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May. 16th, 2024

Hidden costs of self-hosted SaaS

For large web apps deployed on Kubernetes, the total cost of ownership can be much higher than you think.

Self-hosted containers are a popular way to launch a SaaS web app. However, throughout their lifecycle they rack up costs that are hard to quantify, slowing your team’s iteration and making it hard to keep up with competitors.

To understand what’s going on, let’s back up to the beginning.

What is a self-hosted SaaS web app?

A SaaS (software as a service) web app is a cloud-based application. Instead of installing and maintaining software, users access the SaaS provider’s servers through a browser whenever they use the app.

Self-hosted apps come in many flavors, but they are often containerized, orchestrated with a tool like Kubernetes, and deployed on a cloud provider like GCP, Azure, or AWS.

Why go self-hosted?

Web apps require significant overhead in terms of infrastructure setup, ongoing network maintenance, scaling, and performance optimization. Many developers, especially when starting with a small team, just want to get their app into the world.

Containers are effective for this since they provide a lot of flexibility in how your app is wired together, as long as it fits in the container. You don’t have to maintain a bunch of distributed services, and each developer has the power to go in and quickly change any part of the codebase.

Just as importantly, thanks to open-source container orchestration tooling and the variety of cloud platforms on the market, you can avoid vendor lock-in. You can deploy your application on the infrastructure you need at a low, predictable price.

What are the downsides to self-hosted architectures?

As businesses scale, containers’ effectiveness falls off. At a high level:

  1. Structuring an application within a single codebase or deployment unit limits your ability to adapt.
  2. The interior of each company’s container is unique, meaning that onboarding developers is tricky and most new features must be built from scratch and continuously maintained.
  3. Maintaining a healthy development lifecycle is a fully manual, resource-intensive process.
  4. As traffic fluctuates, teams must provision the appropriate amount of infrastructure to adapt, or else face downtime or security breaches.
  5. Self-hosted setups struggle to optimally serve dynamic data to customers halfway around the world.

Each of these factors can keep your business from meeting customer demand on time.

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Cost 1: Tight frontend-backend coupling bottlenecks development

Even with modern container-based architectures like Kubernetes that decouple backend services (data and logic), frontends (user interface) often remain tightly coupled.

While this approach offers initial simplicity, it can introduce hidden costs as your application scales.

Development bottlenecks

  • Onboarding: Tight coupling creates a steep learning curve for new developers, requiring them to understand the huge swaths of the codebase to make even small changes
  • Coordinating feature development: Changes often impact both frontend and backend, necessitating cross-team coordination and slowing development
  • Cross-dependencies: Teams can become blocked waiting for each other to complete work, further impacting development speed

Lack of agility

  • Limited technology adoption: Introducing new technologies can be challenging due to the interconnected nature of the codebase
  • Synchronizing communications: Maintaining consistent interactions between frontend components and multiple backend services becomes increasingly difficult as the application grows
  • No wiggle room: Changes to core logic can easily break other functionalities, leading to extensive testing cycles and delays

Scaling challenges

  • Inefficient resource utilization: Tightly coupled applications often require scaling the entire system even if only specific components experience increased load
  • Codebase complexity: As the codebase grows, it becomes harder to navigate and understand, as well as slower to load on your machine

Solution: A decoupled frontend

By decoupling the frontend from the backend, you empower frontend teams to iterate rapidly using specialized tools and frameworks, while backend teams can focus on data and business logic.

This separation of concerns not only improves development velocity but also enables the adoption of modern frontend technologies that can significantly enhance user experience and performance.

Vercel, as a fully managed frontend platform, can further streamline this process. Vercel's automated frontend infrastructure not only frees frontend teams from infrastructure management but also simplifies API integrations, allowing both teams to dedicate their expertise to building a high-performing, user-centric application.

Decoupling allows organizations to leverage the full potential of both frontend and backend technologies, leading to a more efficient development process and a more performant, scalable application.

Keep your backend. Simplify your frontend deployment.

With Vercel Secure Compute, you can connect a fully-managed serverless frontend to your existing Kubernetes backend.

