technologies. If you talk to a mobile developer, they might view the edge as the mobile device itself, since the phone is what the user actually interacts with. But talk to an internet service provider (ISP), and they might view the edge as the last place they could place their server. A mobile telecom company might think of servers and cell towers. Everyone has their own ideas of what the edge is based on their unique perspective.

This gets at an important point: none of these ideas are wrong, as there is no fixed edge of the network. The edge is the point in the network at which you lose control of the data. And what we’ve done from the beginning is strategically move data and applications as close to your end users as possible, empowering you to continually improve performance, uptime, and resilience — and to do it all faster.

Embracing continuous edge innovation

The functionality Fastly developed over time arose from our community, and the ever-changing needs of businesses across industries, from media and entertainment, to ecommerce, high tech, and beyond. Through our edge compute technology, we’ve enabled things like A/B testing at the edge, which speeds up iteration and can reduce costs by saving traffic to origin. Or content targeting via geolocation, which lets customers quickly tailor and personalize content served to users. And there are tons more use cases we’ve seen from today’s most popular brands that are leveraging our powerful edge features and capabilities.

This is something that we’ve been driving towards for the past seven years: the ability to go beyond a taste of edge computing, and instead provide an actual platform on which to build real applications. And I couldn’t be more excited about the future of the edge, Fastly’s place in it, and the myriad opportunities our customers are already taking advantage of. As I look back at Fastly, our story centers around innovation at the edge, ahead of industry standard, and our continued belief in transparency, trust, and integrity.

Meet Fastly Labs

All of this brings us back to Fastly Labs, and our vision for the future. Today, we’re launching three projects, which developers can start interacting with right now.

Terrarium

Terrarium lets developers harness the power of edge computing in the languages they already know and work with. This is a multi-language, browser-based editor and deployment platform, where you can experiment firsthand with the next-generation technology that will power Fastly at the edge.

Terrarium negates the limitations of serverless implementations, and removes the need for specific languages, APIs, or add-ons that can impede innovation or cause vendor lock-in. Developers can write their own code to create functions and applications, or try one of our examples and deploy it quickly (and over HTTPS). And because it’s based on our server-side WebAssembly sandbox, it’s fast, lightweight, and secure, so you can go on and break stuff, worry-free.

Fastly Fiddle

With Fiddle, developers can quickly experiment with innovative ideas on our platform — without affecting production service. You can debug issues or test custom code through our edge compute language and instantly get results (with no time-consuming server setups).

There are tons of solutions you can test, from rewriting URL paths, to image optimization, to searching and replacing strings, and much more. Fiddle lets you tap into the power, flexibility, and speed of Fastly.

Fastly Insights

Insights is a program you can opt into to help improve the internet experience for everyone, and most importantly, your end users. With Insights, Fastly can monitor network performance and gather metrics, so we can continue building optimal pathways across an ever-changing internet.

As always, it’s secure by design, and respects the privacy of you and your end users. By opting in, you’ll contribute to a better user experience for all Fastly customers — and we’re actively working on ways to make this more collaborative, and share data that may be useful for you, too.

Putting it all together

Fastly Labs projects represent the trajectory and values of our company, and provides a space for you to test out your own ideas, see what works, and usher in the next wave of technology. The future of the edge is pretty thrilling stuff, and we’re proud to have a community that directly influences our products, and helps us uncover new ways to continue our tradition of transparency and innovation.

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Author

Tyler McMullen| CTO

Tyler McMullen is CTO at Fastly, where he’s responsible for the system architecture and leads the company’s technology vision. As part of the founding team, Tyler built the first versions of Fastly’s Instant Purging system, API, and Real-time Analytics. A self-described technology curmudgeon, he has experience in everything from web design to kernel development, and loathes all of it. Especially distributed systems.

tbmcmullen