What Are Microservices And How To Best Leverage Them
The tech industry is a landscape of constant progress, adaptation, and change to fit an evolving market. Within the last 20 years, we’ve made leaps and bounds for technological innovations, and that’s including the coding that’s required to keep pace with it.
What’s important here, however, is not the code itself in particular, but rather how the code is structured. Every application, from the game on your phone to the banking app you use, is comprised of a swathe of code that ensures that everything works as intended.
Traditionally, there’s been a structure in particular that was widely used: monolithic architecture. Essentially, everything needed to keep the app running was included in one massive unit. We’ll talk more on that later, but the important part is that that style of architecture is not longer viable enough to keep using. It’s inefficient and messy.
But before you can effectively move on from using an older type of architecture, there must be something to replace it. Granted, there are plenty of options you can choose from, but there’s one in particular that has been making waves for the past ten years.
So let me ask you a question: have you heard of microservices before?
What Is a Microservice?
Microservices, otherwise known as microservice architecture, is a distinctive software design that uses a collection of smaller services to form the architecture of an application. In layman’s terms, microservice architecture is like building an app out of lots of bricks, each providing an essential function to the overall design.
Monolithic architecture, by comparison, is the polar opposite of a microservice design, wherein the entire app is one entire piece of code. The entire unit must be deployed as a self-contained whole, otherwise it won’t function. This also makes it more difficult to change, debug, and maintain the code among other functions since you’ll need to pull the entire unit to perform even the most minor of chores. Any changes affect the entire structure.
Monolithic architecture may be the traditional design structure, but once the concept of microservices came around, organizations like Google, Amazon, and Netflix made the transition with more following their example. So why microservices? What do they provide that make them such a desirable commodity?
In a nutshell, you could call it versatility, convenience, or - better yet - modular. Since a microservice architecture is comprised of numerous small services, they’re highly testable and easily maintained. You’re not taking apart one massive block of code, after all. Not only that, these “bricks” of code can be deployed independently, and they tend to be organized around business capabilities.
Microservices focus on building single-function modules with defined interfaces and operations. Delegating individual focuses and responsibilities through a loosely-connected network of modules means that with each module having their own responsibility, a functional process can be formed without cross-purpose interactions in the code. If A, then B, then C, then D, essentially.
Now, in more recent accountability, organizations have become more focused on leveraging microservices as much as possible as they shift to become more Agile and implement a DevOps approach to their business. Agile and DevOps are other methods of software development.
- Agile - an adaptive approach to software development, where change is constant and human influence is a primary driver.
- DevOps - an approach to Agile software development, emphasizing standardization, automation, and collaboration on teams to provide a continuous delivery cycle.
Microservices vs. SOA
SOAs, otherwise known as service-oriented architecture, need to be distinguished from microservices. That’s become more and more challenging, since the rising popularity that microservice architecture has experienced has made distinguishing between the two architecture designs a bit more muddled.
The easiest distinction to make that separates these two styles of architecture is that which makes microservices unique: modularization. Microservices are comprised of modules, SOAs are not. SOAs function by having distinct components of the applications provide services to other components via a communications protocol over a network. These components are not nearly as specialized as the modules in a microservice architecture, and linking them over a network means they’re not independent processes from each other.
Simply put, an SOA focuses on building up an application by integrating software components that are maintained and deployed separately. Similar in respects to microservices, sure, but nonetheless a separate entity with a separate purpose.
Let’s look at microservices again, shall we? As we’ve said before, it’s an architectural structure meant to develop software, web, or mobile apps as suites of services. As opposed to integrated software components, these services are specialized to perform a single function while maintaining autonomy from each other.
Since each module is decentralized, there’s an amount of levity that is provided in their coding. Each module can be written with a different programming language, if so needed. Additionally, where SOAs share a single database, each module in a microservices architecture has their own, creating redundancy and error protection. Communication is provided between each module via HTTP, REST, or Thrift APIs.
There’s a larger point that we want to make is highlighted: microservices are not inherently better than SOAs. Like any sort of architectural design, each have their own strengths and weaknesses that mesh with different types of environments and systems.
SOAs, for example are better fit for larger, more complex enterprise application environments. Microservices, by comparison, are more suited for smaller web-based systems.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Microservices
We mentioned earlier that large-scale corporations have been steadily moving toward microservice architecture. While in the grand scheme of things microservices haven’t been around for terribly long, they’re rapidly becoming mainstream as some of the biggest tech companies like Netflix, Amazon, and eBay have begun leveraging them.
Just because some big dogs have been taking advantage of microservice architecture doesn’t mean they’re without their shortcomings. As practical as microservices can be for developing software, it’s not the golden egg that’ll cover every issue. When it comes down to making an informed decision on whether microservices are the best solution for an organization, it’s good to know the advantages and disadvantages for this type of application structure.
Advantages of Microservices
We’ve gotten to the point in technological innovation where mobile devices have become a personal necessity, like wallets, purses, or keys. The transfer of attention in the tech sector to mobile devices is a means of keeping up with demand. Now, with organizations moving toward optimizing for the rise in mobile device use and the increased use of the cloud, back-end data must always be available for a wide range of devices.
The world’s speeding up, and technological innovations become obsolete with more frequency. That’s what happened with monolithic architecture, it simply couldn’t keep up. Microservice architecture presents companies with an opportunity to keep up with a rapidly shifting mobile landscape. Microservices, through their modular design, provide a means for companies to have faster rollouts, more frequent updates, and independent application releases.
