What is Cloud-Native? A Comprehensive Breakdown
Cloud-native is "normal" these days. It solves a bunch of issues and is continuing to evolve. We discuss the pros and cons.
Cloud-native is a software development approach which leverages cloud computing infrastructure to build, deploy and manage applications. This development approach allows modern businesses to build modular, scalable, and resilient applications that meet dynamic customer needs.
Once upon a time, companies that developed their own software would run it on a server in their basement. This made sense because the specialists that helped develop their complex applications were already on-site.
This approach was limited for a reason reasons. Firstly, it’s hard to scale globally if your team is required to be on-site at each server location. Secondly, there’s a financial barrier to entry for creating an application. Not only do you need software developers, but also system engineers and the hardware to run the application.
There are more reasons behind the rise of cloud computing, but these are the big two. Cloud-native has taken off over the past decade and it’s given rise to a whole new economy of services. It’s even given rise to a category of “serverless” products like Hasura and Fauna that remove the need to configure a server completely and provide databases on a pay-per-use basis.
I’m personally old enough to have worked with on-site servers at my first agency, but the rest of our team has known nothing but the cloud. We like to stay abreast of the advancements in this area, and focus on MACH (Microservice, API-first, Cloud-native and Headless) technologies. This is why we’re laying down some of our knowledge around the question of what is cloud-native and how it works.
In this post, we’ll explore cloud-native applications including their characteristics, and development process, as well their advantages and disadvantages.
Principles of cloud-native
Cloud-native development approach is based on a set of key components that enable the development and deployment of highly scalable, resilient, and flexible applications in the cloud. These components include:
In cloud-native development, an application is designed based on microservice architecture, which breaks down the application into smaller, modular services that can be developed, tested, and deployed independently. Each microservice handles a specific functionality and communicates with other microservices using lightweight protocols such as REST.
This architecture differs from the traditional monolithic architecture where the business logic, user interface, and database are bundled into one deployable unit. As a result, it becomes almost impossible for a business to iterate its application without downtime.
Containerization is a way of packaging and deploying applications that allows them to run consistently across different environments. It's an important concept in cloud-native since an application is built using a microservices architecture, which breaks down the application into smaller, modular services that can be developed, tested, and deployed independently. Each microservice is packaged as a container, which contains the application code, runtime, and dependencies. Containers provide a consistent runtime environment for each microservice, making it easier to deploy and manage the application across different infrastructure platforms.
Containerization also provides a more secure and isolated runtime environment, which reduces the risk of conflicts between applications and dependencies. Each container is isolated from other containers running on the same host, providing an additional layer of security and reducing the attack surface of the application.
Additionally, containerization allows for higher levels of resource utilization, as multiple containers can be run on the same host, reducing infrastructure costs and improving operational efficiency.
Automation and orchestration
In a cloud-native environment, applications are composed of smaller, independent services that communicate with each other through APIs, making them more dynamic and complex.
Automation and orchestration tools, such as Kubernetes, provide a way to manage this complexity by automating the deployment, scaling, and management of cloud-native applications. These tools enable organizations to manage complex and dynamic application environments, ensuring high availability and reliability. Kubernetes in particular provides a declarative way of describing the desired state of an application, and automatically manages the deployment, scaling, and monitoring of containers to achieve that state. It also provides features such as self-healing, rolling updates, and load balancing, which enables organizations to achieve high levels of availability and scalability.
DevOps is a set of practices and tools that enable organizations to deliver software faster, more reliably, and at a lower cost. It focuses on creating a culture of collaboration, automation, and continuous improvement between the development and operations teams.
In a cloud-native environment, DevOps enables faster time-to-market by automating the application deployment pipeline and providing a way to continuously deliver and deploy applications. DevOps tools and practices enable organizations to achieve faster feedback cycles, reduce manual intervention, and improve operational efficiency.
Also, by integrating testing and deployment activities, DevOps practices enable organizations to find and fix issues early in the development cycle, reducing the risk of production failures. It also enables organizations to achieve higher levels of availability and scalability by providing tools and practices for automating scaling, self-healing, and monitoring of applications.
