Don’t Be Afraid of Microservices!

Architectural trends are to be expected in technology. From the original all-in-one-place Cobol behemoths half the world just learned existed because of Hidden Figures, to three-tiered architecture, to hyper-tier architecture, to Service Oriented Architecture….really, it’s enough to give anyone a headache.

And now we’re in a time of what Gartner very snappily calls Mesh App and Service Architecture (or MASA). Whether everyone else is going for that particular nomenclature is less relevant than the reality that we’ve moved on from web services and SOA toward containerization, de-coupling, and the broadest possible use of microservices.

Microservices sound slightly disturbing, as though they’re very, very small components, of which one would need dozens if not hundreds to do anything. Chris Richardson of Eventuate, though, recently begged us not to assume that just because of the name these units are tiny. In fact, it makes more sense to think of them as ‘hyper-targeted’ or ‘self-contained’ services: their purpose should be to execute a discrete set of logic, which can exist in isolation, and simply provide easily-accessed public interfaces. So, for instance, one could imagine a microservice whose sole purpose was to find the best match from a video library for a given user: requesting code would provide details on the user, the service would return the recommendation. Enormous amounts of sophistication may go into ingesting the user-identifying data, relating it to metadata, analyzing past results, and coming up with that one shining, perfect recommendation…but from the perspective of the team using the service, they just need to send a properly-formed request, and receive a properly-formed response.

The apps we all rely upon on those tiny little computers we carry around in our pocketbooks or pockets (i.e. smart phones) fundamentally rely on microservices, whether or not their developers thought to describe them that way. That’s why they sometimes wake up and spring to life with goodness…and sometimes seem to drag, or even fail to get going. They rely upon a variety of microservices – not always based at their own home location – and it’s the availability of all those microservices that dictates the user experience. If one microservice fails, and is not dealt with elegantly by the code, the experience becomes unsatisfactory.

If that feels daunting, it shouldn’t – one company managed to build the whole back end of a bank on this architecture.

Clearly, the one point of greatest risk is the link to the microservice – the API call, if you will. If the code calls to a static endpoint, the risk is that that endpoint isn’t available for some reason; or at least, is unavailable at an acceptable speed. This is why there are any number of solutions for trying to ensure the microservice is available, often spread between authoritative DNS services (which essentially take all the calls for a given location and then assign them to backend resources based on availability), and application delivery controllers (generally physical devices that perform the same service). Of course if either is down, life gets tricky quickly.

In fact, the trick to planning for highly available microservices is to embed locations that are managed by a cloud-based application delivery service. In other words, as the microservice is required, a call goes out to a location that combines both synthetic and real-user measurements to determine the most performant source and re-direct the traffic there. This compounds the benefits of the microservice architecture: not only can the microservice itself be maintained and updated independently of the apps that use it, so too the network and infrastructure necessary to its smooth and efficient delivery can be tweaked without affecting existing users.

Microservices are the future. To make the most, first ensure that they independently address discrete purposes; then make sure that their delivery is similarly defined and flexible without recourse to updating apps that use them; then settle back and watch performance meet innovation.