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An introduction to serverless architecture

When your company is competing with a dozen others and you’re in a race to put out the best product features for customers, agility and speed to market matter. Decisions around technology infrastructure can be pivotal, the difference between executing your way towards product-market fit and letting your product roadmap languish. Traditionally, this involved provisioning and managing servers, a route that can be resource-intensive and costly. This is not ideal for the lean operation of a startup. As young companies strive to innovate and scale rapidly, they need systems that minimize technology management overhead and operational costs.

Against this backdrop, serverless architecture has emerged as a compelling option, promising high scalability and cost-effectiveness, without the burden of server management. According to a 2019 O’Reilly survey, 40% of respondents work at organizations that have adopted serverless architecture in some form. The top benefits driving this adoption are reduced operational costs and automatic scaling capabilities.

In this article, we’ll explore how serverless enables startups to focus their limited resources on building their core products and delighting customers, rather than maintaining infrastructure. By leveraging a serverless platform like DigitalOcean Functions, nimble teams can deploy code faster and scale seamlessly.

What is serverless architecture?

Serverless architecture is a way to build and run applications and services without having to manage infrastructure. The name “serverless” is a bit of a misnomer because servers are still involved; it’s just that developers no longer need to be concerned with them. The cloud provider manages the server space, dynamically allocating resources as needed.

What is FaaS?

FaaS, or “Functions as a Service,” is a core element of serverless computing. It offers a platform for developers to execute code without dealing with the underlying infrastructure. This service simplifies the process by managing the servers, resources, and scaling, typically a complex aspect of app development.

In a serverless framework, FaaS enables developers to focus on writing the business logic of their applications. The cloud provider takes care of the necessary server infrastructure, scaling up or down as needed, and automating resource allocation. With FaaS, serverless functions are executed in the cloud, allowing for efficient, event-driven computing by simply uploading the application code.

FaaS vs BaaS vs PaaS vs IaaS

FaaS is the most hands-off serverless model, allowing users to just upload code and never worry about infrastructure. However, there are several other cloud computing service models that are closely related to FaaS:

  • BaaS: Backend as a Service operates in a similar serverless manner as FaaS, but is focused on web and mobile app development backends. BaaS removes the need to code for backend features like databases, user authentication, APIs, storage, and more by providing these as services through a software development kit (SDK).
  • PaaS: Platform as a Service provides a cloud platform for users to develop, run, and manage applications without building infrastructure. PaaS systems still require managing the application stacks, runtimes, data, and services.
  • IaaS: Infrastructure as a Service delivers cloud computing infrastructure like servers, storage, and networking as an on-demand service. With IaaS, the cloud provider hosts the infrastructure while users purchase, install, configure and manage their own software, middleware, runtimes, data, and services.

How serverless architecture works

Serverless architecture streamlines the deployment of applications, freeing developers from the intricacies of server management. Here’s how it works:

  • Writing function code: The developer writes code for individual functions that will be uploaded to the FaaS platform. The code is typically in the form of a single function packaged in a container.
  • Uploading to FaaS: The functions are uploaded to the FaaS platform, such as DigitalOcean Functions. The platform operates as a functions-as-a-service cloud to execute the code in a fully managed way.
  • Managed infrastructure: The cloud provider handles all server and infrastructure management, including provisioning, scaling, availability, patching, operating system, etc. No servers are actually provisioned or managed by the developer.
  • Event-driven execution: The functions can be invoked and will execute in ephemeral containers via triggers like HTTP requests, database events, queues, monitoring alerts, file uploads, schedules, etc.
  • Task performance: The functions can perform tasks like processing data, running backend logic, connecting to databases and third party services, or calling other functions.
  • Ephemeral containers: Once the function executes, containers can be destroyed until they are triggered again. The cloud provider handles this automatically.
  • Compute time billing: Companies are billed based on the compute time consumed executing functions rather than having to manage infrastructure.

6 benefits of serverless architecture

Serverless architecture is changing software development, offering startups a way to maximize efficiency and innovation. By removing the need to manage servers, serverless computing allows companies to concentrate on developing serverless apps and backend code without the complexity of handling server hardware.

