When developing applications, there are a million and one things you need to consider. You’ve designed the perfect user interface to attract customers, and registered domain for your website to give you a global reach, but have you considered the infrastructure on which your application will run?
If not, you really need to give it some thought. Serverless computing is just one of the many options that offer backend services to developers.
We’re here to guide you through the pros and cons of serverless computing, to help you make an informed choice about whether it’s right for you.
What is Serverless Computing?
Serverless computing is a type of cloud computing model that allows users to write and deploy code, build web apps, and perform a range of other tasks, without the need to provision or manage any servers.
It’s an industry that has seen rapid growth in recent years due to the benefits it can offer developers.
The user of a serverless computing service is charged based on their computation. The service is auto-scaling, meaning that there’s no need to reserve and pay for a fixed number of servers or amount of bandwidth. Instead, the service provider allocates backend services as they’re required.
Despite the name, serverless computing does utilize servers. The servers in this instance, however, are operated and maintained by third-party providers. This allows code to be executed in the cloud, without developers having to worry about the underlying infrastructure they’re working on.
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How Does Serverless Computing Work?
Application development is typically split into two main sections: frontend and backend.
Serverless computing provides backend services. This essentially means that developers can build, deploy, and run applications, without having to worry about the underlying infrastructure that’s powering them. In principle, it’s similar to a cloud based phone system, where most of the associated hardware is stored off-site and maintained by a third-party.
It’s generally carried out using a serverless platform. This is an interface through which developers can build, deploy, and run applications. They’ll typically also offer features and tools such as functions as a service (FaaS), which allow for code to be triggered in response to specific, predetermined events.
Here’s a brief rundown of how serverless computing works in practice:
- Developers write code, and deploy it to their cloud provider.
- This code is then packaged by the cloud provider, and deployed to a fleet of servers.
- Upon a request being made to execute the code, the cloud provider will create a new container to run the code in, which is then destroyed when the execution has completed.
Using this system, developers only need pay for the time in which their code is executing.
Advantages of Serverless Computing
Serverless computing can offer many benefits to developers. As a result, companies can save a great deal of money compared to traditional hosting models. This cost-effectiveness can lead to significant improvements in operational efficiency and positively impact a company’s cash flow statement.
Serverless computing is charged on an event-based model. This means that service providers only charge developers for the time that their code is executing.
This eliminates the need to provision, manage, and maintain physical servers, which can save a great deal of money. This is similar to how using a cloud based PBX eliminates the need for an organization to manage and maintain a traditional PBX system, saving them money on telecommunications.
In many cases, it’s even cheaper than using traditional cloud hosting models, as many of these require paying for dedicated servers, meaning that costs are accrued even when those servers are idle.
It’s often easier to deploy new programs using serverless computing, as so much time is saved by not having to install servers or monitor workflows. There’s no need to devote time to maintaining hardware, which allows development teams to focus on actually developing.
In many cases, this allows developers to get products much faster when utilizing a serverless computing model.
There’s no need to upload source code or make changes to server-side backend functions when releasing software products. Server-side applications rely on functions, or series of functions, sanctioned by the provider’s infrastructure, meaning that developers simply need to upload a few pieces of code and run the program.
This also makes it quicker to update and patch applications, as updates can be applied to one function at a time, without causing interruptions to service across the entire application.
Using serverless computing, developers can quickly scale their operation up or down depending on current demand. The entire infrastructure is built around scalability, as serverless only ever uses the necessary server capacity. Many developers consider scalability to be the most important benefit of serverless.
This is similar to benefits offered by cloud VoIP services, such as Dialpad’s hosted PBX service, which can be easily scaled based on the number of users or phone numbers required, saving businesses money by ensuring they only pay for what they need.
If demand for functions increases, then the provider’s servers adjust accordingly, and provide higher capacity to run the functions. There’s no limitation based on the storage or performance capabilities of the server, as would be the case with many traditional alternatives.
