Microservices At a Glance

Microservices are independently releasable services that are modelled around a business domain. A service encapsulates functionality and makes it accessible to other services via networks—you construct a more complex system from these building blocks. One service might represent inventory, another order management, and yet another shipping, but together they might constitute an entire ecommerce system. Microservices are an architecture choice that is focused on giving you many options for solving the problems you might face.

They are a type of service-oriented architecture, albeit one that is opinionated about how service boundaries should be drawn, and one in which independent deployability is key. They are technology agnostic, which is one of the advantages they offer.

From the outside, a single microservice is treated as a black box. It hosts business functionality on one or more network endpoints (for example, a queue or a REST API, over whatever protocols are most appropriate. Consumers, whether they’re other microservices or other sorts of programs, access this functionality via these networked endpoints. Internal implementation details (for example, like the technology the service is written in or the way data is stored) are entirely hidden from the outside world. This means microservice architectures avoid the use of shared databases in most circumstances; instead, each microservice encapsulates its own database where required.

Microservices embrace the concept of information hiding.1 Information hiding describes hiding as much information as possible inside a component and exposing as little as possible via external interfaces. This allows for clear separation between what can change easily and what is more difficult to change. Implementation that is hidden from external parties can be changed freely as long as the networked interfaces the microservice exposes don’t change in a backward-incompatible fashion. Changes inside a microservice boundary shouldn’t affect an upstream consumer, enabling independent releasability of functionality. This is essential in allowing our microservices to be worked on in isolation and released on demand. Having clear, stable service boundaries that don’t change when the internal implementation changes results in systems that have looser coupling and stronger cohesion.

Key Concepts of Microservices

A few core ideas are important to understand when exploring microservices. Given that some of these aspects are often overlooked, I think it’s vital to explore these concepts further to help ensure that you better understand just what it is that makes microservices work.

Independently Deployability

Independent deployability is the idea that we can make a change to a microservice, deploy it, and release that change to our users, without having to deploy any other services. More important, it’s not just the fact that we can do this, it’s that this is actually how you manage deployments in your system. It’s a discipline you adopt as your default release approach. This is a simple idea that is nonetheless complex in execution.

Modelled Around a Business Domain

Techniques like domain-driven design can allow you to structure your code to better represent the real-world domain that the software operates in.2 With microservice architectures, we use this same idea to define our service boundaries. By modelling services around business domains, we can make it easier to roll out new functionality, and make it easier to recombine microservices in different ways to deliver new functionality to our users.

Rolling out a feature that requires changes to one or more microservices is expensive. You need to coordinate the work across each service (and potentially across separate teams) and carefully manage the order in which the new versions of these services are deployed. That takes a lot more work than making the same change inside a single service (or, for that matter, a monolith). It therefore follows that we want to find ways to make cross-service changes as infrequent as possible.

Owning Their Own State

One of the things I see people having the hardest time with is the idea that microservices should not share databases. If one service wants to access data held by another service, it should go and ask that service for the data it needs. This gives the service the ability to decide what is shared and what is hidden. This allows us to clearly separate functionality that can change freely (our internal implementation) from the functionality that we want to change infrequently (the external contract that the consumers use).

If we want to make independent deployability a reality, we need to ensure that we limit making backward-incompatible changes to our microservices. If we break compatibility with upstream consumers, we will force them to change as well. Having a clean delineation between internal implementation detail and an external contract for a microservice can help reduce the need for backward-incompatible changes.

Flexibility

James Lewis, technical director at ThoughtWorks, has been known to say that “microservices buy you options.” Lewis was being deliberate with his words—they buy you options. They have a cost, and you must decide whether the cost is worth the options you want to take up. The resulting flexibility on a number of axes—organizational, technical, scale, robustness—can be incredibly appealing.

We don’t know what the future holds, so we’d like an architecture that can theoretically help us solve whatever problems we might face further down the road. Finding a balance between keeping your options open and bearing the cost of architectures like this can be a real art.

Think of adopting microservices as less like flicking a switch, and more like turning a dial. As you turn up the dial, and you have more microservices, you have increased flexibility. But you likely ramp up the pain points too. This is yet another reason I strongly advocate incremental adoption of microservices. By turning up the dial gradually, you are better able to assess the impact as you go, and stop if required.

Alignment of Architecture and Organization

Music Corp, an ecommerce company that sells CDs online, uses the simple three-tiered architecture shown earlier and depicted. We’ve decided to move Music Corp kicking and screaming into the 21st century, and as part of that, we’re assessing the existing system architecture. We have a web-based UI, a business logic layer in the form of a monolithic backend, and data storage in a traditional database. These layers, as is common, are owned by different teams. We’ll be coming back to the trials and tribulations of Music Corp throughout the book.

The Single-Process Monolith

The most common example that comes to mind when discussing monoliths is a system in which all of the code is deployed as a single process. You may have multiple instances of this process for robustness or scaling reasons, but fundamentally all the code is packed into a single process. In reality, these single-process systems can be simple distributed systems in their own right because they nearly always end up reading data from or storing data into a database, or presenting information to web or mobile applications.

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