1. Reduced operational costs

Adopting a serverless framework translates to a reduction in operational costs. Without the need to provision and manage physical servers, businesses save on hardware expenses and ongoing maintenance. FaaS models provided by cloud providers mean you pay only for the computing resources used, cutting down the financial waste associated with idle server capacity.

2. Increased scalability

Serverless functions offer increased scalability. The serverless platforms automatically adjust computing resources to match the demand of serverless applications, allowing seamless scaling without the need for manual intervention. This elasticity ensures that serverless apps can handle varying loads, making it ideal for startups that experience unpredictable traffic.

3. Faster development

Serverless environments expedite the software development process. Developers can focus on writing business logic rather than getting bogged down by the infrastructure setup. The serverless service models offer out-of-the-box backend code solutions that accelerate the creation and deployment of web apps.

4. Flexibility

The flexibility offered by serverless computing is another benefit. Developers can deploy serverless functions or entire serverless applications quickly and with ease, making it possible to experiment with new features without extensive planning or risk. This agility empowers startups to adapt rapidly to market changes or user feedback.

5. Maintenance-free

With serverless architecture, the cloud providers handle the maintenance of the serverless environment. There’s no need for startups to dedicate resources to manage servers, as the underlying infrastructure, security patches, and updates are all taken care of, leading to a maintenance-free operation for serverless apps and serverless application development.

6. High availability

Serverless platforms are designed to provide high availability for serverless applications. By taking advantage of the distributed nature of serverless computing, web applications benefit from reduced downtime and increased resilience, as the serverless framework ensures that computing resources are always available when needed.

Use cases of serverless architecture

Serverless architectures are not a one-size-fits-all solution, yet they shine in scenarios where traditional infrastructure may falter. Some of the top use cases for serverless architectures include:

  • Web and mobile backends: Serverless architecture excels at powering the backend of web and mobile applications by processing APIs, handling database events, managing user authentication, sending notifications, and more. It enables developers to build and scale these backend services without directly dealing with server management or provisioning.
  • Stream processing: Serverless functions can respond in real-time to data streams from sources like Kafka, allowing for the seamless processing of streaming data without the burden of managing the underlying infrastructure. This capability is essential for applications that rely on immediate data processing and analytics.
  • ETL pipelines: Serverless computing transforms how ETL (Extract, Transform, Load) pipelines are constructed by allowing data transformation jobs to be scheduled as functions that are triggered at specified intervals. This serverless approach to ETL jobs eliminates the need for dedicated servers to run these processes continuously.
  • Event processing: Serverless functions are ideally suited for event-driven processing, executing code in response to various triggers such as file uploads, monitoring signals, or REST API calls. This reactivity enables applications to be both efficient and responsive to user or system events.
  • Cron jobs: Serverless functions offer a modern alternative to traditional cron jobs by allowing developers to schedule function calls that run at regular intervals. This method is more scalable and reliable than managing cron jobs on individual servers.
  • Microservices: Serverless architecture supports the microservices approach by allowing complex services to be decomposed into individual functions that work in concert. Each function can scale independently, providing flexibility and efficiency in resource usage and maintenance.

Tools that support serverless architecture

Serverless architecture is enabled by a suite of robust tools, with platforms like AWS Lambda, Azure Functions, Google Cloud Functions, and DigitalOcean Functions simplifying the deployment of serverless solutions. Each platform allows developers to focus on writing code rather than managing servers, albeit with their distinct features and advantages.

DigitalOcean Functions

DigitalOcean Functions distinguishes itself by prioritizing ease of use and transparent pricing, catering especially to small to medium-sized businesses and startups. DigitalOcean Functions is a serverless FaaS platform included with DigitalOcean App Platform. It allows developers to quickly write, deploy, and manage functions without managing infrastructure.

The service handles infrastructure, scaling, security and more automatically. Functions can execute code in response to events like API calls. Here are a few benefits and key features:

  • Run code on demand without managing servers
  • Auto-scales seamlessly without configuration
  • Pay only for the compute time used
  • Write functions in Node.js, Go, Python, Ruby, PHP
  • Integrates with other DigitalOcean services
  • Deploy instantly from GitHub

Pricing is simple and predictable at $0.000017 per GB-second, with discounts for volume usage and monthly free credits. Visit our tutorials to learn more: What is Serverless, How To Write a Serverless Function, and Best Practices for Rearchitecting Monolithic Applications to Microservices.

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