Building a serverless SaaS product
The SaaS (software as a service) model underpins many of today's successful new businesses. Knowing how to build one from start to finish is probably a useful addition to any software developer's skill set.
But even when you strip a SaaS product of its business logic, there's still a non-trivial amount of work and trade-offs to consider.
In this project, my goal was to build a fully serverless SaaS web-app with authentication and payments — the two vital organs of any business.
My implementation is opinionated (as you'll see), and intended to serve as a starting point for new SaaS ideas in the future. Here's what's included:
- Payments (Stripe)
- Frontend (React)
- Backend API
- Serverless architecture
- Infrastructure as code
- CRUD operations
- Lessons Learnt
Don't roll your own auth! It's hard, and mistakes can be devastating to a business. With that said, I did it anyway — mostly to learn from it. Here's also some discussion on Hackernews on why you might want to build your own auth.
I used bcrypt and JSON Web Tokens, and stored credentials on DynamoDB. That part wasn't so bad. The real grind came from building things like exponential back-offs for failed attempts, account verification and reset mechanisms, and patching all the security edge cases.
From payments integration, Stripe was an easy choice. No prominent alternative come to mind, and I've heard high praises about Stripe's developer onboarding experience.
I set up subscription payment integration with the project, and I think the developer experience lives up to expectations. The tutorials were well structured and concise.
But the little thing that impressed me the most was when I typed in 'test card' in a search box, it actually just straight up gave me a card-number I could copy straight to my clipboard. Whoever thought of that just saved me a click, and I'm grateful.
I used TailWindCSS for styling, and prefer to anything I've tried in the past (Boostrap CSS, Semantic UI and just vanilla CSS).
I then used Gatsby to optimize the static site rendering — but I'm not sure if the extra steps are worth it at this stage. It's better for SEO and performance, but costs extra development cycles.
Overall though, I was quite satisfied with this stack for the frontend, and would be happy to use it for production.
The backend is a serverless REST API implemented in Python and hosted as Lambda functions behind API Gateway.
My main challenge here was to abstract away the lower level things (like CORS, HTTP response formatting, database access) as much as possible. I did this via Lambda layers, which allowed me to group a bunch of Python packages and common scripts together.
This allowed me to implement handlers that are quite short and readable, which is think is key to maintainability.
Why serverless? I think for a lot of businesses it simply wins out from a cost and scaling perspective. I could probably serve north of 500k API requests for less than a dollar.
However, this implies that the choice of database must be serverless as well. I chose DynamoDB just for the ease of integration. But if I had different data modeling requires (for which the DynamoDB architecture might be unfit), I might look into Aurora or Fauna.
Infrastructure as code
Configuring infrastructure is time-consuming and error prone. If I want to be able to deploy a copy of this service quickly, I'd have to model it as code (IaC). In keeping theme with my AWS integration so far, I've modeled this project with AWS CDK in Typescript.
With this the entire frontend and backend can be deployed to a brand new account or domain in less than 30 minutes with just a few configuration changes.
Finally, I've added some simple Twitter-like posting capabilities to the project just as a stub for the actual business logic. It has ways to interact with the authentication API, and find out whether a user is verified, and if they are a paying subscriber.
Honestly, I'm so tired of this project already. It was a lot more complex than I expected — especially for an app that really doesn't do anything! But I did learn a lot along the way though, and will probably be faster the second time around.
My top three takeaways are:
- Don't build your own auth.
- You'll probably rebuild the project at least once or twice, so design things to be flexible.
- Having integration tests really paid off.