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Heroku to end free tiers, creating platform void for devs

Heroku will cease offering its free tiers this November, leaving developers to choose from an array of alternatives that don't quite match up, according to industry experts.

Salesforce Heroku, a cloud-based development-platform-as-a-service provider, will phase out its free tier plans later this year, but developers won't be able to find a drop-in replacement, according to industry experts.

Salesforce will begin to eliminate the free tiers of Heroku Dynos, Heroku Postgres and Heroku Data for Redis on Nov. 28. The demise of Heroku's free tiers signals a shift in focus for Salesforce to its commercial platform, Heroku Enterprise, which includes add-ons such as Heroku Connect and Heroku Flow to round out the DevOps experience, according to Charlotte Dunlap, research director at GlobalData. Alternatives to Heroku's free tiers exist, but none will provide the same experience as Heroku, according to industry experts.

In a blog post, Salesforce cited "an extraordinary amount of effort" managing fraud and abuse as the main reason for ending the free tiers, although it did not provide specifics.

But the subtext of that statement is that Salesforce doesn't want to focus on nonpaying developers using the free tier to develop and test their apps, Dunlap said. Heroku and other application platforms from IBM, Microsoft, Oracle and Red Hat are evolving into DevOps platforms, which no longer target developers with free versions, but appeal to ops teams through advanced add-on services, she said.

Charlotte Dunlap, research director, GlobalDataCharlotte Dunlap

"Customers are honing their DevOps models in response to application modernization efforts based on GitOps and CI/CD pipelines structures," Dunlap said. "Heroku is geared toward the governance, security, integration and scalability required to shore up those transformations."

Salesforce's decision to withdraw Heroku's free tier comes as no surprise to Craig Kerstiens, head of product at open source Postgres company Crunchy Data. Kerstiens ran product teams at Heroku from 2011 to 2016.

"The reality is, Heroku, as a whole, hasn't been invested in -- from a Salesforce perspective -- for the last eight years," Kerstiens said. "When you've got more apps and users of Heroku and fewer engineers and employees to support it, fraud becomes more and more painful. This was a starvation over a six-, seven-, eight-year period."

Heroku alternatives have downsides

There is no obvious drop-in replacement for Heroku's free tiers because no other platform matches Heroku's developer experience, Kerstiens said. The developer experience is tough to get right, and Heroku took years and years to hone it, he said.

"It's one of those things that was built into the culture and DNA of Heroku so deeply," Kerstiens said. He offered the following example: "At Heroku Postgres, we agonized for weeks over how we would name the features fork and follow -- we probably had 40 to 80 hours of discussion just on the naming of that because we didn't want to use the typical database terminology of master and slave."

Alternatives to Heroku's free tiers include Google Firebase, GitHub Pages and AWS Elastic Beanstalk, but none offer a similar developer experience to Heroku, Kerstiens said.

For example, AWS doesn't offer the kind of curated experience that Heroku does, he said. While Heroku emphasizes ease of use and scalability, developers using AWS have to wade through a range of options to deploy and dispose entire application stacks.

"[With AWS], you get a box of Legos, but you get to figure out how to assemble the Death Star with no instructions," Kerstiens said.

In addition to AWS being complex, developers are also tied to AWS technology, GlobalData's Dunlap said. She pointed to serverless computing as an example.

"If you go with AWS instead of Heroku, you probably are going to be locked into AWS Lambda -- their serverless offering -- and other AWS services versus being able to pick and choose other advanced features that you want to add to your application," she said.

AWS isn't alone in its complexity, said Anurag Goel, founder and CEO of Render, a cloud hosting company for developers. Google and Azure also don't provide a good developer experience as they don't let a developer focus on coding without having to worry about the underlying infrastructure, he said.

"Those organizations ... became an extension of their in-house DevOps teams," he said, meaning that they don't cater to individual developers.

For right now, it feels like there's going to be a void in the world for a year or two.
Craig KerstiensHead of product, Crunchy Data

Newer platforms show promise

Application developers could also make a bet on newer platforms, including Fly.io and Railway, which might eventually provide a Heroku-like experience, Kerstiens said.

"But for right now, it feels like there's going to be a void in the world for a year or two," he said.

Dunlap agreed that the newer platforms are a gamble for developers, who -- in addition to having to learn something new -- will probably not get the same developer experience as that offered by Heroku.

Should I stay or should I go?

Developers who want to stay with Heroku can also choose to pay for a plan, which starts at $7 per month for Heroku Dynos, $9 per month for Heroku Data for Redis and $15 per month for Heroku Postgres, according to current pricing information.

But developers who choose to switch to another provider's free tier might not be able to rely on a permanent free ride, said Katie Nickels, director of intelligence at security company Red Canary.

"It's unlikely that every cloud provider will cease providing free tiers, as they are popular with users and often generate revenue when those same users upgrade to a paid version of the service," Nickels said. "However, we may see smaller cloud providers that are struggling to stay on top of fraud and abuse reports institute a similar policy, ceasing or scaling back their free offerings rather than playing a continuous and costly game of whack-a-mole with cybercriminals."

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