These are a handful of the advantages that microservices bring to the development process. The question remains: what are the other advantages that microservice architecture affords?
Improved ScalabilityThe architecture of any application needs to be able to continuously handle and grow with the workload they’re expected to handle. An application without scalability has no room to grow, either disrupting itself along the way or stagnating as a product.
Microservices ability to scale is one of its greatest proven advantages. Once again, this is attributed to its modular design, wherein the code is built out of numerous “bricks” of independent code. Since each provided service is its own separate component, you’re capable of scaling individual services without being forced to do that for the entire unit.
Application development is a continual pressure for improving on newly created and already extant coding. The convenience provided by microservice architecture is a vehicle for rapid growth, as its improved scalability means greater ease-of-access to what needs to be changed.
Faster security patches updatesAs thorough as your programmers may be, the finished product for any applications is likely to have a few security issues tied to it. Many of these can be caught fairly quickly, but others may go under the wire until exploited. A successful hacker attack can leave a business devastated, so addressing these sorts of issues quickly is of paramount importance.
Historically, security patches have been slow to enactment because an app’s code is infrequently adjusted due to the monolithic architecture structure. When it’s time to update, the pace is slowed due to the entire code unit needing to be updated at once. However, with microservices, that issue can be safely sidestepped.
With the modular design of microservices, security patches can be brought about at a much faster rate due to their independent structure. Rather than updating the unit as a whole, including the parts that aren’t a security risk, the services that need attention can be individually addressed. The increased frequency at which these patches can be delivered makes the updates easier and quicker to fix the security issues.
Rather than security patches occurring once or twice a year, microservice can update as frequently as on a weekly basis.
Easier debugging and maintenanceAn architectural design that’s comprised of numerous pieces of a whole, like a jigsaw puzzle, means that devoting time and attention to debugging and maintenance is much easier than it used to be. The fundamentals of microservice architecture state that the unit as a whole is on a continuous delivery system.
With smaller modules being put through continuous delivery and being subjected to testing throughout, there’s a whole lot less content that needs to be sifted through to find issues. The smaller the haystack, the easier it is to find the needle. This process makes it easier to comb through each service, increasing debugging rates and ultimately helping deliver better, functional applications.
Secured functionalityA part of the fundamental purpose for using microservices is the built in functionality and integrity it provides. By its very nature, microservice architecture spreads out its services, maintaining a decentralized system that only accesses what’s needed when it’s needed.
Chances are you’re going to run across an external party that’s going to want access to non-user-accessible functionality. By spreading out the functionality of your services, you’re able to limit and shield your applications from prying eyes, since you need to access some services executables to access a different service. The spread out nature of your system, therefore, makes it more difficult for external parties to access what they’re looking for.
While not bulletproof, this type of secured functionality also makes it easier for your security team to locate and contain threats before they become an issue. As the user-facing services are going to be at a higher threat level, the bulk of security’s attention can be focused there in the event of an attack.
Disadvantages of Microservices
The case for adopting microservice architecture is compelling, but not every organization will be able to effectively use it for their success. There’s no such thing as a perfect product. As great as the advantages may be, we can’t leave without addressing some of the shortcomings that microservices have.
ReliabilityMicroservice architecture tends to come with a lot of potential failure points. As opposed to other structures, microservices necessitate more remote calls which are prone to failure at any time. Not including the latency that making numerous remote calls will have on your work process, communication failure can throw an enormous wrench in your development cycle.
Programming without proper, reliable access to your team - especially with an architectural structure as team-demanding as this one - coding is going to progress intermittently, awkwardly, and more prone to mistakes.
Complex to manageThe distributed nature of microservices is both a blessing and a curse. For all the benefits numerous pieces of independent code blocks provide, you’re still left with dozens and dozens of services to handle at a time. With monolithic structures, you only have one thing to take care of. The same can’t be said for microservice structures.
This is why continuous delivery is crucial to the proper functionality of an app using microservices. The more services you have, the more your team’s attention will be split in attempting to manage several modules simultaneously. The strain of monitoring every service can, if your team is unprepared, become overwhelming.
Higher costRemote calls are a necessity for making microservices a functional objective, but they’re also its Achilles Heel. Your servers need to communicate with each other, and the only way to do that is by making a lot of remote calls. These calls will lead to higher costs associated with network latency and processing. Keeping a close track on making only as many calls as are necessary to the process is one way to avoid undue expenses being made.
The modular design also has its own expenses, as each service will need to have its own runtime environment and CPU. While this will inevitably incur a higher cost, it’s necessary to maintain the independence of each service.
The time when monolithic architectures ruled the technological landscape has become obsolete at this point. The challenges they presented, wherein the majority of applications ended up as a Big Ball of Mud, a mess of a system. Microservices have become a standout answer to replacing an antiquated system.
Building an application out of several specialized modules of code is a huge step in the right direction for a better, more efficient program. Microservices have improved scalability, faster security patches updates, easier debugging and maintenance, and secured functionality among other advantages. However, as good as microservice architecture may be, they also tend to have reliability issues, increased complexity, and higher cost associated with their use.
But there’s never going to be a perfect code or program, certainly not in the tech industry. However, progress can’t be stopped either, and microservice architecture has earned a name for itself by virtue of its usability. That, and by endorsement of several big tech companies on the market, should be enough for at least serious consideration.