This makes serverless computing an excellent choice for applications that experience varying numbers of user requests, as there’s no need to worry about experiencing issues due to a sudden change in demand.
By leveraging serverless computing, businesses can confidently handle fluctuations in demand without worrying about encountering issues or disruptions. This adaptability makes it an attractive option for businesses, providing cost-effective opportunities for SMEs seeking to optimize their resources and effortlessly scale their applications as needed.
Resource utilization is improved, and waste generation is reduced in a serverless environment, because resources are only used when they’re needed to execute code. In addition, energy isn’t wasted to power idle servers.
This makes serverless computing a good option for organizations who are concerned about their carbon footprint, and are looking to meet sustainability targets.
Providers of serverless computing have multiple layers of redundancy built in, meaning that applications running on serverless platforms are incredibly reliable.
Because applications aren’t hosted on origin servers, the code can be run from almost anywhere. This makes it possible to run application functions close to the location of the end user, which helps to reduce latency and improve performance.
When coupled with other fault-tolerant programs, such as data streaming through Spark Streaming examples, this creates a reliable development ecosystem.
Disadvantages of Serverless Computing
While serverless computing offers many advantages to developers, there are also some potential drawbacks that must be considered.
Possible performance issues
Serverless computing can be prone to performance issues in some scenarios. If an application is reactivated after a prolonged period of non-use, it can experience a ‘cold start’.
This is an issue that arises from function starting up slowly, and the serverless infrastructure requiring some time to process the server request. This can lead to slower performance.
Steps can be taken to limit the occurrence of cold starts. Keeping strings of code short can help to reduce their impact, as the problem can be aggravated by longer strings of code. However, this has the adverse effect of creating a higher number of smaller functions to manage, which can be inconvenient.
Although serverless computing can simplify the process of building and deploying applications in many ways, there are some instances in which it can add an extra layer of complexity.
Many serverless architectures also operate on a multi-tenancy model, meaning that multiple different software programs for multiple different clients may be running on servers simultaneously.
This can lead to issues such as low performance, or security risks arising from customers being able to access one another’s data.
Serverless computing is also often unsuitable for long-running workloads. Because serverless solutions charge based on the amount of time that code is being run, applications that require lengthy processes may end up being more costly than if they were run on dedicated servers.
Complicated testing & debugging
The nature of serverless computing often results in developers having a lack of backend visibility, which can make practices such as testing and debugging quite challenging.
Serverless programs don’t lend themselves to deep inspections, which means that it can be difficult to detect and identify faults and errors.
Developers using serverless computing infrastructure will have to take additional steps in order to recognize, predict, and plan for faults. This helps ensure that interruptions to services for users are limited should they occur.
Serverless computing can present security and compliance concerns, resulting in a rapid increase in the serverless security market in recent years.
Because of the sheer size of the fleet of servers being used, there is a greater number of potential points of entry for malicious actors.
While many serverless computing service providers will have robust security measures in place, some users may feel uncomfortable with handing off responsibility for security to the server owners.
For some developers, the fact that they have one less security concern to worry about will be a benefit. However, others may dislike the fact that one element of their application’s security is taken out of their hands, and they must rely on a third party to detect and fix any security threats.
Because serverless computing is a relatively new technology, it’s likely that a certain amount of training or upskilling will need to be undertaken by developers in order to use it to its fullest potential.
Developers will need to be trained regarding the new platforms and environments that will be used for development, and new methods for deploying code. Undertaking this training will present its own costs in terms of time and money, and could potentially delay projects while developers get up to speed.
Make an Informed Choice About Serverless Computing
Hopefully, by now you’ve got enough background knowledge around serverless computing, and know enough about its advantages and disadvantages, that you can make an informed choice about whether it’s the right option for you and your development teams.
The technology is likely to keep developing in the years to come, so even if it doesn’t feel like the right choice right now, keep your finger on the pulse in case things change in the future.