Sunday, 16 March 2014

The microservice declaration of independence

Recently, an article on microservice architectures by my colleagues Martin Fowler and James Lewis has caused some mild controversy in the Twittersphere. For example, Kelly Sommers said:
I’m still trying to figure out what is distinct period. Maybe I’ll accept the name once I see a diff
I have yet to find someone who believes it a bad idea to build systems from small, loosely-coupled services that can be independently changed and deployed. The hesitance that some have shown for the term "microservice architecture" derives from their doubt that the term adds anything above and beyond the well-worn term service-oriented architecture (here described by Stefan Tilkov).

This is a serious charge. The value that concepts like "microservice" have is in their use for communication and education. If all a term does is to add to the menagerie of poorly-defined architectural buzzwords, then we might be better off sticking with the poorly-defined buzzwords we're already familiar with.

On the other hand, that ideas of such uncontroversial value are still worthy of discussion is some indication that there is room for improvement in the current conceptual landscape.

In order for "microservice architecture" to be a useful way of characterising systems, it needs an accepted and well-understood definition. Mark Baker laments the lack of a precise description, because he feels its absence compromises the value of the term:
Really unfortunate that the Microservices style isn't defined in terms of architectural constraints #ambiguity #herewegoagain
In their article, Martin and James have this to say about the style's definition:
We cannot say there is a formal definition of the microservices architectural style, but we can attempt to describe what we see as common characteristics for architectures that fit the label.
I'm still optimistic that a clearer picture is yet to emerge, though it might not be as unambiguous as the REST architectural style, which is defined in terms of six constraints.

My own opinion is that microservice architectures can be understood through a single abstract architectural constraint which can be interpreted along many different degrees of freedom.
X can be varied independently of the rest of the system.
What might X be? There are many qualities that might be locally varied in an architecture to beneficial effect. Here are some ways we could introduce novelty into a service without wishing to disturb the greater system:
  • Select implementation and storage technology
  • Test
  • Deploy to production
  • Recover from failure
  • Monitor
  • Horizontally scale
  • Replace
There are other aspects of systems that are harder to formalise, but which the human beings that work on our software systems might wish to do with without being troubled by the fearsome complexity of the whole architecture:
I don't wish to imply that this is an exhaustive list. To me, the commonality lies in the concept of independent variation, not the kinds of variation themselves.

Monolithic architectures are monolithic in the sense that they have few or no degrees of freedom. This may be a perfectly valid choice. The more degrees of freedom available in a system, the more coordination is required to keep the disparate parts of the system working together.

For example, a human shoulder is well articulated. This makes it an amazingly flexible subsystem. I can touch my toes, reach above my head and even scratch my own back. On the other hand, the infrastructure required to support such free movement is quite complex and therefore fragile. My right shoulder is currently broken. However, if it were simpler and flexed only in one direction there is a good chance that it would have been able to withstand the impact undamaged.

(Luckily, my shoulders are able to fail independently and therefore my left is still in good working order!)

Systems suffer when architectures are not articulated in the directions they need to be. We may wish to horizontally scale, but are unable to isolate two parts of the system which exhibit very different behaviour under load. We might wish to enable two teams of people in different countries to work on different features, but find that they step on each others' toes because they are hacking on the same deployable artifact.

I value the concept of independence because it gives me a way of evaluating architectural choices beyond "microservices are good" and "microservices are bad". Degrees of architectural freedom are valuable, but they may or may not be worth the effort required to sustain them.

For example, independent deployment is useful because you don't have to stop the whole world to introduce a change in a small part of the system. To steal an example from conversation with James, a bank would not want to stop processing credit card transactions in order to release a new feature on its mobile app.

However, once you move away from monolithic deployments, API versioning and backwards compatibility are required to coordinate releases. That can be hard work, and if you never need to exercise your ability to upgrade a part of the system in isolation, then that work might be wasted.

I've worked on a system which had two services that talked to each other through a poorly designed API. Every time one service changed, the other had to as well. Backwards compatibility was almost impossible to maintain due to some very bad design choices we made early on. Consequently, we almost always had to do double deployments.

In the end we merged the two repositories holding the two services and started deploying them simultaneously. We lost the ability to take one to production without the other, but in our situation that was more a trap than a valuable feature. The two services continued to be distinct as runtime entities, but they now evolved along a single timeline.

This brings me to how I think service-oriented architecture might relate to microservice architecture. Stefan's fourth principle of service-oriented architectures is that services be autonomous:
Services can be changed and deployed, versioned and managed independently of each other.
Personally, I see that as the principle attribute from which all others derive. However, under that definition the two services that my team merged no longer qualify as such, at least not in terms of traditional service-oriented architecture. We consciously gave up the ability to change, deploy and version them independently.

However, I would argue they still qualify as micro-services. We could understand and discuss them separately. They had distinct responsibilities. We could monitor, diagnose and restart them separately in production. If we'd wanted to horizontally scale one without the other we could have. It just happened that on the evolution axis we did not require independence.

According to the terms of the suggested constraint family that "X can be varied independently of the rest of the system", traditional service-oriented architecture could be seen as a specific set of values for X. Some of the degrees of freedom that were important 10 years ago are less important now. Most are still relevant. New kinds of variation that have risen to prominence.

I don't think that microservice architectures are a break from the past. I would probably characterise the movement as a kind of neo-SOA that is trying to get back to the roots of the original movement. But I do think that microservice architectural analysis has a different and more general preoccupation than service-oriented architectural analysis because it revolves around the notion of independent variation itself, rather than prescribing certain kinds of independence.


  1. This is a good summary. I don't think people are really upset about the term "microservice" - they are equally pleased to already know what it is and possibly be using it and upset that someone else claimed it with a flag from underneath them.

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  3. Thanks for this write-up. I really like the idea that microservices allow you to vary things independently between services, but WHAT you choose to vary depends on what you're trying to achieve. It's like they give you freedom, but the freedom may come at a cost, so choose the freedoms you need carefully. Perhaps you don't need many of the freedoms even though they sound worth having.

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