The Many Potential Benefits of Serverless Computing
The emerging cloud service can reduce costs and speed deployment times for many business customers, with those advantages often outweighing concerns about vendor lock-in.
Serverless is the next level of abstraction in cloud computing beyond infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) and platform-as-a-service (PaaS), with huge potential to transform the way many businesses consume cloud services (Figure 1).
The term “serverless” is, of course, a bit of a misnomer. The cloud service provider still uses servers, but, as with some other cloud models, the business customer has no role in provisioning and maintaining them.
The serverless model offers several advantages, particularly over IaaS and SaaS, for which customers often pay a fixed price per month or per year whether or not they use the entire capacity provided. By contrast, serverless models charge customers only for the resources used. It’s a true pay-as-you-go model, with significant projected costs savings over other cloud models for many workloads. In fact, one leading cloud vendor offers up to one million free compute requests per month, providing customers a large amount of computing power without huge upfront costs.
In addition to cost savings compared to fixed cloud pricing, the serverless model helps customers focus on their core businesses. Like other cloud models, the serverless model enables customers to potentially avoid the cost of a large in-house IT team and leave the worries of maintaining and patching servers to the cloud provider. For some large organizations, the savings could add up to tens of millions of dollars or more.
Deploy in Minutes
Serverless solutions also permit much faster deployment of resources than other cloud computing models. While an initial IaaS deployment can take hours or days, a typical serverless application can be deployed to an established account for the first time within minutes. Subsequent uses of the same function can happen within milliseconds.
Serverless solutions can also offer many organizations faster performance because the computing power is outsourced to cloud providers’ high-performance data centers. The model also helps allow for continual scaling based on the real-time workload needs of customers, and it tends to offer a level of stability that’s difficult to match, with cloud vendors providing highly available, fault-tolerant services.
The serverless model may be attractive to a wide range of businesses, including cash-strapped startups with flexible computing needs. Other potential customers include businesses that run web applications or depend on real-time analytics and data processing services.
Businesses with lighter-weight artificial intelligence applications, and those needing back-end computing support for internet of things or mobile services, may also find serverless computing beneficial. Current cloud customers looking to further cut costs, or businesses just now considering a move to the cloud, may also experience an easy transition.
Serverless computing isn’t always a good fit, however. Legacy applications or functions that require sustained computing power or do high volumes of reads and writes may not be good candidates. In addition, businesses running payment card applications that store credit card transactions may want to check whether their preferred cloud provider complies with the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard before moving ahead.
Dealing with Vendor Lock-in
Even for businesses that would see significant benefits from serverless solutions, one potential drawback is worth exploring: vendor lock-in. It’s easy and painless for a customer to sign on, but once an organization is running computing functions on a vendor’s infrastructure, it may be difficult to change vendors.
If an organization builds its application stack in one vendor’s serverless infrastructure, it may have difficulty transferring that work to another vendor without additional re-engineering. This means vendor lock-in may be a barrier for some IT executives concerned about vendors changing their pricing or service terms, or exiting the serverless business model altogether. It can be a valid concern.
Nonetheless, the potential benefits of serverless solutions — faster deployment, developer productivity, enhanced scalability, better performance, and lower infrastructure and maintenance costs — will likely outweigh the risks for many organizations. Customers of most businesses don’t care which vendor is running their back-end infrastructure — they simply want an application to work when they click a button. Serverless solutions may provide that certainty.
‘The potential benefits of serverless solutions — faster deployment, developer productivity, enhanced scalability, better performance, and lower infrastructure and maintenance costs — will likely outweigh the risks for many organizations.’
Meanwhile, customer concerns about cloud business models may be diminishing, as cloud providers reach a level of maturity. With cloud providers competing aggressively, customer surprises about pricing or service changes should be minimal for the foreseeable future.
In addition, moving among cloud vendors is not as difficult as it used to be. An increasing number of third-party companies are now offering cloud orchestration services to help isolate customers’ reliance on individual providers. As part of that service, orchestration vendors provide an abstraction of the customer’s cloud provider, allowing serverless customers to use a third-party orchestration layer with its own set of APIs not specific to the cloud provider.
With a competitive cloud marketplace and third-party orchestration providers to ease potential switches between vendors, the concern about vendor lock-in should be minor for most potential serverless customers. The benefits, on the other hand, could be significant for many organizations.
Large Cost Savings for One Organization
One large transportation organization moved to serverless computing as a way to fix unpredictable and often slow response times between its databases. The move enabled real-time operational queries via microservices for downstream applications. In addition, while the organization’s analytics and business intelligence dashboard for sales had previously refreshed data every 24 hours, the move to serverless computing allowed near-real-time reporting and analytics.
The change also made it possible for the organization to create a centralized source of sales data. This allowed it to reduce the high level of data redundancy caused by a lack of integration and consistency across its repositories. The organization initially saved about $335,000 a year by cutting support and maintenance costs for its existing systems.
— Produced by Scott Buchholz, Ashish Varan, and Gary Arora, all with Deloitte Consulting LLP. The article was originally published in The Wall Street Journal’s CIO Journal, “The Many Potential Benefits of Serverless Computing”