What does cloud-native application development mean?
Let’s start by explaining what cloud native means. According to Gartner, the term ‘cloud-native’ is an approach that “refers to something created to optimally leverage or implement cloud characteristics. Those cloud characteristics are part of the original definition of cloud computing, and include capabilities delivered as a service. Cloud computing characteristics also include scalable and elastic, shared, metered by use, service-based, and ubiquitous by means of internet technologies”.
On the Microsoft website, you will come across the following definition:
“Cloud-native architecture and technologies are an approach to designing, constructing, and operating workloads that are built in the cloud and take full advantage of the cloud computing model”.
Cloud-native technologies explained by the Cloud Native Computing Foundation
The official definition by CNCF, an open source cloud-native platform established in 2015 that provides computing resources and popularizes the usage of cloud-native technologies, is as follows:
“Cloud native technologies empower organizations to build and run scalable applications in modern, dynamic environments such as public, private, and hybrid clouds. Containers, service meshes, microservices, immutable infrastructure, and declarative APIs exemplify this approach. These techniques enable loosely coupled systems that are resilient, manageable, and observable. Combined with robust automation, they allow engineers to make high-impact changes frequently and predictably with minimal toil.”
Soft spot for cloud-native development = nerves of steel?
- Today, almost 80% of respondents admit they use either a private, hybrid or public cloud.
- More than 70% expect to use cloud-native technologies in their projects.
- But only about 50% of tech leaders admit knowing a lot about cloud-native solutions.
Currently, the key question is not whether to use cloud technologies in business, but how to do it skillfully. Given the current pace of digitalization, IT project managers are looking for new ways to quickly deploy scalable applications that can be updated frequently while remaining operational and accessible to users. On the other hand, due to their complexity and the multitude of tools and competences needed, developing and maintaining cloud-native apps may seem troublesome.
An improperly implemented and managed cloud solution can come as an unpleasant surprise: “It was supposed to be cheaper, and it isn’t.” Is it then worth implementing? Yes, but to approach this challenge, you need a warm heart and a cool head, meaning a passion for technology combined with know-how and facts. If you are reading this article, you probably do not lack the former, so let us take care of the latter. By the end of the article, you will learn about important technical aspects related to cloud computing and the most relevant services allowing you to make the most out of the cloud environment.
Why do we need cloud-native apps?
Today software is changing exponentially faster than even a decade ago. Therefore, the application lifecycle also differs. Building and running application releases is done less often in phases (design > build > test > implement > improve), and more frequently in the CI/CD model. The more tech-savvy among us, however, will no doubt be aware that it stands for the Continuous Delivery/Continuous Deployment model. As it says on DevOps.com, it is “the process of releasing bite-sized software changes on a regular basis.”
How regularly? According to The State of Continuous Delivery report, one-third of development teams release changes anywhere from once a week to once a month, while elite performers (10% of all developers) release changes several times a day. And that makes a difference! These new applications also use cloud-native techniques, thanks to which development teams can deliver state-of-the-art enterprise systems – available from anywhere and often from any device. Some of the most widely recognized companies born in the cloud include Netflix, Uber, and Airbnb. But today, anyone can reach for the clouds.
What are cloud-native apps?
Simply put, cloud-native software applications are designed, built, and optimized in such a way as to rely on cloud computing technologies and fully use the potential of the cloud.
The abovementioned Gartner definition highlights the importance of the optimization, scaling, and flexibility capabilities of cloud-native solutions. This is possible thanks to the right mindset and making use of the proper architectural approach which utilizes microservices, containerization, serverless solutions, as well as efficient value stream management supported by DevOps methodology, to name but a few (don’t worry, we’ll explain all these concepts below).
