Understanding serverless and serverful computing in the cloud era

Understanding serverless and serverful computing in the cloud era

Two distinct methods have emerged in cloud computing: serverless and serverful computing. Serverless computing represents a significant departure from traditional approaches, offering exciting possibilities for innovation, operational streamlining, and cost reduction. But what exactly does it involve, and how does it differ from the established serverful model?

Serverless computing introduces an approach where you, the developer, only worry about the code you need to run, not the infrastructure around it. This narrowing of focus simplifies operational management and cuts expenses by pushing the server management tasks elsewhere. As a concept, it’s similar to Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) or contracting out Facilities Management. You’re concentrating on the areas where you have IP or can build value and letting someone else own those non-core processes that extract value.

In contrast, Serverful computing is how most organizations have consumed the Cloud, where you are accountable for managing and overseeing servers while providing you with the most control and customization options.

Empowering IT professionals and developers with knowledge of these approaches and their inherent tradeoffs is crucial for devising an effective cloud strategy. Your expertise and understanding are key to choosing the right approach for your business.

John Bradshaw

UK Director for Cloud Computing Technology and Strategy at Akamai.

Defining serverful vs serverless cloud computing

Serverful computing, or traditional server-based computing, involves a hands-on approach to deploying applications. In this model, you are responsible for managing the servers that run your applications, which includes provisioning servers, updating operating systems, scaling resources to meet demand, access control, and ensuring high availability and fault tolerance.

This approach provides more control over your IT infrastructure. You can customize almost every aspect of your environment to suit your application. For example, you can deploy additional security controls or software, tune the kernel to get maximum performance or use specific operating systems needed to support aspects of your application stack—all of which aren’t readily achievable in a serverless environment.

On the other hand, Serverless computing takes most of the complexity away from managing cloud computing infrastructure by abstracting away the infrastructure. With this abstraction, you avoid directly managing cloud servers and instead hire backend computing in an ‘as a service’ model. There are still servers, but you no longer need to worry about them; the provider ensures they’re available, patched, compliant, and secure.

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Serverless and Event-Driven computing are often used interchangeably, but whilst they overlap, there are some crucial differences.

Serverless computing can be used to implement event-driven architectures because it can automatically scale to handle a varying number of events and only charges for actual execution time. For instance, a serverless function can be triggered by an event such as an HTTP request or a message in a queue.

Not all event-driven architectures are serverless, and not all serverless functions are event-driven. Event-driven systems can also be built using traditional serverful infrastructure, and serverless functions can perform scheduled tasks or be invoked directly by an API rather than being driven by events.

Identifying which type is right for your business and your application

There is no one-size-fits-all approach, and you may find that you use both options even within a single application. In an HR system, storing employee records in a serverful database is practical to support complex or long-running queries, such as payroll processing. However, multi-stage and ad-hoc time-off requests are well-suited for a serverless application.

Serverless computing offers two primary advantages: simplicity and an execution-based cost model. By adopting serverless, businesses can manage their infrastructure more easily, as the cloud provider takes care of server provisioning, scaling, and maintenance. This approach allows developers to focus on writing and deploying applications without the burden of managing underlying servers.

Serverless computing also enhances efficiency and resource utilization, as businesses only incur costs for the actual computing power used and when used. Business leaders can plan more simply because they know that each transaction costs 𝑥 and we expect 𝑦, so our bill this month will be 𝓏.

When used on platforms with open standards, for example, NATS.io instead of a Hyperscaler’s data-streaming solution, this transaction-based model can significantly reduce expenses and unlock new opportunities for innovation, freeing developers and managers to concentrate on building high-quality applications rather than dealing with infrastructure complexities.

On the other hand, serverful computing provides businesses with greater control and customisation over their infrastructure. By managing your servers, you can tailor their environment to meet specific needs and ensure high performance, reliability, and security. This approach is beneficial for applications that require consistent and long-term resource allocation, as it allows for fine-tuning and optimization that serverless models may not offer.

Additionally, serverful computing enables direct oversight of the hardware and software stack, enabling detailed monitoring and troubleshooting. This hands-on control can be crucial for enterprises with stringent regulatory requirements or those needing to handle sensitive data securely.

Why flexibility remains the most significant challenge

While serverless computing offers compelling benefits, it also presents challenges that businesses must navigate. On a smaller scale, being serverless is a highly efficient way to consume cloud computing services. When demand begins to ramp up, it can rapidly become costly, especially if platform lock-in is a factor. Think of it like taking a taxi versus buying a car. A taxi ride once a week is a cheap way to get home from the office, but taking a taxi to and from the office every day, to and from your kids’ school to drop them off or collect them, and to the shops at the weekend for groceries is going to quickly become outrageously costly when compared to buying a car.

To mitigate these risks, companies need to establish a culture of cost monitoring, open standards, and vendor evaluation. Choosing vendors with low or no egress fees can help control expenses, and using open standards ensures the app’s portability. This avoids the risk of introducing technical debt by becoming overly reliant on a single provider’s proprietary services or APIs. This will hinder flexibility and increase migration complexities down the line, potentially resulting in significant refactoring costs.

Balancing the advantages of serverless computing with these challenges requires careful planning and strategic decision-making to ensure long-term success in the cloud environment.

Balancing the tradeoffs and the future of Cloud Computing

The decision here is how you manage the tradeoffs inherent in serverful and serverless computing: control vs consume, open standards vs proprietary, fixed costs vs dynamic cost base. Looking ahead to the next six months and beyond, serverless and serverful computing are poised to continue evolving in response to changing business needs.

While offering simplicity and cost-effectiveness, serverless computing remains constrained by factors such as speed and latency, much like other cloud-based services. However, many providers have built Edge and Distributed platforms that deliver more sophisticated serverless offerings, bringing computing power closer to end-users, mitigating latency issues and enhancing overall performance.

In contrast, serverful computing will maintain its relevance, particularly for applications requiring more significant control over infrastructure, higher performance, or specific regulatory or security requirements. There will always be a place for both serverless and serverful cloud computing. As cloud technology continues to mature, we may see advancements in serverful computing that improve automation, scalability, and resource optimization, further enhancing its appeal in certain use cases.

Ultimately, the future of cloud computing lies in striking the right balance between serverless and serverful approaches, leveraging the strengths of each to optimize performance, efficiency, security, and agility in an increasingly digital world.

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