“Compute” is an encompassing term used to describe the actions taken by a computer. When we talk about it with regards to web development and at Vercel, we use compute to describe actions such as (but not limited to) building and rendering - essential operations needed to turn your code into a site that appears for users.
Cloud infrastructure providers typically give us access to several layers of abstraction that map to the traditional counterparts:
- Set of Computers → Cluster
- Computer → VM Instance (e.g., EC2)
- Process → Container
- Thread → Function (Lambda)
Vercel focuses on the last one: the Serverless Function. If we think in terms of primitives, it closely mirrors a thread of computation.
We have typically been able to provision entire computers or orchestrate processes, but a faster, more granular and more parallelizable primitive like the thread has only recently become available.