In the past, applications were often created with a “we’ll get by somehow” approach, meaning we can check how they work, then improve them and make them more secure after deployment. Today, safety aspects are considered at the design stage. For example, DevOps teams that develop cloud-native apps use Value Stream Management practices, an agile practice that allows you to determine what the value of the developed software is, and focus your efforts and resources on what works, rather than developing non-functioning or irrelevant areas. Therefore, cloud-native applications developed in this model are more likely to deliver value and respond to real customer needs. All of this, of course, while meeting high security standards at the same time.Expert insight
Cloud native technologies and approaches worth knowing
Perhaps, while looking for the best digital development strategy, you have come across terms such as microservice, container, service mesh or cloud API.
Microservices architecture is based on independently created and implemented functionalities that are loosely tied-in, usually with isolated stateless API calls and their data storages (business domain). The advantage of this solution is, among other things, that it is less vulnerable to failure. The dysfunction of a single microservice does not affect the others and does not put the functioning of the entire system in jeopardy. The modern cloud application is based on such small functional components, deployed in containers (see below) that “cooperate” with each other to provide final value to the end user.
This term brings to mind huge containers stored down at the docks which can be moved from ferry to ferry. And not without reason as, just like in shipping, the IT industry uses containers to isolate and carry collected packets of (micro)services. This kind of virtual container includes all the main and dependent components you need to quickly run an application/service and, perhaps most importantly, in different clouds.
Containers (in conjunction with container orchestration tools such as Kubernetes) improve stability and reliability and address peak performance demands for services that applications deliver to customers.
- Cloud Application Programming Interface (API)
Systems and services communicate with each other using API (Application Programming Interface). Cloud API means an API for creating and managing cloud resources issued by a given cloud provider. When creating an application, the cloud provider also issues the Cloud API so that other systems or services can communicate with it.
The name might suggest that there are no servers. However, the opposite is true. It’s an approach in which programmers can focus on business logic without bothering about physical servers. The administration of servers is taken over by the cloud service provider, while you receive an environment with a specific capacity for software development. In addition, you don’t have to worry that their operation will uncontrollably consume too much of the capacity allocated to you.
Serverless applications use as much capacity as requested (may be set constant or rules for scaling out/up may be applied depending on current performance and external load demand) and hence are scalable and run when they are triggered by specific events (you may also come across the name “event-driven architecture”).
Finally, all the above does not happen without human action. Developers, engineers, and testers with suitable competencies design applications, build artifacts, perform provisioning and configure the required infrastructure and continually improve cloud applications, taking advantage of the DevOps culture.
To implement the DevOps approach, it is not sufficient merely to have automation tools. It is the way you use them and manage your value delivery stream considering best practices and cultural/organizational aspects that counts. For some, there is a need to conduct transformation that calls for a change in the mindset and culture so that development and operations teams work closely together. The DORA DevOps Research Group study found that top DevOps performers deploy even 200 times more frequently.
Benefits of cloud-native software development
- Better time to market – with microservices and containers, cloud-native applications can be built by software developers and deployed much faster than standard applications. According to IBM research, over 70% of IT managers, executives, and programmers agree that cloud-native principles allow them to develop and launch apps faster.
- Secure by design – security solutions for cloud-native applications are created during the development stage (by utilizing the DevSecOps approach and security mechanisms delivered by cloud providers) which translates into a higher level of safety. Architecture based on small components also allows you to better protect your data than in the case of huge monolithic applications that are more vulnerable to attacks.
- More frequent updates – the microservice architecture allows you to update functionalities in a way that is unnoticeable to the end user. While one service is being worked on, the others are still functioning, which makes the system highly available to users. According to Microservices and the containerization trend report, over 90% of users consider the implementation of microservice architecture to be a success in terms of cost savings, return on investment, the facilitation of development and reliability.
- UI/UX area perspective – thanks to distributed architecture, modern applications are faster and more responsive, which also translates into a better User Experience. Today, customers expect reliable solutions. Fail to live up to their expectations and you are out of the game. Companies that provide a great User Experience are a magnet for new customers and find it easier to maintain a stable customer base. Cloud-native solutions minimize the risk of downtime, which is especially important whenever you need to handle increased traffic (e.g., during popular events like Black Friday, etc.).
