Servers are an essential part of today’s interconnected digital world. When you type something into the search bar on your favorite search engine, your search request bounces through potentially dozens of servers before returning to you with the information you requested. That’s because servers are, as the name would suggest, the technologies that are responsible for serving information.
Servers, such as web servers, email servers, and FTP servers store data (such as web pages) and then deliver that data to us upon request. Simply put, without servers, the flow of information stops. With that in mind, why is there so much excitement these days surrounding serverless architecture?
To answer that question, let’s take a look at what serverless architecture is and what it can mean for developers, programmers, and software engineers.
What Does Serverless Architecture Really Mean?
We began this post by pointing out that servers play a vital role in modern computing. We stand by that assessment. So how does serverless architecture fit in?
Well, first of all, serverless architecture isn’t actually serverless. Serverless architecture, also known as serverless computing or function as a service (FAAS), is a software design pattern where applications are hosted by a 3rd-party service.
Amazon’s AWS Lambda is probably the most famous FAAS option currently available, but it’s not the only name making it big with serverless; examples also include Google Functions, Microsoft Azure Functions, and IBM Apache OpenWhisk Functions.
Additionally, FAAS often uses container platforms, such as Kubernetes, for better storage infrastructure. Much like platform-as-a-service (PAAS) models, serverless technology eliminates the need for server software and hardware management by the developer.
But contrary to what the name would suggest, servers are still a big part of serverless technology. So what is it that makes serverless technology serverless? Well, much like real estate, when it comes to dealing with servers, it’s all about location.
Serverless architecture allows developers to run their code remotely over the cloud. The servers are still integral to the whole process, but they’re maintained by a 3rd party, meaning that users don’t have to worry about all of the little maintenance and management issues that come with operating their own server. Instead, the provider handles all of the hardware, along with the virtual machine operating system and software for the webserver. This frees developers up to focus on the individual functions in their application’s code.
Serverless Architecture: Pros and Cons
Not having to deal with servers is a big plus for many developers, but that’s only one of the advantages of going serverless. Here are three more benefits.
Faster Deployment and Updates
If you’re trying to get your application into the user’s hands quickly, the last thing you want is to have to wait while you configure the backend. And with serverless technology, you don’t have to. That means that an application that might have taken months to deploy can now be built and released in a matter of weeks. Or days. Or hours.
Scalability can be a big issue for developers who operate their own servers—too much-unexpected growth can push servers beyond their capacity. At the same time, preparing for growth that doesn’t happen can be a major resource drain. With serverless architecture, scaling is automatic. The vendor simply allocates more server power to handle the influx of requests and reallocates that power elsewhere when the requests trickle off.
Other advantages aside, the reduced costs associated with serverless technology may be the biggest draw of all. That’s because FAAS providers generally only charge developers for server access on a pay-as-use basis. If you’re not currently using server resources, then you’re not paying for server resources. Compared to the expenses associated with managing your own server, the cost difference can be significant.
Benefits aside, there are some trade-offs that you’ll want to keep in mind before you fully commit to a serverless development approach.
Reduced System Control
Developing applications on a 3rd-party API means giving up control, and that can mean problems for you. Vendor control issues can manifest themselves as cost changes, unexpected system downtime, and updates, or even complete abandonment (there’s no guarantee that a provider won’t go out of business).
It’s worth noting that most FAAS vendors have the resources to provide top-tier security to protect their customers’ applications. But if there’s one thing that the digital age has shown us again and again, it’s that even big names can get hacked (and often, the bigger the name, the more tempting the target). Operating your own server gives you full control over security so that you can take any and all precautions that you think are necessary.
Problems with Testing, Debugging, and Migrating
Code that functions well in the server environment won’t necessarily always function well once it’s in the hands of the end-user – which can make testing code for deployment a difficult task. And, without access to the backend, debugging your code is likewise potentially problematic. Finally, because there is no universal set of standards between FAAS providers, migrating your applications to a different ecosystem may require that you update your tools, change your code, or even completely revamp your application infrastructure.
Living the Serverless Life
If you want to focus on building applications without having to worry about all of the other concerns that go along with managing your own server, then serverless may the right way to go — it’s cost-effective, easy to scale, and allows for faster deployment. Just remember that even if serverless technology is the future of the cloud, it’s not all silver lining. When you give up your server you give up control. That said, many developers see this trade as a small price to pay when compared to the obvious advantages.
After all, servers are an essential part of today’s interconnected digital world, but they don’t have to be a part of your application development. And for app developers, going serverless could make all the difference.