Advantages of cloud-native for businesses
Cloud-native applications offer several advantages over traditional monolithic applications. Here are some of the key benefits of adopting a cloud-native approach:
Agility and flexibility
Cloud-native applications are designed to be modular meaning that each component of an application runs in its own container. This design allows developers to quickly and easily add new features or modify existing ones, without having to make changes to the entire application. The flexibility allows businesses to adapt to changing business needs.
Scalability and resilience
Scalability refers to an application's ability to handle large amounts of traffic and user requests without downtime. While resilience refers to an application's ability to withstand failures and continue functioning without interruption.
Cloud-native applications are designed to be highly scalable and resilient, thanks to their microservices architecture and containerization. Services like DigitalOcean and AWS are great examples of this. With a few clicks and 5 minutes, a hosting environment can have more memory and CPUs added, giving it more power to handle the traffic.
Microservices architecture also enables applications to be broken down into smaller, independent components, where each service can be scaled up or down.
Containerization, on the other hand, enables applications to be deployed in lightweight, isolated containers, which can be quickly spun up or down to match changes in demand.
On a less technical note, cloud-native means businesses can choose to spin up new servers in different locations across the globe. This is a huge benefit to scaleability for any business that transcends international borders, especially eCommerce. Black Friday sales coming up in the U.S. ? No problem, just spin up a few new servers in different data centers across the country and a load-balancer to distribute the traffic accordingly. There's no way to emulate this level of scaleability without the cloud.
Cloud-native applications leverage automation throughout the development and deployment pipeline. This includes using automated testing, continuous integration, and continuous delivery tools to quickly build, test, and deploy new features and updates. This reduces the time and effort required for manual testing and deployment and helps to speed up the overall development cycle.
When building a cloud-native app developers can work independently on different components of the application without having to coordinate with other teams or wait for changes to be made to the entire application. This means that new features and updates can be developed and deployed faster, reducing the overall time to market for the application.
This benefit is in complete contrast to non-cloud infrastructure where an engineer needs to connect to a computer on the same network as the server (in the same office), copy the files over, and re-run the application.
Reduced infrastructure cost
Traditionally, building and maintaining on-premise infrastructure to run applications can be costly, time-consuming, and require specialized skills. However, cloud-native applications are designed to run in the cloud, which means businesses don't have to pay someone to manage the physical hardware.
The cost savings from cloud-infrastructure still make complete sense to most businesses, but there is a trend of larger companies recognizing that there's a threshold where it's actually cheaper to buy a few servers and pay to keep them running.
Basecamp publicly announced they were leaving the cloud after receiving a $3,200,000 monthly hosting invoice. The point to take away here is that for most businesses, the cloud is going to bring hosting costs down, but once you're as big as Basecamp, it might be time to re-examine the savings.
Improved security and compliance
Cloud-native applications are designed with security in mind from the ground up. They are built using secure coding practices and are typically deployed in a containerized environment that provides an extra layer of security. With the use of automation tools, security measures can be built into the application development lifecycle, making security a top priority throughout the entire process.
Containerization provides a level of isolation between applications and services, making it easier to identify and isolate potential security breaches. Since each microservice is in a separate container, any security vulnerabilities can be easily contained and addressed without impacting other services or the entire application.
The security standards are further strengthened by cloud-native apps’ ability to implement disaster recovery and business continuity strategies. This comes from the fact that cloud-native applications are designed to run in distributed environments, and as such, they can be easily replicated across multiple geographic locations. This provides redundancy and failover capabilities that can help businesses recover quickly from an outage or disaster.
As for compliance, cloud providers often offer compliance certifications together with their services, such as HIPAA for healthcare data, PCI DSS for payment card data, and GDPR for personal data.
Challenges of cloud-native adoption
Despite the many benefits of cloud-native applications, there are also several challenges that organizations may face when adopting this approach. Here are some of the most common challenges:
Limited skills and expertise
Cloud-native applications require specialized knowledge and skills to develop, deploy and maintain. Developers must understand containerization, microservices, and distributed systems to create cloud-native applications.
It's not unheard of for developers to be comfortable configuring infrastructure, but it's more common for them to suggest finding a DevOps engineer to help out. Writing software is already a highly complex challenge with infinite learning paths, there's no need to add another thing to learn.
DevOps specialists are tricky to track down and often don't work like freelancer engineers, because their engagements are much quicker. It doesn't take that long to configure or maintain simple cloud hosting environments.