- Constant monitoring – more updates mean more changes/value delivered. And these need to be monitored. With the DevOps approach, utilizing proper monitoring tools, your specialists gain a 24/7 insight into the functioning of the system and can react quickly to any abnormal behavior.
- Cost optimization – thanks to billing plans such as “Pay as you go”, you pay only for the resources you use during a particular period – for example, the actual time of functioning of a given app. Research reveals that businesses often spend over 80% of their IT budget on maintaining the existing infrastructure. At the same time, they keep 30% of their data center capacity unused. Cloud-native apps are highly scalable, allowing you to allocate costs to applications that are always up and running instead of improving existing architectures and systems.” Cloud-native applications’ high scalability allows for more efficient cost allocation. For more insights on optimizing your cloud expenses in Azure, delve into our guide on Azure Cost Management, which offers strategies for efficient cost management in Azure environments.
- Easier expansion on the market – API integrations create opportunities for development and introducing your system to new markets. For example, almost 50% of Salesforce.com revenue is generated from API integrations.
Cloud-native architecture: what’s the catch?
Do cloud-native apps have any disadvantages? At the very beginning, we mentioned that cloud technologies also give rise to some concerns. Here’s what to keep in mind when deciding on cloud-native solutions:
- Dependence on many different tools – according to an OutSystems report, 50% of cloud-native leaders admit to having difficulties when it comes to identifying the right platforms and tools. An extensive technological stack can be a challenge when creating cloud-native applications. Depending on your needs and capabilities, you will have to choose tools, pick the right cloud resources available from a cloud provider, and implement the right practices for your organization that cover many areas such as source versioning systems management, artifacts repository, CI orchestrators, container runtimes, container orchestration, infrastructure provisioning tools, monitoring and alerting etc.
- API can become the weak point of an application – we have mentioned that cloud-native applications rely on APIs. The other side of the coin is that any API-related issue can affect the performance and security of an application. APIs might be vulnerable to attacks and, if not properly secured, can turn into a gateway to your data and systems. In addition, if you use an API from an external provider, you do not have full insight into their functioning.
- Vendor lock-in risk – some applications or tooling may require the use of a specific cloud provider’s API, which in turn may lead to reliance on a single service provider, aka vendor lock-in.
APIs can be secured at many different levels: at the cloud mechanisms level, at the vendor level etc. API security needs to be carefully considered at the design stage. That’s why it is so important to take advantage of the support of cloud-native software development experts who will apply DevSecOps mechanisms. This approach addresses security aspects and continuously checks critical vulnerabilities based on OWASP best practices. Pentesting and testing of critical vulnerabilities takes place once again after implementation as well, as in-depth testing of individual solution components before deployment is not possible.Expert insight
How do I choose the right solution?
The largest cloud vendors, Microsoft, Amazon and Google, provide opportunities to build scalable cloud-native solutions. At Inetum, we have vast expertise in utilizing AWS and Azure cloud platforms. This allows us to build efficient cloud native applications for our partners. However, which solution you choose will depend on many factors ranging from non-functional requirements to licensing, pricing, SLA requirements etc. Before you decide to go all in, you should always consult your ideas and capabilities with specialists who will analyze and advise on a solution tailored to your needs.
We hope this article has helped you understand what cloud-native apps are and what technologies and approaches are behind their success. Remember – when you think about cloud-native application development, you don’t have to go all in. There are plenty of other options nowadays. You can move services to the cloud in stages, e.g., using lift and shift or a hybrid model (moving only part of your services to the cloud). Software houses and IT services companies such as Inetum offer the services of DevOps experts who can advise you what the right model for your needs would be. There are also times when it’s worth waiting for the right moment to use the cloud – but that’s a topic for a separate article.