Cloud-Native Architecture: A Guide, Definitions, Types & More

When preparing a new app project, or considering migrating existing apps, great care must be taken to ensure stability in a production environment. Cloud-native architecture assumes your new project will live within the cloud. That means every decision you make keeps the needs of the cloud in mind.

Cloud-native builds require expertise and practice. But with the concepts mastered and buy-in from your entire IT team, you'll create projects that work seamlessly and beautifully for your users, no matter how they tap into your work.

What Is Cloud-Native Architecture?

You're designing a project that will exist, at least in part, in the cloud. You have plenty of options open as you start your work. You could build conventionally and hope it will work when uploaded to the cloud. Or you could keep the cloud in mind throughout the design process, ensuring it will work seamlessly once uploaded.

Take on a cloud-native architecture approach, and every choice you make will be guided by the systems and resources that exist in the cloud, not within your physical data centers. Projects like this require a shift in expertise.

In a traditional design environment, you'll connect your database to modules, and those modules will connect with an API or a web app before they can reach out to consumers.

But as your company changes, so should your app. Each tiny change to a module has a ripple effect on everything else. Soon, you enter what experts call a "fear cycle." You can't change one small thing without potentially breaking everything else. And in time, the whole project is so complicated that no one (including you) really understands it.

Use cloud-native architecture, and your design will consist of many small pieces that work together. You can change, add, or replace one without potentially breaking the entire system. Cloud-native architecture components include:

  • Containers
  • Immutable infrastructure 
  • Microservices 
  • Service meshes

These pieces work together, but you can tinker with them independently without taking down the entire system. Your final build is scalable, resilient, and available to all consumers. 

How Is Cloud-Native Different Than Cloud-Enabled?

Plenty of companies develop systems for conventional environments, and when needs change, they push those systems into the cloud.

Cloud-enabled systems can work in a traditional environment, and in theory, they can function in the cloud. You can push them there, and they will serve customers for a while.

But systems like this are not made with the cloud in mind. They can break more quickly than those built with a cloud-native approach. And they aren't likely to deliver the same benefits of scalability, reliability, and safety associated with a cloud-native approach. 

Benefits & Drawbacks of Cloud-Native Architecture 

If you've tackled traditional system architecture without problems, you may be leery of the learning that comes with a new development approach. Sometimes, the risks just aren't worth the benefits. But often, cloud-native architecture comes with perks a traditional project just can't deliver.

Benefits of cloud-native architecture include:

  • Low cost. Build in a standard environment, and your systems must always be on to serve your customers. Choose the cloud, and you can redirect your attention toward new features and products.

    As analysts explain, you're on the hook with customers if a traditional system goes down. Choose the cloud, and you can save both money and your reputation with increased resilience and some protection from outages.
     

  • Speed. In an agile workplace, you must always be testing, moving, and improving. That's tough to do if every change you make could break your systems.

    Build for the cloud, and you'll create a system that's made for continuous change. It's easier to enhance applications and launch applications in the cloud.
     

  • Options. A cloud-native design is platform-agnostic. If you're unhappy with the environment you're using now, change things quickly without reprogramming from start to finish.

Drawbacks to cloud-native architecture include:

  • Debugging challenges. Spotting a problem in a traditional system architecture means following a linear plan. In a cloud-native design, containers interact and connect. But the path may not always be clear. Some problems have roots in one or more containers, and finding the issue isn't always easy.
     
  • Security. Relying on third-party cloud operators means ceding control of your data and access. Sometimes, those companies aren't as careful with data as you might be.
     
  • Knowledge gaps. Writing in a cloud-native manner is a bit like learning a new language. You must master the concepts and perfect your approach, and a tiny mistake can lead to a catastrophic problem.

Every company must weigh these pros and cons carefully and make a decision that's right for the business, for consumers, and for stakeholders. Hold planning discussions early and ensure that the entire team understands the approach before the build begins.

Architecture of Cloud-Native Infrastructure 

In a cloud-native environment, small components work together to make a larger system. Each piece has a specific job to do, and they all run on the cloud. But you can lay out each piece individually rather than trying to craft an entire system from start to finish.

All cloud-native designs work like this. But you have several options available to you as you design the system that's best for your company. Common options include:

  • Basic. Your DNS taps into one of two load balancers, and they connect with applications. A master database and slave database hold key data, and they communicate with your applications. And the entire system is backed up on the cloud periodically.
     
  • Multi-cloud. Your DNS can connect with multiple cloud platforms via one application component. You don't need to duplicate systems for each launch. The application component can work in both environments, and data head back to your platform within the building.
     
  • Hybrid. Your DNS connects with one of two load balancers, which then talk to applications. Those applications push to a master database, while replication of that data pushes to a slave database on another cloud or in your building. Snapshot backups keep everything tidy.

Use diagrams and charts to help your team understand what the build will look like when complete. And remember that cloud applications are easy to change. If a system you architected isn't serving your company, you can scrap it and start again.

But remember that microservices are critical to the cloud environment. Each tiny bit that does something different tackles a different part of the job. They work independently, but they are linked together to keep the system up and running. Never build something for the cloud that doesn't contain these smaller pieces.

Principles of Cloud-Native Architecture

Some information architects believe they learn best by doing. They prefer to code and dig into the data rather than reading and listening. But it pays to learn more about the principles of this architecture type, so you'll know what the experts adhere to as they design these systems. 

Common cloud-native architecture principles include:

  • Resiliency comes first. Redundancy, regional deployments, and data replication help to ensure that the system stays online. Failures will happen in a system like this. Architects must plan for it.
     
  • System is made up of components. Architects use containers to split applications into tiny chunks that do the work together.
     
  • Automation is important. Design for the cloud, and you can use online tools to reduce workload and computing burden. Automation is a key principle of building for the cloud.
     
  • Latency plays a part. Tiny delays between a user's request and the system's action are part of any cloud-native system. Architects must determine how to keep this as small as possible.
     
  • Backups keep data safe. Systems are built in parallel, so nothing is lost if the cloud system crashes or otherwise breaks.
     
  • Transparency is part of system design. Containers can be built like black boxes. But it's important for each one to have some level of penetrability, so you can observe them and ensure they're working well. This transparency also allows for automated updates.

Plenty of coding teams write blogs and manuals about how they handle cloud-native architecture. Reading through them can give you an idea of what others do to tackle the same challenges you face.

We Can Help 

Many of the world’s top technical organizations use cloud-native architecture to ship software quickly and securely. The ability to move fast and respond to customer feedback is invaluable to both small and enterprise businesses alike.

But some cloud vendors don't deliver on the promise of this type of architecture. We take your needs to heart, and we've built systems that both follow best practices and work well. We'd love to talk with you.

References

Cloud Native Computing Foundation Charter. (December 2018). The Linux Foundation.

Introduction to Cloud-Native Applications. (May 2020). Microsoft.

3 Reasons to Go Cloud-Native. (August 2018). The Wall Street Journal.

Cloud-Based vs. Cloud-Native Application Development: An Important Distinction. (September 2018). Digitalist Magazine.

5 Principles for Cloud-Native Architecture: What It Is and How to Master It. (June 2019). Google.

Cloud-Native Application Architecture. (February 2019). Medium.

How to Architect and Design Cloud-Native Applications. (December 2015). Gartner.

Cloud-Native Principles. IBM.

Read on

Want to know more about what else you can do to modernize your IT infrastructure? Educate yourself on how Okta can help.