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What is AWS Step Functions?

What is AWS Step Functions?
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Modern applications are often complex and highly integrated, and that’s a good thing. With the advent of cloud computing services, it’s possible to build applications that can connect to multiple transactional services, process photo uploads, connect databases stored on multiple platforms, and make it all work smoothly and efficiently, at a high rate of performance, and with high reliability.

AWS Step Functions is a way to make that all happen. After its debut in 2016, the service became known for its visual interface -- essentially, every application has requirements for how the app will function and what it can accomplish, and AWS Step Functions provides a way to turn those requirements into a visual roadmap. Unlike the more complex non-visual procedures that programmers might need to execute, the service is more like a workflow or a diagram that spells everything out and allows helps admins and IT service management visualize the app.

The best way to understand AWS Step Function is to think about some typical use cases and how having a workflow can help. One common use is to create a business app that processes company information for reporting and analysis, which helps business managers to make decisions. An app for this type of reporting might use AWS Strep Functions to create what is called a state machine diagram. Essentially, this shows all of the steps that are required to execute the application, including which data is pulled from a database and which transactional information and financial data is used to generate the final reports and analytics data.

Another example has to do with the connected home. A developer might decide to create an application that pulls data from smart home devices and other Internet of Things devices like a security cam or a water detection system, pulling the data collected by each device and generating a summary that is presented to the user. This is all diagrammed in a workflow such that the entire application is easier to understand even for non-technical staff.

Benefits of AWS Step Functions

That means one of the main benefits of AWS Step Functions is that it is not rocket science to execute code and manage the application. Non-programmers can be privy to the functions that are baked into the app, and when there are changes needed for new features to add, these can be revisualized in the app. And, there are advantages in how the code is executed. Also baked into AWS Step Functions are error reporting functions. All of the state, checkpoints, and restarts are managed by the app workflow so that the executes occur automatically.

Because of how an application looks like a workflow diagram, it’s easier to manage what actually happens in the app, to add additional services and functions, and to tweak the functions for the business requirements you have. This can involve all of the branching, parallel execution, and timeouts that a modern web application uses.

Another major advantage to AWS Step Functions is that the entire workflow executes in the cloud, which means there is no infrastructure to manage, no databases to configure and maintain, and no memory or storage allocations to adjust as the application changes, expands, or scales down. The service runs alongside other AWS functions to help with storage needs, performance attributes, security, memory allocations, and backups.

How it all works

After that, AWS Step Functions manages the automation, connections, services, backups, and other variables needed to effectively and reliably run a web application. There are no additional steps in order to continue running the web application or manage the cloud storage and performance since that is all handled by the cloud computing infrastructure

AWS Step Functions follows four basic steps in how to executes a web application. The first step is called Configure and it has to do with the steps needed to perform tasks in the application. This is where the idea of translating your business requirements into actual tasks comes into play, and also how the visual approach can help.

The next step is called Populate, and it is when you define what the tasks do and which data is linked to those tasks. The tasks are connected to the functions, containers, and instances that exist in the serverless environment. After that, the next step is called Run and this is where you execute the code and test/simulate the web application.

A final step called Evolve is where you can make adjustments to the visual diagram and workflow, swapping out tasks or adjusting the order of the steps. Because this is all part of a workflow, it means you don’t have to adjust any of the code. It’s really more about adjusting the order of the step functions in your web applications using a visual interface.