Why Are Some Engineers Missing The Point of Serverless?

The danger of looking at IT architectures from a single angle.

Recently, I saw a video from a really great developer and YouTuber, Ben Awad, where he discussed Serverless not make any sense. Even though I really enjoyed the video, I am not sure if the author’s points about serverless are entirely valid, and I want to discuss them in this article. 

In the introduction, the author made a joke: 

There are two things in this world I don’t understand — girls and serverless.

I don’t know about his relationship with girls, but is he right when it comes to serverless? Let’s have a look at his criticism and discuss potential counter-arguments. Spoiler: I think that serverless DOES make sense if you know WHEN and HOW to use it.

Critique about serverless

The primary argument mentioned in the somewhat controversial YouTube video is speed. To put it more concrete, the major drawback of serverless applications from the author’s standpoint is the (well-known) “cold start” problem — the added latency where your code potentially cannot start execution until the underlying cloud service finishes allocating compute resources, pulling the code or container image, installing extra packages, and configuring the environment.

Engineers who prioritize execution speed above everything else give the impression that the ultimate success metric regarding the entire application lifecycle management is measured by how fast our code can finish the task it needs to perform. As a person who has worked in IT and has seen real problems with respect to maintainability, and the ability to quickly and reliably provide business value by leveraging technology, I am not sure if such a metric properly measures what matters most — the time to value, the speed of development cycles, ease of maintenance, keeping the costs low for our end-users, lowering the risk of operational outages by facilitating seamless IT operations, and finally, allocating most of our engineering time to properly solve the actual business problem rather than spending it on configuring and managing servers.

Why are some engineers missing the true benefits of serverless?

If you care about the execution speed to the point that the occasional 200 milliseconds (up to 1 second, acc. to AWS) of added latency is not acceptable by your workloads, then serverless may indeed not be an option for you, and that’s totally fine. But we should not go as far as saying that serverless doesn’t make sense because of that latency. Everyone needs to decide for themselves what latency is acceptable in their use case.

Serverless is an incredibly cost-effective and efficient way of managing IT infrastructures that is particularly beneficial for IT departments that may not have thousands of dollars that can be spent on idle resources and a specialized team of support engineers maintaining on-prem servers 24/7.

The low costs of serverless may significantly outweigh any drawbacks

In most use-cases I’ve seen, serverless is orders of magnitude less expensive than self-hosted resources, which is already true when only considering the actual compute costs. If you also consider that serverless significantly reduces the time needed to operate, scale, and maintain the infrastructure (the Total Cost of Ownership — in short TCO), then you will realize the true amount of cost savings. The truth is that a team of full-time engineers maintaining the infrastructure is considerably more costly than any serverless resources.

I’m not implying that serverless options are always cheaper for every use case. If you are consistently getting hundreds of millions of requests, your workloads are very stable, and you do have enough engineers who can monitor and scale all those resources, you may indeed be better off with your self-managed infrastructure. 

The cold start is a question of configuration and budget

Coming back to the question of costs, the cold start problem these days is, to a large extent, a function of how much you are willing to spend and how you configure your serverless resources. 

If you are willing to pay something extra, there are many ways of mitigating the cold starts, such as leveraging pre-warmed instances (provisioned concurrency) or making deliberately more requests (fake requests) to ensure that your environment stays warm. With a monitoring platform such as Dashbird, you can easily get notified about any cold start that occurs, thus optimizing your usage of serverless resources. In the image below, you can see that among 29 invocations, we could observe one cold start, which added roughly 180 milliseconds of latency to the total execution time.

serverless cold starts latency
Dashbird observability features help to identify and prevent cold starts — image by the author

And you can easily configure a Slack or email alert for any cold start to be aware of how often they occur.

lambda cold start alert
Setting up an alert on cold starts in Dashbird — image by the author

Techniques to improve the latency of your Lambda functions

You can reduce the latency of serverless functions by properly leveraging the “context reuse”. AWS freezes and stores lambda’s execution context, i.e., everything that happens outside of the handler function. If another function is executed within the same quarter, the frozen environment can be reused. This means that you will get significantly better performance if you specify time-consuming operations such as connecting to a relational database outside of the Lambda handler. This article explains the topic in great detail.

There are so many fantastic articles discussing how to mitigate or even fully eliminate cold start issues such as this one and this one. In fact, Dashbird has open-sourced a Python library called xlambda that can help you keep your Python-based Lambda functions warm.

What latency is acceptable by your workloads?

Eventually, it would be best if you asked yourself what latency is acceptable by your use case. When talking about latency caused by cold starts, we are usually arguing about milliseconds. In all use cases that I encountered in my job as a data engineer (also building backend APIs), the latency in day-to-day business is not noticeable.

Lastly, platforms such as the serverless Kubernetes service from AWS (also known as EKS on Fargate) allow you to mix the serverless and non-serverless data plane within a single Kubernetes cluster. This mix gives you the ability to run your mission-critical low-latency workloads on a non-serverless EC2-based data plane, while other workloads (ex. batch processing) can be served by the serverless data plane, obtaining the best of both worlds. You can find more about that in this article.

