Fermyon Is Using Wasm to Build a More Efficient Cloud


By: R. Scott Raynovich

Fermyon, a distributed startup with a headquarters in Longmont, Colorado, thinks it can help make WebAssembly (Wasm) the next big thing in cloud computing. The company is armed with a founding team that met at cloud giant Microsoft, has raised $26 million in funding, and is experiencing fast adoption of its initial cloud infrastructure and development products.

The 31-person startup has a two-pronged approach to the market. First, it's got Spin, a toolkit for developers that enables them to build Wasm-based apps and infrastructure -- and it has reported more than 100,000 downloads of the product. Secondly, it has launched the Fermyon Cloud, which uses Wasm technology to spin up fast and efficient serverless cloud functions.

As a set of software services and standards designed to speed up processing of distributed applications, Wasm could follow the successive waves of technology for cloud -- including virtual machines, containers, and Kubernetes. It's already being used in big-time cloud infrastructure from companies such as Cloudflare, Adobe, Fastly, Shopify, Capital One, and VMware. Futuriom has highlighted some other startups in the market, such as Cosmonic and Mycelial.

In an interview with Futuriom, Fermyon CEO and cofounder Matt Butcher, who speaks in rapid-fire manner (and clearly drinks a lot of coffee), recently elucidated many compelling use cases for Wasm, Spin, and Fermyon Cloud. For example, because Wasm can start up apps more quickly and squeeze more efficiency out of chips, Butcher told me he thinks it can increase the efficiency of AI by as much as 100X.

Source: Futuriom

“There are challenges with AI – for example a big shortage of GPUs,” said Butcher. “Our view of it is that Webassembly can be very efficient on GPUs for multitenancy."

Why Wasm Matters

In short, Fermyon is betting the farm on Wasm as the next big wave of technology for cloud infrastructure.

So why does Wasm matter?

Let's dive more deeply into what it is. Wasm is an assembly language that can efficiently compile many different types of code down to the machine level -- but its capabilities are expanding. Wasm is a standard in the W3C that started as a better way to process Web apps, and it's being extended with the help of Fermyon and others to the server side. WasmCloud has been undertaken by the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF). The architecture can also be more secure for cloud apps -- for example cloud applications can run in a Wasm sandbox that is separated at the code level from the infrastructure.

As a development environment, Wasm's chief characteristics are using cloud infrastructure more efficiently and more securely, with very fast startup times. It operates above virtual machines (VMs), containers, and Kubernetes. Wasm can compile code from a variety of languages, including Python, C, C++, Rust, etc. It’s also very flexible, being able to run on devices as diverse as CPUs, GPUs, Raspberry Pi, Docker desktop, or any Kubernetes environment. Containers enabled developers to more quickly port applications to any environment by virtualizing operating systems; Wasm takes this a step further up the stack (see the diagram below). One might think of it as a new distributed operating system.

Fast startup times. Overhead efficiency. Developer flexibility. This all seems like a great candidate for using cloud infrastructure for edge data analytics and AI. Wasm could be used, for example, to run compute on distributed Internet of Things (IoT) environments without complicated programming, or to run AI in a serverless cloud service.

Most of the Wasm team -- including cofounders Butcher, CTO and cofounder Radu Matei, as well as several founding engineers -- met while working at Microsoft to develop better technology for serverless cloud, which is designed to deliver ephemeral cloud functions as fast as possible.

At the recent Kubecon show in Chicago, Fermyon's CTO Matei, who worked with Butcher at Microsoft, told me he thinks that Wasm can solve a lot of problems with efficiency in the cloud -- which is the topic du jour.

"There is a large set of cloud services that are trying to run on demand. Because they were backed by other services, they were slow," said Matei. "This gives us an efficiency problem -- racks of underutilized servers. You have to start up enough instances for peak traffic. Wasm is a new mechanism for fast execution time for serverless."

At a time in which economic uncertainty is driving CFOs to look at every cloud cost under the microscope, Wasm’s got a lot of allure.

Microsoft Serverless Roots

The combination of building Wasm tools and infrastructure on both the Web side and the server side will expand Wasm's influence. Just as Java helped speed up the Web by enabling web developers to more quickly build apps with Java tools and libraries, Wasm can speed up applications for advanced compute and cloud computing.

Fermyon has been instrumental in driving Wasm on the server side as part of the WebAssembly System Interface (WASI) standard. WASI is a set of standard APIs for cloud computing services. That forms the basis of Fermyon Cloud.

Butcher told me that when they were working on Wasm at Microsoft, the goal was to quickly start up and shut down workloads in the cloud, primarily for serverless services. Wasm brought a new paradigm.

"The lifespan of VMs is days, weeks, years," he said. "We were interested in applications that needed to start, run to completion, and shut down nearly instantly. Examples of this are AWS Lambda and Azure Functions. But those were built on virtual machines, which are slow to start. So they had to pre-warm huge numbers of virtual machines, which sat idle until they received a request. We were looking for a more efficient runtime that could cold-start in under one millisecond. And that’s what brought us to WebAssembly."

Avoiding the Hashicorp Trap

With the recent challenges in the open-source market, highlighted by HashiCorp's big switch from open-source licensing to commercial licensing, some might be asking about Fermyon's business model.

With both open-source product (Spin), as well as commericial versions and a cloud service, Fermyon has already given thought to its business model and commercialization path. Butcher says that Fermyon is a huge fan of Hashicorp's products and uses them in its cloud infrastructure, but Hashi's recent licensing shift from open source to commercial caused a lot of headaches.

"We want to avoid the HashiCorp problem," said Butcher.

For this reason, Fermyon aims to have a clear strategy for open source and commercial products. Its developer tool, Spin, is open source and a free version can be downloaded by anyone. It's targeted at developers interested in the technology, which is a classic approach. Butcher says the downloads have been growing fast beyond the recent 100,000 mark. The company will monetize its technology with a paid tier on Fermyon Cloud, which will appeal to larger enterprises. They will also have a commercial license software to support large enterprises and hyperscalers that want to build Fermyon-based cloud infrastructure.

More Momentum for Wasm

Fermyon's rapid adoption gives further evidence to the momentum building behind WebAssembly in the startup world. A market is forming for developer frameworks and tools. Fermyon Cloud shows the potential for specialized, serverless Wasm-based cloud services. When you pair that with growing economic malaise and questions about cloud efficiency, you have a potential big winner.

“This was the year when we saw efficiency and cost bubble up," said Butcher. "An economic downturn is one of the better things to happen to Fermyon. Efficiency is a thing. AI comes along and it’s the least efficient way to use a GPU. We stumbled on the right thing at the right time.”

Since 2021, Fermyon has raised $26 million in seed and Series A funding from Amplify Partners and Insight Partners, along with a slew of notable independent investors that include Tyler McMullen (the CTO of Fastly), Grant Miller and Marc Campbell (CEO and CTO, respectively, at Replicated), Armon Dadgar (cofounder and CTO of HashiCorp), Daniel Lopez Ridruejo (cofounder and former CEO of Bitnami, now part of VMware), and Lachlan Evenson (principal program manager on the open source team at Microsoft Azure).

Futuriom take: Wasm is well positioned to support the growth of serverless cloud technologies as well as introduce new hardware and software efficiencies, which are sorely needed for cloud infrastructure. Fermyon has a strong team and vision to become a leader in the space.