The Legacy of Heroku's Free Tier

A 8 minute read.

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Heroku is a platform-as-a-service that lets you push git repositories to the cloud and then magically get a URL to that application running somewhere. This "Heroku magic" was catalytic to my career. Add in the fact that as a high school student I could do this for free (back when I was so price sensitive that I couldn't even have my own domain name or VPS because I didn't have a credit card), I'd say that Heroku and its free tier was so utterly important to my career that I literally am unable to state how vital it was to my career.

Without that door the free tier opened into really understanding how websites work, I would have never been able to get to the point I am today and certainly wouldn't be writing this post right now.

Cadey is coffee
<Cadey> This post is hard to write. Please bear with me.

Alas, Heroku is sunsetting their free tier due to abuse from people that don't want to genuinely learn or try out the platform. They just wanted to take advantage of the higher resources that are put into the builder nodes, using that to mine dogecoin, monero or whatever. They wanted to make their own shadowsocks proxies for torrenting terribly filmed pornography. They wanted to do literally anything but learn how to develop web applications and use that knowledge to further their careers (and in the process get addicted to Heroku's magical ability to Just Work so that they would hopefully become customers for life).

This may just be me getting old, but I have watched as door after door into tech gets firmly shut and locked. This is sad to me. I have seen so many passionate, intelligent, and overall worthy people try and fail to get into tech because of the pointless obstacles that have built up over the years. I know brilliant people that cannot write a goddamn cover letter to save their lives. I know systems programmers and SRE types that cannot leetcode at all, but can help conceptually model the failure domains of complicated applications intuitively in a way that would be revolutionary to responding to downtime.

Numa is delet
<Numa> Hold on there buddy, you're saying that society lacking a backbone of education and social services means you are entitled to free compute time and hosting from a startup. You ain't entitled to shit from corpos unless you can make their line go up. The fact that it was a successful part of your life ain't mean that it's the point of the program at all.

Cadey is coffee
<Cadey> Well, yes. It's incredibly ridiculous that as a person wanting to get involved with tech that I had few options for making things on the web. I'm pretty sure that my case is kind of exceptional (though when I worked at Heroku I did run into at least one other person that also got their in on tech from the free tier) and not the point of the program. I guess my point here is that the side effects of that program have created good even if going out there to create good wasn't their goal in the first place. I am mourning that removal of that source of good outcomes.

It is so hard to watch people give up on their dreams to work in tech because of all the hoops they have to jump through. And now I am seeing another hoop show up for very unfortunate but understandable reasons. Abuse of free compute resources is an unfortunately lucrative field. At some point, people give up trying to fight the abuse and just close the door because doing that is cheaper than keeping the door open.

It feels like giving up on the future to protect things the way they are now. This is a valid choice to have to make as a company, it's understandable. I was part of the group that advocated for keeping the free tier. I talked with the people that were trying to destroy it when I was inside Salesforce and I told them my story about how the free tier (and web.py of all things) was the reason that I was able to break into tech. They were always stunned and confused and then sharply ended the conversation. They must have been focused so much on the toil that it caused them to have to respond to the build cluster falling over because of Monero again that they didn't see the human factor in the equation. The lives that the free tier enriched. The people that were made able to create things because of the ability to share them. In a world full of group chats on closed platforms, sharing a link in the chat is the new IRC bot that intelligently appends "in my pants" to random chat messages.

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Cadey is coffee
<Cadey> I mean, the sheer cost of doing this is also a huge factor for wanting to get rid of this. If the barrier to entry is so low that most people won't have to pay and can keep using the service indefinitely, there are a large number of people that just won't pay at all. This can turn a loss leader into an absolute loss in ways that will piss people off if you get rid of it, but also piss off internal people if it stays. There is no limit to how much effort people will put into being cheap when it comes to free resources. The point of free tiers is to give people the first hit for free so they pay more in the long term. It's a trade between short term adoption and long term revenue potential. I can't imagine the sheer scale of Heroku at this point and the number of resources they are going to be able to decommission with this change.

I really don't know what to think about all this. This change feels scary to me. Heroku now has a public roadmap, but I'm really not sure if the best days are ahead for Heroku or if they have passed. I really hope that this retreat upmarket won't torch the good will that people have for Heroku because Heroku as an idea is something worth learning from. It is a revolutionary thing and it defined the startup boom of the aughts and tens.

It's the end of an era. I don't really know what the era that comes will bring, but at the very least it's no longer going to involve Heroku as the market leader for platform-as-a-service development tools. Heroku has died to me, and I really don't know how I feel about this. Maybe this kind of understandable sadness is just part of getting old.

I just hope that the next era will bring equitable tech to everyone. Hopefully capitalism doesn't kill that off before it has its time to shine. Maybe fly.io will reclaim that mantle of responsibility.

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This article was posted on M08 25 2022. Facts and circumstances may have changed since publication. Please contact me before jumping to conclusions if something seems wrong or unclear.

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