Serverless is about “NoOps” and scalability

Serverless allows you to deliver value to your business faster since the cloud provider takes care of IT operations, i.e., provisioning and scaling compute clusters, installing security patches and upgrades, taking care of hardware crashes, memory issues. This gives you so much of your time back that you can leverage to serve your end-customers better. Isn’t it what matters the most in the end? 

Automation behind serverless frees up the time of highly skilled engineers so that they can focus on solving business problems rather than managing clusters. It allows to offload IT operations to DevOps experts at AWS that have likely more know-how about managing compute than any other company on this planet.

Use cases that strongly benefit from serverless

Imagine that you have just founded a start-up. At first, you may not need a large cluster of resources, and you may have only a single developer. The serverless paradigm allows you to start small and automatically scale your resources as your start-up grows with the pay-as-you-go cost model.

Similarly, another group that can strongly benefit from serverless are small businesses that may not have a large IT department. Being able to manage the entire application lifecycle with perhaps just a single specialized DevOps engineer (rather than an entire team of them) is a huge advantage of serverless.

If your workloads are seasonal in nature, serverless is a great option, too. For instance, if you have an e-commerce business, you likely experience seasonal peaks during Black Friday and Christmas season. A serverless infrastructure allows you to accommodate your compute to such circumstances. 

Also, some events are simply unpredictable. Imagine that you have been selling hand sanitizers, disinfectants, face masks, and similar goods in your online shop. Then, a global pandemic happened, and now everyone needs your products. A serverless infrastructure prepares you for any scale under any circumstances.

Code speed vs. speed of development cycles

Apart from the code execution speed, we should also consider the development speed. In many cases, the serverless microservice paradigm allows much faster development cycles since, by design, it encourages smaller individual components and lets you deploy each service independently from each other. 

If serverless enables you to quickly deliver the first versions of an application to your stakeholders and iterate faster in the development cycle (while simultaneously reducing costs), then a few milliseconds of added latency due to occasional cold starts seem to be a small price to pay.

Seamless integration with other cloud services

By taking AWS as an example, each serverless service integrates with CloudWatch for logging, IAM for managing access permissions, CloudTrail for collecting metrics and traces, and more. In addition to that, serverless platforms usually provide you with basic building blocks to build larger decoupled microservice architectures, such as integrating with a serverless message queue (SQS), serverless publish-subscribe message bus (SNS), serverless NoSQL data store (DynamoDB), and object storage (S3).

The actual downsides of serverless not considered in this video

Having discussed all the benefits of serverless, there are also some drawbacks that have not been mentioned in the video, but I want to list them to give you a full picture without sugar-coating anything.

Even though for many use cases, serverless seems like a paradise in terms of costs, scalability, and maintenance, it’s not a silver bullet for every use case.

  1. You risk vendor lock-in: the cloud providers make their services so convenient to use and cost-effective that you inherently risk being locked into their specific platform.
  2. When comparing serverless to self-hosted resources, you have, to a certain degree, less control over the compute resources. For instance, you cannot SSH to the underlying compute instances to perform some configuration manually, and you also have less freedom with respect to the instance type. For instance, you cannot run your serverless functions or containers on compute instances with GPUs (for now).
  3. If you have some specific compliance requirements that prevent you from processing your data on a shared tenant in the cloud, then serverless may not be an option for you.
  4. Even though splitting your IT infrastructure into self-contained microservices helps manage dependencies and allows for faster release cycles, it brings another challenge regarding the management of all “moving parts”. While monitoring solutions, such as Dashbird solve this particular problem to a large extent, you need to be aware of the trade-offs.

Conclusion on the critique about serverless

Overall, it often becomes problematic when we want to use new paradigms such as “serverless” or “cloud services” in the same way we used to build self-hosted on-prem technologies — it’s simply not the best way of approaching it. By following the “lift and shift” principle when moving your workloads to the cloud, you lose many benefits of the cloud services or even misinterpret their purpose. There is no one-size-fits-all solution because we cannot expect any technology to be usable for all use cases, be the fastest in the world, and cost close to nothing without having some downsides (such as occasional cold starts). 

From my perspective, we should not talk about serverless (or frankly about anything IT-related) by only considering a single aspect without examining other crucial aspects, especially those that have been fundamental in the design of the respective technology. In that sense, serverless DOES make sense if you know WHEN and HOW to use it.

References & additional resources:

[1] Ben Awad — “Serverless Doesn’t Make Sense”

[2] AWS Docs on Lambda context reuse

[3] Serverless-plugin-warmup for Javascript and xlambda Python package

[4] AWS Docs on provisioned concurrency

[5] AWS Lambda under the hood — video

[6] Dashbird blog article about solutions to cold starts

[7] Dashbird blog about cold start impact on latency

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Dashbird gives us a simple and easy to use tool to have peace of mind and know that all of our Serverless functions are running correctly. We are instantly aware now if there’s a problem. We love the fact that we have enough information in the Slack notification itself to take appropriate action immediately and know exactly where the issue occurred.

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