Suborbital raises $1.6M for its WebAssembly platform

·4-min read

Suborbital, the company behind the open source Atmo WebAssembly-centric project for building scalable server applications, today announced that it has raised a $1.6 million seed round led by Amplify Partners. A number of angel investors, including Jason Warner (former CTO of GitHub), Sri Viswanath (CTO of Atlassian), Tyler McMullen (CTO of Fastly), Jonathan Beri (founder of Golioth), Vijay Gill (SVP of engineering at RapidAPI) and Mac Reddin (founder of Commsor), also joined this round.

In addition, the company also today announced the public beta launch of Suborbital Compute. At first glance, this may seem like somewhat of an odd product. As SaaS services look to make their products extensible beyond basic drag-and-drop integrations, they need tools that allow developers to write these extensions inside of their products. But these user functions open up a lot of security issues, too. With Suborbital Compute, SaaS developers can give their end-users the ability to write their own functions and extend their products, with the sandboxing properties of WebAssembly -- the basis of Atmos and Suborbital's other open source tools -- providing many of the guardrails.

But that's just the start. Suborbital is nothing if not an ambitious project. Its mission, CEO and founder Connor Hicks told me, is to "the way we as an industry think about and deploy compute." Hicks previously worked on the 1Password platform team, where he worked on tools like the 1Password command-line interface and its enterprise products, eventually leading the company's R&D efforts around its enterprise products. But on the side, he started dabbling in building a distributed functions-as-a-service system, first based on Docker, which proved to be too slow, and then, eventually, around WebAssemly. That turned out to be more complicated than he expected, in large part because he had to write all of the glue code to make this work -- but about two years ago, things started to click into place.

"I started going down this path a little more seriously, started spending more time on it, and what came out of it was this scheduler for WebAssembly functions, which today is our Reactr project," Hicks explained. While Reactr is a Go library, people started getting interested in seeing what a pure WebAssembly service would look like, which became the Atmo project that is now at the core of Suborbital's efforts.

"The grand experiment with Atmo was, 'hey, let's see if we can take a declarative description of a web server application and figure out how to run it without the user needing to do any boilerplate," Hicks explained. "So we could take this declarative description -- and a bunch of functions -- compile the WebAssembly and we could figure out how to build this web service and make it run, and make it secure, and make it fast automatically, and the user didn't have to worry about any of the plumbing."

With Atmo, Suborbital is betting on server-side WebAssembly to allow developers to write code in a language like Rust, Swift or AssemblyScript, which is then compiled to WebAssembly and deployed and managed by Atmo and run in a sandboxed environment. At the core of Atmo is a scheduler that runs the WebAssembly modules and promises to do so with near-native performance.

Over time, Hicks believes, this approach could challenge the role of containers for deploying many applications, especially at the edge. "We think that WebAssembly on bare metal is going to pretty much replace the need for containers in these small, resource-constrained edge environments," Hicks said.

But why then launch with such a niche product? Something like an "Atmo Pro" may seem like the more logical choice, but Hicks argues that it is still too early for that. Because the idea is still very new, the market wouldn't have been there for a service like that.

"It doesn't have the widespread adoption that you would need to make money off of a hosted Atmo service," Hicks said."After realizing that I couldn't just make money selling a pro version of Atmo -- or a hosted version of Atmo -- I went back and I asked, 'hey, what could we actually build that people would want to pay money for and actually build a business around?'"

Hicks tells me that the team, which currently consists of four people, has already started to ramp up its efforts around partnerships, but next year, it plans to really scale up its infrastructure and operations capabilities.

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