Serverless computing takes away the necessity for you to think about the computing capacity required for running your software. And what’s more: it lets you execute and pay for it on-demand. What is serverless computing exactly and what are the benefits?

Summary of Cloud Service Models

Before we discuss the concept of serverless, have a look at the following diagram that presents a short recap of Cloud Service Models. As you go through each of the diagram’s pillars from left to right, the focus shifts to the activities required to provide application functionality to end-users.

Figure 1: Overview of Cloud Service Models

The model that is closest to on-premise IT is Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS). This model provides the basic building blocks for Cloud Computing. The dedicated or virtualized hardware (networking, storage and computing resources) is owned and hosted by the Cloud Service Provider and is provided to a company in a virtual manner. This company can self-provision the infrastructure on-demand, and does not have to worry about maintaining the hardware. IaaS allows the company to focus on utilizing the infrastructure and consumption-based payment, instead of maintaining the infrastructure and making investments on it.

IaaS allows the company to focus on utilizing the infrastructure and consumption-based payment.

The second service model, Platform as a Service (PaaS), provides the operating system, middleware and runtime on top of the infrastructure layer. PaaS allows companies to focus on managing the scale of the infrastructure, in addition to the deployment and management of their applications. Management of underlying infrastructure is abstracted away.

PaaS allows companies to focus on the deployment and management of their applications.

The last model in the picture is the Software as a Service (SaaS) model, in which the application and data are also managed by the provider. The software is licensed on a subscription basis and is hosted centrally. Well known examples of these complete software products, available as SaaS services, are: Office365, Google Apps, and SalesForce. SaaS allows a company to focus on how to use the functionality provided by the application, while it does not have to manage feature additions, servers, or operating systems.

Serverless computing

Now that we understand the various cloud service models, we can look at the position of the concept of serverless computing. It should not come as a surprise that serverless computing does not mean that there are no servers involved. The core idea of serverless computing is that you don’t have to think about the infrastructure and computing capacity required for your logic. Answering questions like how many instances of your application are required or how many Virtual Machines you need become obsolete. In this sense, the “serverless execution model” can be positioned between the pillars PaaS and SaaS.

Serverless computing: Backend as a Service

The serverless concept can appear in different forms. One way to look at it is the use of 3rd party backend services within your own solution. Let’s take an example by looking at identity provider functionality. Functionalities such as authenticating a user based on credentials and resetting a user’s password are provided by products such as Azure Active Directory B2C, or Auth0. A functionality is executed on the basis of incoming events (http service calls). These products take care of scalability and let you pay per authentication. In addition to this, some products allow you to add custom logic to their solution to tailor functionality to your needs. The functionality in itself does not have any end-user value – it is a “semi-finished” product that needs to be integrated in a solution. This appearance of serverless computing is referred to as Backend as a Service (BaaS).

Serverless computing: Function as a Service

Another appearance of serverless computing is about breaking down an application or a microservice into discrete functions. These small bits of code, that are configured to be executed on the basis of events, enable efficient resource utilization. The code of these functions is deployed and configured into a cloud environment, and the cloud provider takes care of running these pieces of code triggered by events coming in. This is also referred to as Function as a Service (FaaS). FaaS allows a company to focus on the logic that a piece of software needs to provide, and to pay for it per execution. In the case of FaaS, the focus is on the development and deployment of small pieces of source code. Cloud providers have jumped in the FaaS space with their own offerings: AWS Lambda (Amazon), Azure Functions (Microsoft), Google Cloud Functions, and IBM OpenWhisk.

With FaaS the focus is fully on the logic that needs to be provided: the code

FaaS matches perfectly with the concept of microservices, mobile and Internet of Things (IoT). It provides auto-scaling and load balancing out-of-the-box, saving you from having to manually configure clusters, load balancers, etc. The only thing you need to do is to give the code to your cloud provider and trigger it through events.

Characteristics of serverless computing

Giving a single definition for serverless computing is likely to lead to some discussion. The best way to define serverless computing is, therefore, to state the characteristics it complies to. If we look at the descriptions of BaaS and FaaS as described above, these characteristics are:
• it is event-driven
• computing is done on-demand
• scaling is done out-of-the-box

Events

Execution of backend functionality or function code is triggered by an event. The types of events depend on the ones offered by the cloud provider. This can range from a file update on Amazon S3 or OneDrive, a timer event, a message on a queue, or an incoming HTTP request.

Containers

Containers are used in the core.. Containers wrap a piece of software in a complete file system that contains everything that is required to run this software: code, runtime, system tools, and system libraries – anything that can be installed on a server. This guarantees that the software will always run in the same way, regardless of its environment.
With serverless computing, the application code is taken, placed into a container, executed, and torn down without you knowing anything about this process and its underpinnings. This provides for execution on-demand and easy scaling.
The cloud provider takes care of finding a server for the code to run on, and it scales up if necessary. The way in which this is physically implemented, for instance the container architecture, varies between the cloud providers.

Benefits of serverless computing

Efficiency in IT spend

FaaS, BaaS or other means of serverless computing can be much cheaper, because you pay per execution, and you don’t pay for resources that are idle. What’s more, no money is lost on managing the infrastructure and platform required to do scaling. There’s a variety of pricing models available, so calculating the break-even point based on your demands is advisable.

Value-driven development

Value-driven development lets you focus on the functionality that is to be delivered, and maximizes the time you spend on delivering true added value to your end-users. Non-value activities such as managing the infrastructure are removed from the software development process.
This fulfils the goal of Lean software development: eliminating waste by removing the non-value added components from the software development process, which is more cost-efficient.

Event-driven architecture

As mentioned earlier: FaaS matches perfectly with microservices, mobile and IoT, which are the modern architectures of today. This is because of the event-driven nature and level of granularity of FaaS. This type of architecture with its loose coupling of components and good distribution is a real strength, allowing for architectural agility and high scalability.

A revolution?

Serverless computing is a logical evolution of Cloud Service Models. In its current form I don’t regard it as a revolution. Revolutionary would be the possibility of moving beyond virtual machines and containers. Imagine that you just upload your cross-platform application code, in your preferred programming language, to your favorite cloud provider. And your code will run without you knowing anything about the application container, execution environment, and the operating system it will be running on. It auto-scales out-of-the box and you pay per execution. That is going to be real serverless computing.

This article is part of XPRT. magazine.

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