Next-generation cloud: Is serverless the answer?

In this guest post, Naveen Kumar, vice president of innovation, enterprise software and consumer at global design and engineering company Aricent, makes the case for serverless computing.

As far as technology concepts go, containers and serverless computing are attracting fans and baffling IT departments in equal measure. And, while there is a degree of familiarity with the former, many are still trying to work out what role the latter will play within their organisation’s wider IT strategy.

Containers are an evolution of virtualisation technologies, and are abstracted from the underlying host execution environment, allowing them to be ported across other environments and multiple clouds.

Serverless, meanwhile, is an evolution of cloud computing and a bit of a misnomer. It does not mean “no servers”, but that developers no longer have to worry about underlying server and capacity management.

Developers write application functionality using serverless APIs and deploy their functionality on the underlying serverless platform, which – in turn – takes care of the provisioning and scaling up and down of resources based on usage.

The platform automatically manages services, which reduces operational overheads, and developers only pay for what they use.

The concept rocketed in popularity with the introduction of AWS Lambda in 2014, paving the way for the emergence of Azure Functions, Google Cloud Functions and Open Whisk.

Containers and serverless technologies are not mutually exclusive. There is a need for both and a “mix and match” approach can be a very efficient way of managing business and other functions.

If vendor lock-in and fine-grained control are major concerns, then containers could be the way to go. Typically, serverless has been used for limited tasks, such as running regularly scheduled functions or applications with multiple entry points in dedicated Virtual Machines (VM), where containers would be more efficient.

Making the case for serverless

Serverless does have a number of advantages over containers. It is utilised more for functional capabilities than executing business functions, and can automatically scale in response to spikes in demand and comes with a granular cost-model.

Furthermore, it brings operational simplicity and cost savings as programs can be run and terminated on call. Importantly, it makes the product life cycle more efficient and reduces overheads.

It also paves the way for cloud to truly function as a utility because it does not require any VM provisioning or upfront commitments. Enterprises only pay for what they use.

However, it comes with risks and service-level agreements (SLAs). A significant amount of operational overheads, initially managed by enterprises, now move to serverless platform providers.

This means enterprises or application developers have to monitor their apps (error tracking and logging) and SLAs, rather than the underlying infrastructure.

Overcoming the challenges

Organisations planning to ramp up their serverless deployments need to consider a number of factors. They include speed of development and release, the complexity of the solution, the SLA risks, as well as the threat of management and operational overheads and vendor lock-in.

While containers can provide better control of infrastructure and distributed architecture, with serverless you have less control of stack implementation and more focus on the business functions that can be executed.

These factors can be seen as part of an evolutionary process for cloud computing which will ultimately make it easier to use.

Already-virtualised, monolithic applications can be containerised with some effort but moving to serverless computing requires rewriting from the ground up. That is why the latter is worth considering for new applications, where time-to-market is critical.

What to consider

There are several concrete challenges any enterprise should consider when weighing up a serverless solution.

  1. It may require existing applications to be rewritten entirely – if you want to use a provider’s platform and the function on it.
  2. It could contribute towards vendor lock-in, as the application is dependent on the service provider.
  3. Tools for developing and debugging serverless applications are maturing, while standards for moving between different platforms are yet to emerge.
  4. Network latency and costs are additional technical considerations.

The efficiencies gained from serverless increasingly make it seem like an attractive option, despite the potential drawbacks in terms of set-up time, control and quality-of-service. There is no doubt serverless will have a major impact on enterprises over the next few years.

AWS, Google, IBM and Microsoft  have freemium products that allow enterprises to try before they buy, and this is fuelling interest.

Put simply, serverless computing provides one more option for enterprises to use public cloud services.  A significant number of workload jobs currently deployed on public clouds have dynamic demand characteristics.

Serverless adoption will increase as it brings developer efficiencies, performance improvements and speeds up time-to-market. Adoption will further be driven as new or existing applications are re-architected to leverage public cloud services.  Its uptake is strongly linked to overall cloud adoption, which is growing and will continue to grow over time. In short: serverless computing is here to stay.

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