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Cost 2: Nonstandard architecture locks you into tech debt

The flexibility that makes self-hosted containers appealing can create hidden costs as your business grows. Without deliberate standardization, your app can quickly diverge from industry norms, which creates tech debt.

Lock-in

  • The twist: While you may have begun with flexibility in mind, a bespoke setup locks you into your own internal architecture
  • Adapting is costly: Integrating new tools or technologies involves extensive rewrites, limiting your agility
  • The burden shifts: Instead of relying on external vendor support, you now shoulder the entire cost of upholding a nonstandard platform

Talent and onboarding

  • Finding talent is tough: Developers familiar with your highly customized infrastructure are rare
  • Training is intensive: Onboarding requires in-depth training solely focused on your unique architecture, hindering development speed and driving up hiring costs

Losing the big picture

  • Limited reusability: Nonstandard architecture limits code reusability. This forces custom solutions for new features instead of using established patterns and libraries
  • Nightmarish maintenance: It becomes difficult to grasp the connections in your system, and seemingly minor tweaks lead to unforeseen issues
  • Lost in the details: As complexity grows, fewer developers fully comprehend the entire system, making large-scale changes risky and slowing down your responses to the market

Solution: A standardized frontend framework

Using a frontend framework like Next.js, Nuxt, or SvelteKit allows your team to work within a wider community of tooling. New developers can onboard into familiar patterns, and code becomes much easier to maintain.

Also, since modern frameworks often provide standardized build outputs, Vercel can interpret those outputs to automatically generate infrastructure for your frontend—all without manual developer intervention or Infrastructure as Code (IaC).

Vercel calls this concept framework-defined infrastructure (FdI), and it allows for many of the cost savings we’ll talk about below. FdI also means that you’re never locked into your tooling.

Any of the 40+ frontend frameworks that comply with Vercel’s Build Output API can be deployed onto Vercel and securely integrated with your Kubernetes backend, and any other data stores or third-party tools, via API.

Framework-defined infrastructure changes the game.

Learn how to free your team from endless configuration. It's time to work smarter.

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Cost 3: DIY DevOps slows feature development

Maintaining effective DevOps practices for self-hosted architectures is a resource-intensive and complex endeavor. Without a standardized foundation, you often find yourself building core DevOps functions from the ground up.

Staging and experimentation

  • Maintaining consistent staging, testing, and production environments for your unique architecture is a drain on resources. Incompatibility issues between environments lead to frustrating scenarios where you “can’t reproduce the issue”
  • Creating and maintaining a robust suite of unit, integration, and end-to-end tests for a nonstandard setup is time-consuming. Each test likely needs custom configuration, increasing the risk of inadequate coverage
  • Running A/B tests, blue-green deployments, or other feature experiments requires meticulous setup within your custom architecture. Without off-the-shelf tooling, this slows down iteration and your ability to gather data-driven insights for improvement

Launching

  • As your codebase grows, build and deployment times can become painfully slow. Optimizing this within a unique system consumes valuable development time
  • Implementing feature flags or controlled rollouts for a custom architecture often requires in-house systems that add to the development workload and increase the chance of errors

Observability

  • Ensuring comprehensive observability means painstakingly adding metrics, logs, and traces throughout your application, which leaves room for coverage gaps
  • Without standardization, setting up and maintaining log aggregation, metrics storage, tracing, and alerting is a major project, taking time from core product development
  • Even adding third-party observability tools comes with challenges. Each integration might require custom workarounds to function as intended within your architecture

Solution: An automated developer experience platform

In a self-hosted setup, development-related infrastructure consumes a significant amount of time and focus. Each new developer experience optimization requires manually provisioning, scaling, and configuring the underlying resources.

Your growth isn't met with automation and efficiency gains, but rather a linear increase in operational overhead.

Vercel offers an automated alternative: our Developer Experience Platform, which gives frontend teams cohesive tooling for staging, launching, and observing applications.

Instead of dedicating resources to repetitive setup and maintenance tasks, your teams can channel their efforts into experimenting and delivering new features, ultimately driving business growth.

Build, deploy, and iterate—seamlessly.

Traditional deployment tools weren’t built for frontend development. Get the DX Platform that has teams shipping 6x faster.

