Serverless and startups have a beautiful relationship to write home about. Curious? Join us as we explore the benefits startups can enjoy when they go serverless.
The recent trend for today’s startups is to go serverless. This has proved to be the most feasible of all methods (for startups) to run their business successfully and profitably. The term “Serverless” can be misleading, it doesn’t mean that there are no servers. There are servers, of course, but the startups don’t have to bother themselves with managing or provisioning the servers themselves. Nor do they have to worry about scaling the infrastructure when the requirements go up and down, or even maintaining it. This is all done with great professional precision by third party vendors. Amazon, Microsoft and Google are major giants in this field.
With serverless architecture, you can build and run modern applications without worrying about servers. You don’t have to be bothered with aspects like server or cluster provisioning, patching, operating system maintenance, and capacity provisioning. It is possible to build them for almost any kind of application or backend service, and everything needed to build, run and scale the application is all handled by a reliable third-party vendor.
There is no one clear cut view of what serverless technology really is. Mainly because there are two different but overlapping areas where it is used.
The term Serverless was initially used to describe applications that hugely depended on the third-party, cloud-hosted applications and services to look after their server-side logic and state. These applications use the huge ecosystem of cloud-accessible databases like Parse and Firebase, and authentication services like Auth0, AWS Cognito. These services are also known as Mobile Backend as a Service or BaaS.
There is another meaning to Serverless. It can also be applied when applications with server-side logic are still written by the application developer. However, the major difference is when the traditional architectures are run in stateless compute containers and are completely managed by a third party service provider. This is mostly Functions as a Service or FaaS.
Both BaaS and FaaS are often used together, and if you partner with big service providers, you can enjoy the benefits of both BaaS and FaaS.
Moving to serverless architecture will definitely be one of the biggest and wisest decision you will ever make. It could offer huge efficiencies in the DevOps resources you need, massively squeeze the timeframe required to bring your product to market and offers a price model perfectly suited to typical start-up cash flow considerations.
What we touched in the above paragraphs was just an introduction into serverless architecture. Now let’s go deeper into its benefits.
There is so much difference between having your own server and hiring one from the cloud service provider. When you have your own server, you need to run it all the time, irrespective of whether you need to use it or not. So you are paying for the server when it is idle too, if you want the server to function. Irrespective of the quantity of requests, you have pay for both idle and working time. Imagine, how much wastage there would be in such circumstances.
You would be wasting resources whether you are owning a data center or renting virtual servers. And irrespective of whether the applications are being used or not, you would be paying for reserved time. Wastage comes in the form of disk space, memory, power consumption, etc. With serverless, you only pay for what is being used. Server capacity would no longer be your problem, because that would all be handled by the service provider.
In serverless technology, you have small units called functions, and these functions are quite detailed. The service provider will look after the maintenance, scalability and configuration of the servers. Developers can deploy new functions easily by writing their code, zipping it and just uploading it to the serverless platform. They don’t have to write the scripts to deploy the functions. This helps to save time, reduce time to market and aid in faster releases.
The entire environment makes it possible for you to add or remove functions without affecting the application as a whole.
Startup project teams would naturally want to focus on their products becoming geared towards a lean and agile process. They would also want to try new things and update their existing systems continually. These processes makes simple deployment possible and in the context of continuous delivery, leading to faster iteration of stable projects, and new ideas can be tried out with less friction to the application and reduced costs.
Imagine that you have a startup that’s been running well for over 2 years, and with a good team of developers and DevOps, you expect to do much better than your competition. You’ve also received funding for a new project, and you will be releasing it soon. But then you also received the news that your competition is going ahead with a project and they are going to release it much sooner. Now you’ve got to devise a plan that will release your product without much delay. The challenge arises when you need time to set up the infrastructure, followed by having a trained team to manage it all.
This is where going Serverless is going to help you. And with specialised vendors managing everything related to infrastructure, its architecture, maintenance and scalability. The flexibility of implementation will improve greatly with serverless architecture.
When you go serverless, you get the perfect platform on a rental basis. There is complete freedom to run your code and deploy the same, but without the worry of server maintenance, provisioning and managing it. You can polish your code anytime you want, without worrying about it negatively hampering the performance of the application, at any time. And you can upload the code for any type of application or backend service and everything that’s required to run the application will be taken care of. Serverless is stateless, meaning there is no wastage of space by storing or reusing any requests, it will only execute the tasks as and when required.
