Serverless, Codeless, and Headless Trends in eCommerce Development

You may have noticed that more and more words containing the “-less” suffix are appearing in IT architecture terminology. Serverless, codeless, and headless are becoming hot trends in ecommerce development. At the Virto Commerce DevLabs, we use all these “-less” technologies, so we know what we're talking about, as well as all their pros and cons. So, today we’ll discuss how these “-less” IT trends affect your online business and when they’ll work most effectively for you.

Why Have These Trends Emerged?

Everyone has probably heard about the pendulum principle in our lives. First, everyone deifies some idea and follows it, sometimes excessively. Then people find drawbacks and actively abandon it. For example, there was a time when orange juice was recommended by nutritionists as a necessary element of a healthy diet, and now they say that natural juices should be strictly limited, so as not to burden our pancreas too much.

IT technology, too, has not escaped the pendulum principle in the world of software development. The fact is that today a software developer has to know a large number of programming languages and frameworks, which are constantly being improved with new versions being released. It turns out that the developer must spend a lot of time training on their own, so as not to fall behind the technology pace. This leaves less working time for the actual tasks and building of new software products.

The situation calls for simplification of software development technologies, so that the industry is not faced with a lack of the right number of skilled personnel. Since the technology race cannot be stopped and there is no magic to get back to the good old days of Windows XP, simplification has gone the way of increasing the level of abstraction.

Codeless and headless in development tools and serverless in the use of cloud-server virtualization are examples of this simplification through abstraction. Let’s dive into these topics to see how successful these abstractions can be when applied to ecommerce.

What are these three technologies?

All these three technologies make software developers’ lives much easier as they don’t need to spend time configuring servers, writing code, or repeating the front-end apps for different devices.


Serverless

This is a cloud-computing execution model in which the cloud provider hosts your application on cloud servers and dynamically allocates machine resources.

Codeless

Also known as low-code platform allows developers to create applications using visual editor without writing a code

Headless

This technology is decoupling the back-end code from the user interface (UI) application, so the connection is achieved by API (application programming interface) only. Therefore, the same back end can work with many front-end applications. This is like wiring just one desktop unit to several monitors in your workplace.


I hope you feel a little clearer, then let's get into the details.

How Codeless and Low-Code Development Works

Codeless development tools can be further refined into no-code and low-code tools. Many people identify codeless and no-code as the same, while low-code is a category of tools assuming a user has at least some minor developing skills.

Both the terms “codeless/no-code” and “low-code” development refer to the concept of creating applications without writing code. In other words, codeless development tools allow people with very little knowledge of programming languages to build an application.

There are a number of different codeless development tools on the market, but they all essentially work in the same way. First, you need to select the type of application you want to create. Then, you drag and drop various “widgets” or “modules” into a visual editor. These modules are pre-written snippets of code that perform specific functions. To transfer data from one module to another, you can use so-called “connectors”.

Visually, connectors look like arrows on a block diagram, but you have to pick the right connector with relevant functionality for each module. To simplify this task, the visual editor offers various templates with preconfigured connectors.

Challenges of Codeless and Low-Code Development

We at Virto DevLabs believe that for any toolkit, its functionality versus cost should be the starting point. Professional developers, for example, are rather skeptical about codeless / low-code platforms because of a few drawbacks:

  • Any human developer usually cannot read the code of an application created with an automated codeless tool, as the code is absolutely unreadable.
  • People can edit functionality of the application only in the tool in which it was originally built, so you will have to stack this tool.
  • People from business units who are considered the target audience for codeless / low-code development tools are not able to fix bugs in applications created automatically by themselves. They must hire a professional developer to help and, therefore, incur the cost of a developer’s very expensive time.

Low Code in eCommerce Development

The concept of low-code development is promoted as a faster and easier alternative to traditional software development, known as "code first." Both professional developers and advanced business users (so-called "citizen developers") are expected to use low-code technologies to speed up the building process for applications in business automation, integration, and digital transformation acceleration.
Azure logic apps
Azure Logic Apps welcome screen
Low code platforms use visual interfaces to build algorithms, where, like Lego, you can build applications by dragging and dropping functional blocks on the screen and marking dependencies between them. Azure Logic Apps is one of the most popular tools for low-code development.

