Thoughts about serveless

I drafted this post some time in 2022, and never got around to posting it. I wanted to publish it as it contains some good links and thinking points.

My last role gave me a chance to play more with serverless code in the form of AWS Lambda. While the issues around the cold starts still need managing in some way, I’m am excited about serverless as a technology and think it should be more widely adopted.

The main advantage of serverless is not having to think about servers. They are still there, but can be mostly ignored. As Justin Etheredge neatly put it, “Managing servers is a nasty side effect of wanting to execute code.”

Not having to think about servers means a lot of things become simpler. Most compelling of these is having a smaller attack surface against hackers. Another is not having to maintain servers. Amazon has dedicated engineers responsible for managing the machines and upgrading them, and has the advantage of massive economies of scale. Companies can focus on the code that delivers the value for their customers.

We’ve moved from having ‘servers-as-pets’, keeping the same instance running for months; to ‘servers-as-cattle’ with puppet to create new ones; to ephemeral containers – but we still have to manage resources, even if they’re just Docker config files. This is a very different role to programming, and leads to the dev/ops split. All servers are a drag, even if they are containers being managed by Kubernetes.

Which is not to say that serverless means being able to ignore ops completely, as Charity Majors has explained. Observability is vital, and you will still encounter issues where the abstractions of serverless leak through. The structure of an application comes to contain a significant amount of logic (for example which queues connect serverless applications) and one needs to be careful of this.

For me, one of the main advantages of serverless is that it enforces good behaviour. AWS Lambda is inherently stateless, since any state can last only for a single request. Paying for the time a request takes focuses developers on writing smaller pieces of code, thereby following more effective cloud patterns. The ease of adding lambdas also avoids the problem with persistent servers where it is easier to add to an existing microservice than handle the overhead of creating a new one, even where it is necessary.

One of the risks is lock-in. From a code point of view, serverless abstractions have appeared, and well-written code ought to be easy to port. However, moving the data for a cloud application would likely be fearsome and expensive, and I’ve not seen much writing about how that would occur. Picking serverless over container-based code is probably the least of your problems with that sort of migration.

Another issue is that serverless is not perfect for all situations – long running processes or those dealing with calls to high-latency services are probably better handled by container-based services – although I think people do not make enough use of serverless.

One thing is that I’ve seen less discussion than I would expect of Serverless as a hobbyist option. In one way, it’s as straightforward as a CGI-BIN, but there is the risk of cost, given that you’re paying for every bot that visits your application. Having said that, serverless applications can still be as cost-effective as hosted applications for small-scale apps. The monitoring and management of AWS costs is an ongoing problem.

Gunnar Morling gave a good talk at QCon, Serverless Search for My Blog with Java, Quarkus & AWS Lambda which explored all aspects of using serverless for a hobby project. There is also Robin Sloan’s discussion of cloud on his blog, including how he uses a hack to get around the cold-start issue. Such hacks are probably more relevant to hobby sites than production software, but is discussion of the topic is illuminating.


First steps in servlerless

I’m starting a new job next month where I’ll be using AWS Lambda. In preparation, I’ve been cramming on the topic. The main resource I’ve used is O’Reilly’s Programming AWS Lambda, and I’m enjoying learning from an actual physical book with an animal on the cover.

Here’s a quick summary of some of the other sources I’ve been looking at:

  • Mike Robert’s Serverless Architectures post is massive, and full of really useful discussion. This includes: a comparison between serverless and stored procedures (vendor locking, difficulty testing and versioning); the value of reduced time to market; environmental benefits of serverless; and the challenges of integration testing.
  • Gunnar Morling produced a good infoQ talk, Serverless Search for my blog, which discusses AWS Lambda used for a Lucene-based blog search. Morling uses Quarkus to avoid lock-in, and also suggests this gets around the cold-start problem. He also suggested Funqy as an vendor independent abstraction for serverless code. Morling points out that serverless has a smaller attack service, but looked in detail at dealing with a ‘denial of wallet’ attack.
  • Bruce Schneier discussed The Misaligned Incentives for Cloud Security, warning that it has a few large providers making technical decisions for millions of users; and that security problems such as data breaches affect their customers more than it affects them.
  • Guy Podjarny talks about the security issues in greater detail in Serverless security: What’s left to protect. He points out that one still needs to consider dependency vulnerabilities. While security permissions in serverless can be very granular, there is also a risk of this sprawling. Podjarny makes a number of suggestions including having critical and non-critical functionality in different accounts or regions.
  • Serverless and Chatbots: A Match Made in the Cloud by Gillian Armstrong was focussed on chatbots, but had a good overview of a lambda-based platform in production. Armstrong also noted that while lambdas scale every quickly, other parts of an infrastructure such as datastores might not.
  • A 2020 article Why the Serverless Revolution Has Stalled takes a more cynical approach, looking at four potential issues: limited programming languages; vendor lock; performance; inability to replace monolithic applications. Some of these issues have been solved by some teams, but all these points are worth considering.
  • Cloud study by the writer Robin Sloan discusses his use of cloud functions to provide simple support for running his newsletter. His solution to the cold start problem is, he admits, not best practise, but works for him: “Instead of deploying each of my functions as Actually Different cloud functions, I’ve rolled them up into one “mega function”—really almost a tiny app.” This solves a lot of issues for this small piece of functionality, not least that it fails fast: “if something isn’t working, nothing is working
  • Another post on cold starts suggested reducing the artefact size and had a good discussion of using pings to keep services live.
  • Operational Best Practices #serverless talked about how serverless limits the amount of code an enterprise needed, and that BaaS, FaaS and BaaS can all help speed up dev, particularly early in the process “You get to rent engineers from Google, AWS, Pagerduty, Pingdom, Heroku, etc for much cheaper than if you hired them in-house — if you could even get them, which you probably can’t because talent is scarce.”
  • That piece also contains a stern warning: “there is no such thing as having the luxury of not having to understand how your storage systems work. Queries will get slow, and you’ll need to be able to figure out why and fix them. You’ll hit scaling cliffs where suddenly a perfectly-usable app just starts timing everything out because of that extra second of latency coming from … The more you understand about your storage system (and the more you stay in the lane of how it was intended to be used), the happier you’ll be.

Using serverless for hobby projects does look attractive. But, having tried to get S3 and IAM working on AWS, I’d be reluctant to suggest that to anyone – particularly given the financial perils of AWS.