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Comparing App Platforms with Heroku/Salesforce, AWS, and Vercel

🔗Introduction

Recently on This Dot's Build It Better show, I had the opportunity to sit down with some folks from popular platform as a service vendors. I asked them to tell me about what got them excited about their platforms, and what advice they have to offer to help viewers choose which platform is best for them.

🔗Salesforce/Heroku

I spoke with Julian Duque and Mohith Shrivastava from Salesforce about their "low code" products, and how those products are enhanced by their Heroku platform for "pro code" solutions. Salesforce makes it easy for almost anyone to get started building and running cloud apps whether they're software engineers or not. The Salesforce Platform offers a wide variety of low-code products that make it simple for non-developers to build apps, and Heroku provides a streamlined set of tools and services for running custom software applications using a wide array of application development frameworks and programming languages.

I personally really love the simplicity and flexibility of the Heroku platform. I've used it for tons of projects over the years. You can host almost any application, built using any language or framework, using Heroku's buildpack technology. Heroku Buildpacks are sets of scripts that automate your app's build and deployment steps. Official Buildpacks for a dozen different platforms are available for use and in most cases, Heroku can automatically detect which one your app needs when you deploy your code. If your stack isn't supported by an official buildpack, you can build your own or use one of the many community maintained buildpacks for languages and frameworks that don't have first party support.

Another benefit of Heroku is that each Heroku app has an internal Git repository and all you need to do to deploy your code is push your code to that repository using git push. There are no additonal tools required for deployments. Not only does this simplify the process of deploying your code by hand, but it also means that Heroku is automatically compatible with any CI/CD system that supports Git, which is almot all of them by now. In addition to custom applicaiton hosting, Heroku also has PaaS integrated offerings for PostgreSQL, Redis, and Apache Kafka that can all be managed through the Heroku dashboard or CLI.

Even though I'm a long time user of Heroku, I wasn't really aware of everything that Salesforce brings to the table. Heroku offers a strong platform for pro code applications, but in addition, the Salesforce Platform provides a variety of low code tools that can be used to build applications by people who aren't experienced in custom software development. These tools allow businesses to begin the digital transformation process without needing to bring on a large in-house IT staff. There are point and click tools for managing authentication and identity as well as automating workflows and building user interfaces. They even offer a product called Einstein that can imbue your workflows with AI powers. However, you don't need to worry about outgrowing the low code solutions because the Salesforce Platform can also be integrated with pro code applications hosted in the Heroku ecosystem. This makes Salesforce/Heroku a great platform that businesses can rely on all the way through their digital transformation process.

Technology isn't the only thing that sets Salesforce and Heroku apart from their competition. They also provide a couple of huge documentation libraries. For the Salesforce Platform, you can head to their Salesforce Trailhead site. Trailhead offers interactive courses and learning tracks that will teach you how to build applications from the ground up on the Salesforce Platform. Heroku also has an expansive documentation library that not only applies directly to the Heroku platform, but I've used their documentation personally many times to assist in resolving problems with my applications on other platforms. The Heroku documentation site is not only comprehensive, but it's also easier to consume than that of many of their competitors (I'm looking at you Amazon). And finally, when documentation isn't enough, Heroku and Salesforce also have excellent support teams who will work quickly to resolve any problems you're experiencing with their platform, and in many cases they can act proactively before you are aware you have a problem.

🔗Vercel

I also spoke with Lee Robinson from Vercel. Vercel is a platform that's quite similar to Heroku in a lot of ways. However they are laser focused on providing a great hosting platform for your Jamstack applications. While Heroku can support a nearly limitless number of programming languages and application frameworks, Vercel is focused on providing the best possible experience for "serverless" Javascript apps. These are apps that use a hybrid or static JavaScript framework for building frontends and backends that are powered by NodeJS serverless functions. Serverless functions written in Python, Go, or Ruby are also supported, but there are no options for supporting functions written in languages that aren't officially supported. Compared to Heroku's flexibility, one might take this to mean that Vercel is an inferior platform, but this isn't the case at all.

What Vercel doesn't offer in terms of flexibility, they make up for in developer experience. Where Heroku provides the simplicity of being able to effortlessly scale your applications by dragging a slider, Vercel takes the simplicity to the extreme and automagically scales your applications without needing to ever even use the dashboard or CLI. Not only do they completely automate and manage all the complexities of scaling your app to meet the demands of your users, you also get the benefit of having the Vercel Edge Network CDN to ensure your app is always available and performant no matter where your users are located geographically. This is all part of every single app hosted on Vercel, even the free tier!

