Cloud-native, according to most definitions, is an approach to software design, implementation, and deployment that aims to take full advantage of cloud-based services and delivery models. Cloud-native applications also typically operate using a distributed architecture. That means that application functionality is broken into multiple services, which are then spread across a hosting environment instead of being consolidated on a single server.
Somewhat confusingly, cloud-native applications don't necessarily run in the cloud. It's possible to build an application according to cloud-native principles and deploy it on-premises using a platform such as Kubernetes, which mimics the distributed, service-based delivery model of cloud environments.
Nonetheless, most cloud-native applications run in the cloud. And any application designed according to cloud-native principles is certainly capable of running in the cloud.
How Does Cloud-Native Work?
Cloud-native is a high-level concept rather than a specific type of application architecture, design, or delivery process. Thus, there are multiple ways to create cloud-native software and a variety of tools that can help do it.
In general, however, cloud-native applications share certain core features:
- They are built using a microservices architecture. This means that application functionality is distributed across a number of microservices, which interact with each other to operate the full application.
- They rely extensively on APIs to integrate internal components with each other, as well as to interact with third-party services.
- They are updated iteratively and continuously using software development strategies such as DevOps.
- They are deployed across a distributed environment, such as a cluster of servers, rather than on a single server.
You can sum all of the above up by saying that cloud-native applications are essentially applications designed and built using modern tools and methodologies. In many respects, "cloud-native software development" has simply become a shorthand for "modern software development." Both terms are somewhat ambiguous, but that is the point here: Just as there are many ways to modernize software design and development operations, there are many ways to approach cloud-native.
What Are the Benefits of Cloud-Native?
Cloud-native offers a variety of benefits over traditional application design and development strategies — meaning those that center on techniques such as monolithic architectures, on-premises deployment, and single-node hosting environments:
- Resilience and reliability: Because cloud-native applications are usually deployed in distributed environments, they are more resilient in the face of failures and disruptions. A single server failure — or even the failure of multiple servers — typically will not cause the application to fail because services can be redeployed to other servers in the cluster.
- Scalability: Cloud-native encourages scalability by allowing applications to be broken into discrete parts. Each part can be scaled individually, making it possible to scale efficiently and quickly. For example, if there is a spike in application logins, the application's authentication service can be scaled up to handle the increase, even as the rest of the application continues operating at normal capacity.
- Efficiency: Cloud-native applications tend to be highly efficient from both a cost and performance perspective. That's because they can consume only the resources they need from the cloud services that they interact with. Monoliths and single-node applications are often not as efficient because they may tie up an entire server — even if they don't need all of the resources available on the server all of the time.
- Faster innovation: Cloud-native breaks applications into multiple components that can be developed individually, using their own codebases. It also encourages continuous, iterative development via methodologies like continuous integration/continuous delivery (CI/CD). In both ways, cloud-native makes it easier to create new features and innovate.
- Portability: Applications designed using a cloud-native approach can typically run in any cloud, as well as any on-premises hosting platform that manages resources on a service-based model (like Kubernetes). In this respect, cloud-native apps tend to be cloud- and infrastructure-agnostic, making it easy to port them from one environment to another without having to modify the application itself.
- Automation: Cloud-native makes it easy to take full advantage of automation tools when deploying and managing applications. For example, cloud-native applications are frequently deployed using containers, which can be orchestrated using tools such as Docker Swarm or Kubernetes that automatically handle tasks like load balancing and workload placement.
What Are the Drawbacks of Cloud-Native?
While cloud-native is a great way to speed application development, maximize efficiency, and improve reliability, it poses some challenges. The most common include:
- Complexity: Simply put, cloud-native development strategies and application architectures are more complex than those of traditional applications. Cloud-native apps consist of more moving parts and require a more complicated development process than monolithic applications that are developed using a single codebase. For this reason, organizations that embrace cloud-native must implement tools and processes that allow them to manage the complexity of both the application development process and the application deployment and management process.
- More tools: Along similar lines, cloud-native apps typically depend on more tools, leading to a more complex technology stack. Whereas monoliths can often be deployed using just VMs, a cloud-native application might be deployed using containers, which run on VMs and are orchestrated via Kubernetes. In addition, development techniques such as CI/CD require teams to manage a number of tools (CI servers, IDEs, source code managers, and so on). In all of these respects regarding cloud-native applications, teams must learn and keep track of more tools and technologies.
- API dependency: While the API-centric design of cloud-native apps makes it easy to consume resources on an as-needed basis, there are drawbacks to depending extensively on APIs. APIs can introduce security concerns that wouldn't otherwise exist. Also, API performance or availability issues could impact cloud-native application performance, and these problems can be difficult to troubleshoot due to limited visibility into third-party APIs (like those provided by cloud vendors).
- Lock-in risk: While cloud-native applications can be designed to be vendor-neutral by using open APIs and technologies, this is not always the case. Some cloud-native applications may require APIs from a specific cloud vendor or depend on a specific orchestration platform, leading to vendor or platform lock-in.
Examples of Cloud-Native Development
Cloud-native development is widely used today across organizations of all types and sizes. Consider the following examples and use cases for cloud-native:
Refactoring legacy applications
Businesses that have legacy applications designed to run on-premises may embrace cloud-native as a means of overhauling and modernizing those applications. Typically, this effort requires refactoring, which means redesigning applications in such a way that they can run in distributed environments and take full advantage of service-based delivery models.
Organizations seeking to take advantage of containers, which are more efficient and often perform better than virtual machines, may turn to cloud-native to do so. While you don't have to use containers to go cloud-native, containers lend themselves well to microservices-based, service-oriented development and deployment techniques.
Embracing cloud-native is a great way to begin a migration into the cloud, or to double-down on existing investments in the cloud. Technically speaking, your apps don't have to be cloud-native to run in the cloud; you could deploy a monolith on a cloud-based VM to run it in the cloud, for example. But to take full advantage of the cloud, and achieve the best balance between cost and performance in cloud environments, you'll want your applications to be cloud-native.
Because cloud-native architectures and development strategies tend to make more efficient use of resources, cloud-native is a common strategy for businesses seeking to reduce their IT operating costs. Although going cloud-native doesn't automatically guarantee cost efficiency, well-designed cloud-native apps will cost less to run and update than traditional applications.
As noted above, cloud-native applications tend to be more reliable because they remain available even if part of the host infrastructure fails. For this reason, organizations looking for ways to make their applications more reliable and, in turn, improve the end-user experience should consider cloud-native.
By allowing organizations to take full advantage of distributed, service-based application hosting environments, cloud-native leads to better outcomes for businesses, developers, and users alike. Not every application needs to be cloud-native, but in general, cloud-native is the way to go when building new applications or overhauling legacy apps.