4 min read

Cloudflare’s cloud computing platform Workers doesn’t use containers or virtual machines to deploy computing. Workers allows users to build serverless applications on Cloudflare’s data centers. It provides a lightweight JavaScript execution environment to augment existing applications or create entirely new ones without having to configure or maintain infrastructure.

Why did Cloudflare create workers?

Cloudflare provided limited features and options that developers could build in-house. There was not much flexibility for customers to build features themselves. To enable users to write code on their servers deployed around the world, they had to allow untrusted code to run, with low overhead. This needed to process millions of requests per second and that too at a very fast speed.
Customers couldn’t write their own code without the team’s supervision. It would be expensive to use traditional virtualization and container technologies like Kubernetes let alone run thousands of Kubernetes pod at 155 data centers of Cloudflare would be resource intensive. Enter Cloudflare’s ‘Workers’ to solve these issues.

Features of Workers

#1 ‘Isolates’- Run code from multiple customers

‘Isolates’ is a technology built by Google Chrome team to power the Javascript engine in that browser, V8: Isolates.  These are lightweight contexts that group variables, with the code allowed to mutate them. A single process can run hundreds or thousands of Isolates, while easily  switching between them. Thus, Isolates make it possible to run untrusted code from different customers within a single operating system process. They start real quick (Any given Isolate can start around a hundred times faster than a Node process on a machine) and do not allow one Isolate to access the memory of another.

#2 Cold Starts

Workers facilitate the concept of ‘cold start’ when a new copy of code has to be started on a machine. In the Lambda world, this means spinning up a new containerized process which can delay requests  for as much as ten seconds ending up in a terrible user experience. A Lambda can only process one single request at a time. A new Lambda has to be cold-started every time an additional concurrent request is recieved. If a Lambda doesn’t get a request soon enough, it will be shut down and it all starts again.  Since Workers don’t have to start a process, Isolates start in 5 milliseconds. It scales and deploys quickly, entirely upgrading existing Serverless technologies.

#3 Context Switching

A normal context switch performed by an OS can take as much as 100 microseconds. When multiplied by all the Node, Python or Go processes running on average Lambda servers, this leads to a heavy overhead. This splits the CPUs power between running the customer’s code and switching between processes. An Isolate-based system runs all of the code in a single process which means there are no expensive context switches. The machine can invest virtually all of its time running your code.

#4 Memory

The V8 was designed to be multi-tenant. It runs the code from the many tabs in a user’s browser in isolated environments within a single process. Since memory is often the highest cost of running a customer’s code, V8 lowers it and dramatically changes the cost economics.

#5 Security

It is not safe to run code from multiple customers within the same process. Testing, fuzzing, penetration testing, and bounties are required to build a truly secure system of that complexity.
The open-source nature of V8 helps in creating aanisolation layer that helps Cloudflare take care of the security aspect.

Cloudlfare’s Workers also allows users to build responses from multiple background service requests either to the Cloudflare cache, application origin, or third party APIs. They can build conditional responses for inbound requests to assess and subsequently block or reroute malicious or unauthorized requests.

All of this at just a third of what AWS costs, remarked an astute Twitter observer.

Running code through WebAssembly

One of the disadvantages of using Workers is that, since it is an Isolate-based system, it cannot run arbitrary compiled code. Users have to either write their code in Javascript, or a language which targets WebAssembly (eg. Go or Rust).

Also, if a user cannot recompile their processes, they won’t be able to run them in an Isolate.

This has been nicely summarised in the above mentioned tweet. He notes that WebAssembly modules are already in the npm registry and it creates the potential for npm to become the dependency management solution for every programming language. He mentions that the “availability of open source libraries to achieve the task at hand is the primary reason people pick a programming language”. This leads us to the question of “How does software development change when you can use any library anytime?”

You can head over to the Cloudflare blog to understand more about containerless cloud computing.

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