Virto Commerce is an open-source, .NET-based B2B ecommerce platform with both cloud (Azure, AWS, Alibaba, Google) and on-premises hosting. The Virto DevLabs team uses the cloud-based Azure Logic Apps tool for low-code development of integrations on the Virto Commerce ecommerce platform. To learn more on this topic, read our blog post, Low Code Integration Scenarios in Virto Commerce Using Azure Logic Apps.

What Is Serverless?

The idea of “serverless” is to provide you with the option to rent a cloud server with hardware resources that are essentially undefined. You don’t have to know what server hardware you need for a project (e.g., the number of CPU cores, memory, disk space). The data center (aka hosting provider) provides the appropriate server configuration automatically, depending on the load created by your application.

The term “serverless” is deceiving in itself.

It can be attributed more to marketing

rather than technology in the cloud-hosting market.

In fact, all serverless applications run on servers anyway.

Often these are the same servers you can rent

as virtual machines or as dedicated, ”bare-metal” ones

Serverless computing is a long-term technology that can be used to launch short applications with the goal of performing some functions and then no longer needing storage for output data. An example would include launching an application where you input your currency code and load current exchange rates from different sources like Bloomberg or BDS Analytics APIs before finally displaying how many dollars equal one unit in this second currency. So it's easier for customers when making purchases online using their preferred local payment methods instead.
Serverless method
Image source: Microsoft (with FaaS added by the author)
 
While early examples focused solely on calculations within certain industries such as finance (e.g., calculating the amount owed based on what someone owes against another account), today we see developers utilizing these tools beyond just processing financial transactions by creating serverless applications for various industries including ecommerce.
Serverless computing, regardless of where it’s being used and in what scope of an application, can be run as a Feature-as-a-Service (FaaS) hosted by data centers. If you want to learn more about FaaS and other cloud-hosting models, I recommend our blog post: FaaS, PaaS, SaaS, and IaaS Cloud Models — Choose the Best One for Your Digital Commerce Business.

The Advantages of Serverless Computing

The main advantage of going serverless is that it can reduce your infrastructure costs, especially for ecommerce stores. There are three ways this can happen:

  1. The first way is a quick and almost unlimited scale in the website load from complete rest to bursting high — all without any action on behalf of you as an owner.
  2. The second advantage is the pay-for-value model. This means hosting will provide the computing power needed according to the IT load without any minimum level (some limits still exist in the tariff plan).
  3. The third area of serverless computing savings involves significant cost reductions when it comes to highly paid staff involved in setting up servers and installing operating systems together with middleware — all done by the hosting provider’s own workforce instead.

Using Serverless Computing for eCommerce Applications

What are your options if you want to rebuild an existing B2B ecommerce platform using serverless computing?

There's no one right answer here. It depends on how much work needs to be done in order for the application code not only to run, but also to be optimized specifically toward providers like AWS Lambda or Microsoft Azure Functions (or similar). The general consensus is that starting by redesigning things would make more sense because there won't already exist any published libraries that can help speed up development time significantly.

Since development work is very expensive, the first step is always to assess whether your ecommerce application could work as serverless without any code changes. That would be the best solution for the pilot phase, when a company can evaluate the pros and cons of serverless computing for its business.

You can build your ecommerce application on a serverless architecture, but you will need to be prepared for the project. Many of today's commercially available platforms that are built as monolithic applications won't launch with this model because they were designed before it was popularized by companies like Facebook and Amazon Web Services (AWS). You should investigate Azure Functions or AWS Lambda if you want an easy way into hosting remotely, and look at local providers as well.

In our blog article, How We Launched Virto Commerce B2B eCommerce Platform in Serverless Mode on Azure Functions, we fully describe preparing our B2B platform back end for running in serverless mode. This experiment was successful, but further developments are needed to make the Virto Commerce Serverless platform available as a commercial product.

Serverless Computing Challenges

Serverless computing is an exciting new trend in software development, but it comes with its drawbacks. The most common challenge people face when using this technology is a delay due to cold starts — sometimes there can be a delay of several seconds before your code runs for the first time. This is true even for such fast-code languages ​​as JavaScript, Python, Go, Java, and Ruby.

The cold-start latency of a function depends on many parameters. This includes the language in which it's written, the number of libraries used for accessing data inside your codebase (or outside if you're using third-party APIs), and the size and/or complexity when processing any additional resources like databases or authentication servers, etc. One thing that isn't under your control? Launch times. This varies based solely on what server hardware and virtualization software is working in the data center of the serverless hosting provider.