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Cost 4: Manual infrastructure compromises resiliency

Self-hosted architectures demand constant attention to ensure your application remains available and responsive to users under varying conditions. Achieving high uptime is no easy feat.

Scaling

  • Proactive vs. reactive: Scaling smoothly means predicting traffic spikes and manually adjusting resources—it's a guessing game at best
  • Wasted resources: Traffic ebbs and flows. Overprovisioning to handle peaks means paying for idle resources, while underprovisioning risks downtime

Load balancing

  • Manual adjustments: Distributing traffic effectively requires fine-tuning as patterns shift. This distracts your team from core development
  • Fragile system: A misconfigured load balancer leads to localized bottlenecks or outages, frustrating users and impacting your bottom line

Security

  • Multilayered defense: Protecting against DDoS, vulnerabilities, and other threats means constant updates to integrated tools and custom configurations
  • Cost of expertise: Effective security demands staying up to date with the threat landscape, sapping time from core product growth

Solution: Managed serverless infrastructure

Continually managing infrastructure scaling, load balancing, and security takes focus away from delivering value to customers and increases the risk of downtime or security breaches.

For business-critical operations like these, reliable automation is key. Vercel’s managed serverless infrastructure instantly scales to handle traffic spikes and costs nothing in times of zero usage.

Global load balancing is built into the platform, which ensures a consistent experience for users regardless of location. No more worrying about downtime or preprovisioning resources.

Plus, Vercel delivers on industry-standard security measures, replacing tools like Cloudflare with the network protections it offers your application.

Eliminating the hidden costs of manual scaling and security management means you save developer time, ship new features faster, and improve your responsiveness to users' needs.

99.99% uptime. Guaranteed.

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Cost 5: Global performance needs dedicated network management

Even if you already have a functioning, resilient workflow and web app, delivering a consistently fast UX across the globe with a self-hosted architecture demands ongoing network infrastructure optimization.

Personalization vs. speed

  • Tailored content = laggy response: Offering unique experiences means on-the-fly data fetches that slow down UX—especially on less powerful devices or spotty connections
  • Dynamic workloads are tough: Your network needs to be lightning-fast for both static content and personalized data (and increasingly, for streaming long AI-generated responses)

The latency problem

  • Distance matters: The further your servers are from users, the more delay they'll experience. CDNs help with static content, but not real-time data
  • Beyond CDNs: Traditional CDNs can't constantly recache personalized data without full app redeploys. You still need to get fresh information to global users fast
  • Complex replication: Multiple clusters are just the start if your user data still lives in a central server. For truly fast data round trips, you may need database sharding, advanced caching, and other backend infrastructure overhauls

Regional compliance

  • Data rules: Regulations like GDPR often mandate storing user data within specific geolocations or architectures, which forces you into complex per-region setups

Solution: An edge network

Traditional CDNs aren't sufficient, and self-hosted apps lack the tools for the global, performant deployment today's customers demand. This leaves your team responsible for extensive custom network infrastructure for replication, caching, and compliance.

Here, Vercel’s Edge Network can help since it intelligently caches, computes, and granularly recaches without redeploying. Your users see cached data instantly, and real-time data streams into the application as needed, creating a highly responsive, mobile-optimized experience.

By focusing on caching data instead of distributing it, Vercel simplifies and reduces the load on your backend architecture, easing compliance with regulations like GDPR.

Thanks to framework-defined infrastructure, all the features of the Edge Network spin up automatically based on your application’s build output. This decreases maintenance costs, allows your team to focus on feature development, and eliminates inconsistencies that could otherwise harm the UX.

Get the best of both worlds.

Learn how Vercel's Edge network offers global performance by default and robust personalization without compromising on speed.

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The ultimate solution: Increased iteration velocity

As we’ve looked at all the costs of self-hosted architecture, they all have something in common: they slow your ability to iterate quickly.

Iteration velocity is the key to competing in saturated markets. If you can identify a new trend and your developers can implement features to keep pace, your brand stays relevant.

So, what’s the alternative to slow, self-hosted, tightly-coupled frontends? Simplifying your frontend deployment with Vercel’s managed serverless infrastructure.

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