With serverless, you have found the ultimate answer to scaling your Minimum Viable Product (MVP). Serverless architecture makes it possible for you to compute scales to any number of concurrent functions within seconds. And for startups it is much easier, you have the flexibility to handle any workload irrespective of scale configuration. And the advantage that you enjoy doesn’t apply to just scalability. Deployment is faster and happens within a matter of minutes. What would have taken weeks or sometimes months, can be done so quickly. But of course, yes, there are some strategies that would help with high levels of serverless function performance. Avoiding unnecessary dependencies like generic libraries, maintaining environment data between sessions, increasing memory allocation, making the functions code short are a few ways in which you can reduce dependencies. Practise those, and you can easily escalate app performance.
Azure Functions, AWS Lambda and Google Cloud Functions are serverless computing platforms that give you all that you need to deploy cloud apps efficiently and quickly. Startups can optimise their serverless function performance to ensure the cloud apps reach their fullest potential.
Imagine that your company deals with 15 million requests daily. And each of the users make a couple of internal calls, making the total to probably 30-40 million requests. How would you handle that volume, and how would you handle it when the requests come down? You might need a fleet of virtual requests or have your own data center to manage this.
The incurring costs for this can run upto thousands of dollars. And we have not added the salary of the DevOps engineers to set up and handle the infrastructure. With serverless, you no longer have to worry about fixed costs, but variable ones that will only be dependent on how many requests the servers will be handling.
When you develop multiple products, it would be wise to choose serverless because you might have certain features that are repeated over and over again. For example, user authentication or payment processing are a couple of features that most of the applications require. With serverless architecture, your team will be able to focus on each of the product services as independent components. This helps them reuse the components, thereby reducing the time and effort while creating the next product.
With serverless architecture, easier pivoting is possible. Pivoting happens when you need to change the audience that you were initially targeting. As startups feel their way around the market, they might even want to change the way the applications work. The problem with traditional architectures is that applications might be tightly coupled, so refactoring or rewrites may not be possible. But not any more!
Serverless helps with increased product flexibility, enabling you to separate your application into several independent services. If you are thinking of diverting your product to a different market, you just need to refactor those services and make the necessary rewrites. This saves time, effort and you will be out in the market through fast deployment.
Naturally, with product flexibility, you have the added advantage of gaining product stability too. The product becomes amenable to change, both as individual components and as a whole. This also allows for continuous delivery pipeline through public, private or hybrid cloud. The developers can work in small modules and each of the components can be used as needed for different projects. This would be to a greater advantage to companies who wish to release the same product with a little variations to multiple sets of targeted customers. All they need to do is change some features, add, delete or modify them, and within the shortest time possible, customers get what they need.
While we sing praises about serverless, it is also important to know about the grey side too. This would help you make a better decision regarding the type of service and which provider to choose.
When your applications are run in a serverless environment, it could couple your applications and services with the platform provider. This could lead to vendor lock-in. This happens because the cloud vendor hosts, provisions and manages all the computing resources (including hardware and operating system) for running the app/service. So before putting your head in it, you need to assess the potential risks before choosing a vendor. Even though the business logic isn’t reliant on the service directly, you will need a direct connection to platform service providers.
Certain providers do not provide strong SLA or Service Level Agreements, so make sure you have the right service provider when you choose a provider for critical tasks requiring very high uptime availability. For example, AWS Lambda doesn’t have uptime or operational agreements yet, and their approximate uptime is 99.6%.
The biggest advantage of serverless could turn out to be a bump, sometimes. The serverless provider automatically scales the applications and if you don’t have activity for a long period of time, then the application instances may be down. This would lead to a cold start of your services, leading to a higher latency of up to 1s, depending on the environment, of course.
Serverless may not be a good choice for long-term tasks, so it is mostly used for near-real-time or short real-time processes. If you need to do long operations like uploading video files then you might need additional FaaS functions or may have to go with traditional architecture. Lambda does that. It gives you about five minutes of time to execute a task, and if the delay gets longer, you will have to call another function.
The learning curve for FaaS tools is pretty steep but there are comprehensive documentation and community resources to make it easier for beginners. If you have monolith services, then you need to cut it down to microservices. That could be complicated task if you are not too familiar with it. You might have to hire pros to do it.
Serverless architecture would be a good choice if you need to host only a small number of functions. If you have a very complex architecture, but would still like to try your hand at serverless, then you might have to architect your application differently. It might not be easy with an existing application, but if you want, you can try migrating small pieces of the application over time. But there is no doubt, serverless brings in agility into the system and would eventually be the first choice for startups for their MVPs.
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