Compatibility with legacy systems and applications
Many organizations have legacy systems and applications that were not designed for cloud-native architectures. These systems may be difficult to migrate to a cloud-native environment, or they may require significant re-architecting to be compatible with modern cloud-native architectures.
Expensive to implement
While cloud-native applications can offer significant benefits, such as improved scalability, resilience, and security, they also require significant investments in infrastructure, skills, and tools. Organizations must carefully weigh the costs and benefits of adopting a cloud-native approach to ensure that they can achieve a positive return on investment (ROI).
Cultural and organizational shift
Adopting a cloud-native approach may require significant cultural and organizational changes. It may require organizations to shift from traditional hierarchical structures to more flexible, team-based structures that enable collaboration and rapid iteration. It may also require changes to existing processes, policies, and workflows.
That said, if you’re looking to move your traditional systems to cloud-native, there are some implementation strategies you should consider.
Cloud-native implementation strategies
Cloud-native implementation strategies involve various approaches to migrating applications to the cloud-native architecture. We've already written a fairly detailed guide to modernizing legacy systems and all the things you should consider, so we'll just touch on the highlights.
Here are some of the most common cloud-native implementation strategies:
Lift and shift
This strategy involves moving existing applications to the cloud without making any significant changes to the application architecture or code. The application is essentially "lifted" from its existing environment and "shifted" to the cloud. While this strategy can be a quick way to move applications to the cloud, it does not take advantage of the benefits of cloud-native architectures.
Replatforming involves making some changes to the application architecture or code to make it more compatible with cloud-native architectures. For example, an organization may move an existing monolithic application to a cloud-based platform such as Kubernetes, which allows for better scaling and resilience. While this strategy can offer some benefits of cloud-native architectures, it may not fully leverage the capabilities of the cloud.
Refactoring involves making significant changes to the application architecture or code to make it more compatible with cloud-native architectures. This strategy involves breaking down monolithic applications into smaller, more manageable microservices and deploying them in containers. This approach allows organizations to take full advantage of the scalability, resilience, and flexibility of cloud-native architectures.
Build from scratch
Building from scratch allows organizations to fully leverage the capabilities of the cloud and develop applications that are highly scalable, resilient, and flexible. However, this strategy requires a significant investment in skills and expertise in cloud-native architectures and tools.
Best practices for cloud-native
Once you have adopted a cloud-native development approach, you need to implement a few practices to fully leverage its benefits. These practices include:
Design for resilience and fault tolerance
Cloud-native applications are designed to be highly available and resilient. This means that they can withstand failures and continue to operate even if some components fail. To achieve this, organizations must design their applications to be fault-tolerant and resilient. This involves using techniques such as redundancy, replication, and load balancing.
Implement continuous delivery and integration
Cloud-native development requires organizations to adopt a continuous delivery and integration approach to software development. This approach involves automating the build, testing, and deployment processes, allowing organizations to release new features and updates quickly and efficiently. This approach also helps to ensure that software is reliable and stable.
Cloud-native applications are highly distributed, and it can be challenging to identify issues and troubleshoot problems. To address this, organizations must implement robust monitoring and logging solutions. This involves collecting and analyzing data from various components of the application and using this data to identify issues and improve performance.
Frequently asked questions
Q: What is the difference between cloud-native and traditional application development?
A: Cloud-native development is an approach to software development that leverages the scalability, flexibility, and agility of the cloud. Traditional application development typically involves building and deploying applications on local servers or data centers.
Q: How can organizations get started with cloud-native development?
A: Organizations can get started with cloud-native development by identifying the most critical applications and services that can benefit from the cloud, building a strong foundation in cloud-native architecture, and implementing best practices for software development and deployment.
Q: What are the benefits of cloud-native development?
A: Cloud-native development offers several benefits, including improved scalability, resilience, security, and cost savings. It also enables organizations to release new features and updates quickly and efficiently.
Cloud-native development offers many benefits for organizations looking to stay competitive in today's fast-paced digital landscape. It leverages cloud infrastructure, microservices, containerization, automation, and DevOps practices, which helps businesses achieve greater scalability, resilience, security, and cost efficiency, while also accelerating time-to-market and improving the customer experience. However, cloud-native adoption can also present challenges which must be accounted for before implementation.
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