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Serverless Architecture: Is this the future?

Updated: Jun 29, 2022

A hot topic in the computing world, Serverless Architecture, or simply Serverless is an ingenious approach to software design that allows developers to build applications hosted by a third-party service, thereby eliminating the need for managing the underlying architecture. In this, a cloud provider offers servers to run the applications, databases, and storage systems that have been deployed by developers.

Traditional vs. Serverless

Apart from the plenty of conferences, software vendors, open-source projects, and books, this new path has attracted large investments from giants like Google, Microsoft, and Amazon. But what is actually Serverless, and why should (or shouldn't) we consider it for our business? Let's take a deep dive into this and enlighten ourselves with this article.

How does it work?

Servers are the backbone of every application that allow users to communicate and access its business logic. While it seems straightforward, managing servers takes a lot of resources and time. Individuals and teams have to take care of security and software updates, check the server hardware, and create backups in cases of acute failure. By going Serverless, developers can focus on writing and updating the application code while third-party providers can shoulder all the other responsibilities.

One of the most sought-after variants of this is the 'Function as a Service (FaaS). This kind of serverless architecture allows the developers to write their application code as a set of discrete functions, where each function performs a specific job via an event trigger, for example, an HTTP request or an incoming mail. After all the testing stages, developers deploy the complete code along with their triggers to a cloud provider account. As soon as the function is invoked, the cloud provider either takes a new server or a running server to execute it.

In 2014, Amazon was the first company to introduce a mainstream FaaS platform, AWS Lambda. A majority of developers still use this platform to write serverless applications while Microsoft and Google have their own FaaS platforms, Azure Functions and Google Cloud Functions (GCF) respectively.

Advantages and Challenges of going Serverless

In recent years, more and more companies have started adopting Serverless Architecture, with about 40% of all companies worldwide using this design in some form or another. So, why are new-age startups and global corporations starting to transform their products with this platform?

Three main advantages are visibly plausible:

Increased productivity: With the involvement of third-party providers, engineers can spend their time on the development and deployment of code which in turn helps scale-up company goals and accelerate delivery cycles.

Economical: You only pay your providers for the times the functions are invoked. All the unused virtual machines and unused servers will never incur a charge.

Enhances scalability: Within the concurrency limits, function instances are automatically removed or created according to traffic variations.

While it may seem a potential game-changer, some challenges are undeniable:

Minimal control: In the case of a data center outage, hardware fault, or any other server issue, you are entirely dependent on the cloud provider to solve it. Serverless environments offer minimal control over the software stack that your code runs on.

Stunted performance: After a period of inactivity, the serverless environment may add several seconds of latency to code execution when a function is invoked. Cold starts are more common than not.

Data security: As cloud providers may use the same server to run the code of many of their customers, there lies a probability of data breach or application exposure if the shared server is not configured properly.

Integrated testing: While singular or unit tests are possible, serverless environments are not conducive to integrated testing of frontend and backend components.

Choosing a vendor: Any single vendor does not provide every service like large cloud providers (AWS) do. While you can find synergy with multiple services from different vendors, services integrate seamlessly when it is from a single provider.

If the application features a large number of continuous, long-running processes, then containers or virtual machines are the better options. Serverless architecture is well suited for companies who want to build lightweight and scalable applications while minimizing the go-to-market time.

Examples of hybrid infrastructure can also be found where developers push certain tasks (with short run times), such as database storage to serverless functions, and utilize virtual machines (or containers) to handle the majority of requests.

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