Vercel also provides additional tools to help you supercharge your development workflows and improvement cycles. "Develop. Preview. Ship" is Vercel's mantra. To help developers achieve this, not only do they provide Git-based deployments, but for each branch or pull request opened via version control, Vercel provides a "preview URL" which is connected to a preview version of your application that reflects the code on that branch/PR. This eliminates the need for complicated staging and QA workflows, since preview URLs provide isolated environments for testing and demoing new features. Another mantra Lee shared with me is the idea that "developers are scientists." As developers, we can use data to inform how we build the solutions we work on, but often that data can be cumbersome or difficult to obtain. Vercel simplifies the data collection process by offering a high quality analytics platofrm to help you understand how your applicaiton performs, not only in terms of response performance but also tracking frontend user experience metrics like layout shift and input delay. Being able to easily collect and visualize these metrics allows you to really be a scientist and always be able to justify priorities and improvements to your products with real user data.

Another interesting aspect of Vercel is that they've also created a NodeJS application development framework in-house called Next.js that is meant to pair perfectly with their platform. It provides a "zero-configuration" framework for building applications with NodeJS and React. It's an incredibly flexible platform that can support the simplest one-page statically rendered applications, but also can support request-time server-side frontend rendering and custom backend API endpoints supproted by Vercel's serverless functions. To help new and experienced developers alike, Vercel offers a library of starter projects using Next.js and/or other JavaScript frameworks you can use to get your project started with just a few button clicks.

🔗Amazon Web Services

I spoke with Nader Dabit from Amazon about their new Amplify platform. Amazon has been the biggest player in the PaaS marketplace for well over a decade now. Most developers have used an EC2 virtual server or stored application assets and uploads in S3. What developers may not know is that Amazon offers more than 200 different services for use by developers and other business users. Ec2 and S3 are pretty simple and straightforward, but branching out into the broader ecosystem or learning to tie everything together can be pretty intimidating. This isn't a big deal for companies like Netflix or AirBnB who can afford to bring in devops engineers that are already AWS experts, but historically it's been a lot more difficult for less exprienced developers to take full advantage of what AWS has to offer. With Amplify, the AWS team is hoping to demystify the process and give new and experienced developers a way to work with the core AWS platform in a more streamlined way. Instead of having to udnerstand which service to use out of a list of 200+ services with intimidating names, Amplify selects a smaller subset of these services and gives them less esoteric names. So Amazon Cognito becomes "Authentication" and AWS Lambda becomes "Functions". They also provide simplified client libraries over the traditional AWS SDK that are compatible with JavaScript, Android, iOS and Flutter.

Another neat thing about the Amplify platform is that they, like Salesforce, are steering users toward Amazon's low code tools like AWS AppSync and API Gateway, and making it easier for developers to integrate with AWS tools for things like AI/ML predictions and PubSub. Also like Salesforce, if developers outgrow the lowcode tools, it's easier than ever to expand out to the boader ecosystem and some of the more specialized services that amazon offers.

In addition to making it easy to build your application's backend with little or no code, Amplify also offers the frontend components you need to build interactive web or mobile apps. Amplify UI components are available for React, Angular, Vue and more.

And of course, on top of the simplified Amplify toolchain, AWS still provides the same 200+ services they've traditionally offered. So if you outgrow Amplify, or need services that aren't compatible with it, you can always integrate offerings outside of the Amplify ecosystem with other AWS services.

Another thing I really like about Amplify, and AWS in general, is the pricing. All of the Amplify services have a free tier. This makes it useful for hobby projects or to keep development costs low before you launch your applications. Also, it's important to note that the other services like Heroku and Vercel are often based on AWS themselves (. As such, buying services direct from AWS will usually save you at least a little bit of money over using a more managed service.

🔗Conclusion

Developers have a ton of choices when they are choosing a platform to build their applications on. All of the vendors I spoke with have compelling solutions that will make your life as a developer better. I always personally reach for platforms like Heroku or Vercel first since they're quick and easy to get started with, but it's clear that AWS has taken note of that and is trying to close that gap. So really, there's not a bad choice if these are your options. I hope I've explained them well enough so you can choose which one suits your project the best!

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