Ten Advantages of Serverless Architecture for App Development

The basic principle of web applications is communication between the client and the server. The client is installed on a user's device and makes requests to the server which responds by providing the corresponding service or resource.

The history of web application development has worked its way from hardware servers through cloud hosting and containerization to serverless architectures. Each new option was a solution to the eternal challenge of increasing the infrastructure reliability, robustness, scalability, at the same time, reducing its cost.

What is a serverless architecture? Despite the term, serverless does not mean that there are no servers. Simply put, it means that the application components are distributed between multiple servers with no need for the application owner to create or manage the infrastructure supporting it. Application developers don't need to concern themselves with organizing and maintaining the infrastructure as it remains the responsibility of the computing service provider.

Advantages of Serverless Architecture

The advantages of serverless architecture are many, and we will look closely at some of them.

  • The first advantage we think about when we hear the term “serverless architecture” is reduced cost. If the application is running on hardware servers, you have to start with purchasing your equipment and then you need to organize its proper maintenance – the premises, the electricity, the cooling, the maintenance staff... – Very expensive. You can do better if you use cloud computing – you just “lease” computing capacity from the provider, thus avoiding most of the maintenance costs. However, you will still be charged for the idle time of your virtual servers. Serverless architecture can help you reduce the infrastructure cost even more, as your application components will be running on multiple servers and consuming only as much computing power as needed. No charges for idle time – you will only pay for the resources you actually use.
  • Another benefit developers appreciate in serverless architecture is the extended possibility of using third-party services. A lot of server-side logic can be implemented with third-party services, the so-called Backend-as-a-Service, or BaaS. For example, your application can use Auth0 as authentication service or AWS DynamoDB for database hosting. Such approach reduces the development effort required to create mobile application backend architecture, as a significant part of it is already available from third parties.

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  • The underlying concept of serverless architecture is Function-as-a-Service or FaaS. FaaS provides a computing platform for code deployment in the form of event-driven functions, for example, AWS Lambda. Each function performs a certain operation and is executed when triggered by a certain event. This is when the computing resources are actually consumed and this is what you are charged for. In this respect, serverless architecture may seem a form of microservice architecture, however, this is not exactly true. Microservices are a form of application deployment with individual business functions implemented as separate services and further integrated. If we compare serverless vs microservices architecture, we will see that micro services are focused on separating the functions and decentralizing their management and not necessarily deployed in serverless form. Function-as-a-Service can be referred to as “serverless microservices”, for its distribution of functions running on multiple servers.
  • Scalability – this is what application developers always strive for and what is perfectly achievable in serverless architectures. An application should be able to reliably handle peak loads which, if we talk about hardware or virtual servers, requires some redundant computing power. Between peaks, this capacity is not used but still generates costs. When you go serverless, scalability is no longer a problem, as you can scale horizontally as much as you want. AWS Lambda can quickly clone and distribute computing resources according to the load so that the costs are kept to the necessary minimum.
  • With applications deployed as separate functions, the overall resiliency is increased. Each function is executed independently from others, so any function failure does not affect the overall application performance.
  • When you deploy your application on a serverless framework, you do not need to worry about the service availability – this is the responsibility of the provider and is supported by default.
  • Latency, or the time of application response, is one of the critical issues which can affect its performance. Latency greatly depends on the physical geography, that is the distance to the data center. In serverless architecture, the problem of latency is next to negligible, as providers usually ensure global coverage and presence, thus guaranteeing the shortest possible response time.
  • If we look at serverless architectures from the application development point of view, we will see that its usage has its benefits here, too. First, with a wide variety of available third-party services and the code stripped down to writing functions, developers can focus on user experience and create truly powerful applications with lots of useful features and friendly interfaces.

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  • As opposed to server architecture, with no physical or virtual servers, serverless architectures require no administration. No administration – no related costs and, what's even more important, no administration failures.
  • And, the last but definitely not the least, placing applications on serverless platforms reduces the overall time-to-market. This is the result of most of the factors we have mentioned before – no time spent on resource provisioning, simpler code, use of ready-made third-party services, etc. End product delivery takes less time, thus giving the company an additional competitive advantage.

Are Serverless Architectures the Universal Solution?

In view of the advantages we've listed above, it may seem that serverless architectures are a sort of a “magic pill” for all applications. Indeed, they are cost-effective, reliable, they reduce the development effort and production time – what more can you ask for? However, when considering the advantages, you also need to factor in the eventual drawbacks and evaluate whether the former outbalance the latter in your particular case.

  • Vendor lock-in. This is the typical disadvantage of using third-party services or products. If, for whatever reason, you decide to switch to a different service provider, in most cases the service will be implemented in a different way. This means you will need to modify your deployment structure to accommodate the service from a different third party.
  • Multitenancy. On serverless platforms, the same resources are used by multiple customers or tenants. On one hand, this achieves scalability we've mentioned before, while on the other, multitenancy can cause some security concerns, as data of several customers exist next to each other, performance issues, as one of the customers can suddenly produce unusually high load affecting other customers' applications, or even application failures caused by errors in the other tenant's code.

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  • Poor configurability. When you deploy your application on the FaaS basis, you are limited to the configurability of specific functions which is next to non-existent. You cannot assign different characteristics to the same artifact – you need to write a different artifact instead.
  • Debugging issues. Using FaaS, for example, AWS Lambda, you cannot run a function locally to see if it performs as intended. You only have to commit it and then watch it crash. In this case, extensive logging can help – with every step logged, it is easier to identify the error.
  • Duration restriction. AWS Lambda has a time limit for running a function – 300 seconds. Whenever the limit is reached, the function is aborted. So, for more complicated tasks requiring a longer time to execute, FaaS approach may be unsuitable. Splitting a task into several simpler functions can be a solution if the task allows it.

So, Should I Go Serverless Or Not?

As usual, the answer is “it depends”. Serverless architectures can be a great option for quick and easy deployment of scalable web applications with rich user interfaces. However, when enhanced application security, development flexibility or high loads are the primary concern, look at other deployment options, such as microservices or containers. 
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