The importance of the developer experience – comparing Google Cloud Functions vs Azure Functions
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I have been a fan of Google Cloud for several years. At the company I founded, Server Density, we migrated to Google Cloud in 2017 because of the Cloud Bigtable time series database product. Although Google lags behind AWS and Azure in the size of the ecosystem and range of products, what they have is well designed.
I do not use any Google products personally – I do not like Google’s ad business model and stance on privacy. However, I have several Google Cloud Functions running as personal utility functions. One of these runs each day, randomly selecting a highlight from a book I’ve read on my Kindle. It then emails it to me as a “quote of the day”. This was a simple, fun Python project as an alternative to paying for Readwise, written back in March 2019.
When Microsoft made their climate announcements earlier this month (the Sustainability Calculator in particular), I decided it would be a good opportunity to try out Azure. Although Google is further ahead in their environmental progress (matching global energy usage with purchases of renewables since 2017 vs Microsoft pledging to achieve this by 2025), I also wanted to test the Microsoft developer experience. I last worked as a developer with Microsoft technologies when the terrible Windows Vista convinced me to switch to macOS in 2007. Things are different now.
The local development experience #
When I wrote my quotes function in March 2019, there was no local development experience for Google Cloud Functions. Google had no specialist IDE and there was no emulator for local testing. This meant development was slow and tedious because I had to deploy every change to production to test it. The Cloud Functions Emulator was Node only and it was subsequently deprecated in favour of the Functions Framework.
Contrast this to when I tried Azure Functions this month. Visual Studio Code has a complete development environment for Azure Functions. It includes a local development server, a real debugger, and integration into Azure so you can manage and deploy functions directly from the IDE. This made it very easy to get started and test my code. Minimal friction, saving hours of tedious trial and error.
Google has progressed since then. There is a VS Code extension for Kubernetes (but not Cloud Functions) and the Functions Framework has expanded to support several of the languages supported by Cloud Functions, including Python in Jan 2020. But the experience is still not as slick as Microsoft.
The “best cloud experience” strategy #
When Google released Kubernetes and then Google Kubernetes Engine, their strategy appeared to be: k8s is a well supported open source project and you can run it yourself, but we will provide the best cloud environment for k8s if you prefer someone to run and manage it for you. Amazon tried to get people using their container management competitor (ECS) but it wasn’t very good. Google’s strategy paid off and now both Amazon and Azure are trying to compete with Google’s specialist hosted Kubernetes.
Despite the initial mistake, Google now appears to be adopting the same strategy with the Functions Framework. This is a generic, open source framework that allows functions to be run in multiple environments, including Anthos, knative and locally, but they offer a superior managed experience through Cloud Functions.
However, this burst of activity in the Functions Framework is in contrast to the lack of major development on Cloud Functions itself. The public changelog shows very little development over the past few years especially considering how rapidly AWS Lambda and Azure Functions are building out functionality.
I had the same complaint when I reviewed the major serverless platforms in 2018. Lambda and Azure Functions have continued to speed ahead but what is happening with Google Cloud Functions?
Attention to detail #
Microsoft has a lot of nice touches to their Azure documentation including light/dark/high contrast themes, clear indication of when the document was last updated and an integration into Github. Anyone can view source and propose edits to the page. The bottom of each page shows open and closed Github issues linked to that page, so you can quickly report problems and see what issues others have encountered. Participation is built in through the issue tracker. Google has a feedback option for each page but where does it go once submitted? Users cannot participate in the development of the platform.
The quickstart guides are where developers enter, but they only stay there briefly. These guides need to up to date and work perfectly every time for all supported platforms and languages. This is surprisingly difficult when the product is developing quickly, but documentation needs to be part of the release process – do the docs match the implementation? Product quality is correlated with documentation quality.
Google is innovating with several of its open source projects. Kubernetes is the leading example and Functions Framework seems to be going in the same direction, but that is not being matched by development of the Cloud Functions product. There is a disparity between how well Google’s documentation covers the various supported languages and the entirely platform is significantly less advanced than competitors.
Developer experience principles #
It is clear that Microsoft is investing heavily in being a cloud platform company. VS Code is a popular product and the GitHub acquisition demonstrates the commitment to developers further. The developer experience seems to matter a great deal, regardless of whether you are using Microsoft technologies.
For companies building developer products, we can learn quite a lot from how Microsoft is approaching things:
- Technical writers are just as important as software engineers. Writing has to be a core company value but the best documentation writers are not necessarily (or usually) the best developers. You may think the best person to write documentation is the person who implemented the code, but that is not true. You need someone without assumed knowledge to make the same mistakes as new user. A technical writer will encounter all the “first-run” problems that make the difference to successful deployment.
- You will never spot every error so make it easy for the community to provide feedback. Making your documentation source public and inviting pull requests and issue submissions is not difficult. Microsoft has done a great job with embedded issue tracking into each documentation page.
- Update documentation as part of the development cycle. You wouldn’t deploy code changes that break tests so why would you deploy code changes that break documentation?
- The same applies to SDKs and libraries. Documenting the code with language examples is the first step but once you commit to building language SDKs then you are also committing to keeping them up to date. Nothing kills the developer experience like being unable to use functionality that isn’t yet available on your platform/language of choice.
The developer experience is basically sales for developers. Your goal is adoption and this is achieved by removing friction. Just like focusing on SaaS onboarding or optimising time to deployment, it’s worth $millions and is why it is crucial to own the full delivery stack.