A third disadvantage is that you cannot customize your function’s lifetime — if a task needs to last longer than 100 milliseconds or so, then using serverless applications would be inappropriate because they have short timelines by design. But there are ways around this problem; one option could involve integrating serverless applications with a classic one, running on virtual machines or dedicated servers.

There are several articles on our blog about serverless computing. We even experimented with running the Virto Commerce platform in serverless mode. I recommend reading these articles if you want to learn more about serverless:

Serverless eCommerce Platforms: A Complete Guide
Is Serverless Commerce a Viable Trend in B2B eCommerce?
How We Launched Virto Commerce B2B eCommerce Platform in Serverless Mode on Azure Functions

What Is Headless?

Let’s discuss the term “headless” to understand why a trade business needs an online platform with this application architecture.
“The Headless Trade” — first coined by an unknown person, the phrase quickly became popular in the software development world, where developers call online sales channels “heads" and what's done in the back-end system as the "body".
In software development slang,

storefront applications are called “heads"

and what's done in the back-end system as the "body".

This is what “headless” means.

The “headless” architecture of an online platform provides flexibility and scalability for businesses because it allows you to separate code that performs front-end tasks, such as storefront interactions with clients, to back-end work, which may involve API calls in order to combine several different heads into one body without understanding how they operate individually.
Headless method
If you separate the work of the front-end code from the body code, then this approach becomes "headless". The front end (i.e., storefront) interacts with the back-end through APIs, which combine multiple different heads into one body without having any knowledge of how these work together or even what they do in general terms on their own.

Top 3 Advantages of Headless Architecture

Headless is a technologically advanced and creative way to tackle the challenges of omnichannel sales. It helps avoid any disruption in synchronicity among channels, as well as provides more options for customers' UX. Headless has many advantages over monoliths; let's name three of the top ones.

  • Headless as technology for creating fast websites.
    Customers need different types of interfaces (website, mobile app, sales via social networks, etc.), which implement most modern trends in UX and UI functionality. To support this, we need to update front-end technologies quite often. Only headless allows you to keep up this pace; otherwise, you will need to update the back end as well, which is much more expensive and time-consuming.

    Front-end technologies are developed at a much faster pace than the back end. Usually, we have three generations of front-end technologies every decade.
  • Flexibility and convenience for developers
    Different development teams can work on interfaces in separate groups. It can even be outsourced. Headless software development makes the most effective use of the skills and experience of developers and accelerates the development process itself.

    With headless architecture implemented, the people in your IT team will also have a more specialized and creative approach to their tasks. Simply because their area of ​​expertise is shrinking, they grow as vertical niche professionals while helping your business grow. Each group in your IT team will have its own roadmap, allowing you to accelerate development and implementation.
  • Better resistance to malware
    The biggest benefit is the website security that comes from dismantling the front end from the rest of the commerce system. Headless application architecture is an excellent way to keep your ecommerce site safe from hackers. This is because the back-end and ecosystem applications will remain intact, so it's easy for an administrator of this system to restore the front end if something goes wrong with its original one.
    By contrast, the monolithic system is a single platform for all modules, which makes any malicious change in one component affect the security of the entire platform.
Headless is quite a popular IT topic on the Internet, but quite often, the ‘copy-paste’ is repeated that the front end is separated from the back end, without explaining how it’s implemented.

If you want to better understand headless technology, take a look at these articles on the Virto blog:

Headless vs. Monolith eCommerce Platform
What is Headless Commerce?
What Is Headless Architecture and Why Is It So Important for eCommerce Future?

Conclusion

Codeless and low-code development are becoming more popular because they can be faster and easier alternatives than traditional software development. But be aware that in today's reality, these tools cannot replace a team of programmers because their experience helps them take advantage of low-code visual editors in comparison to non-professional users. Consider using codeless or low-code development to simplify the process of building new features for applications that require regular software updates.

Serverless computing is a prominent way to simplify the development process by taking away the need to manage servers. Serverless computing removes the requirements for developers to worry about server management, capacity planning, or scaling issues. Serverless applications are typically event-driven, meaning they only run when an event is triggered.

Today's front-end technologies are changing at a much faster rate than back ends, which means you will need to update your technology more often. Headless architecture allows you to keep up with this pace and avoid having outdated software that could frustrate users, keeping them engaged while they shop on your site.

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Sergey Berezin
Marketing writer