My take on microservices

My take on microservices

There's been a lot of stuff going on these days on Software Engineering, it's hard to catch up on everything I would like to. I try to go one topic at a time and now, also because we are working with this at the office, I'm hooked into microservices.

Microservices is a new word for an old concept, a concept I thought I will never see or play with in real life back in my University years, I remember my Software Engineering and Distributed Systems professors talking about web services and APIs and huge systems at IBM, Sun Microsystems and Oracle, SOAP and REST interfaces and how they interacted with each other and, also, the mighty Enterprise Service Bus with producers and consumers in Java, BPEL and C#, a very abstract concept for me to grasp at that time and I thought the only place you could see that was working at huge, corporate companies like the ones I mentioned above.

Nowadays, any internet startup can grow at a huge scale and you can play around with this kind of technologies if you're lucky enough to be part of one of those projects.

I was lucky to be part of the dubizzle team, a classifieds website that operates at a massive scale here in the middle east, the architecture is a huge legacy monolithic application with all of the core functionality and several services surrounding this legacy app. These services are, in my opinion, mostly poorly integrated and fault tolerance is not the rule, sometimes error responses are silenced and bypassed which is quite bad. Also, the integration goes over HTTP, which could be very unreliable even within the internal network and gives you a lot of headaches when you need to integrate more and more services. But the whole point of migrating to microservices is to solve all those issues and have a better engineered platform to keep both product and tech as happy as possible and be able to move faster at the same time.

We dedicated some time now to study best practices for implementing a microservices based architecture and built some proof of concepts and deployed one of them to production here are some of my key learning and good practices taken from what I've read and personal experience actually building stuff at dubizzle and playing around with technology on my personal projects.

APIs should be business bounded

It's a common mistake to build APIs as simple CRUD interfaces for domain entities. This means, all the business logic must be written and rewritten in the clients, so, if you have, for instance, a web client, a desktop application, an Android and an iPhone mobile apps, well, you can count yourself how many times you'll have to write the business logic surrounding those data models with a CRUD API.

You have to build your API to encapsulate business processes, not just the objects creation and manipulation, so a single API call, triggers all the needed processes to fulfill the request or the query the client just gave to the server.

Services must be independent units

This means, you must think of each microservice as a project or a product on its own, this means each service has its own box and its own release pipeline and its own life cycle, but also, they don't rely on each other to function. This means, if your invoicing service is down, your payment service don't need to suffer because of this, you can always accept payments from your users and send the invoices later, when your invoicing service comes up again.

Rely on data, not services

In the previous example you might be thinking "dude, but if the invoicing service is down when the payment service hits it, how will it know it needs to send an invoice to a user?". Well, you need some way to let it know once it wakes up, some data sharing mechanism like a shared database (which is in general a bad idea because it creates coupling between our services) or some sort of caching on the services that needs to consume that data.

In our example, we could make the payment service and the invoicing service share the same database, or, have a good separation of concerns and lower the coupling and, since invoicing needs to know about payments but, payments have no need to know about invoicing, we can just have a caching mechanism in place in our invoicing service and have a copy of the needed data about payments in order to generate invoices, of course, this will add some complexity to our system because we need to be fault tolerant and make sure the data still reaches the cache if the invoicing service is down and we need to put some cache update processes in order to keep it up to date.

High cohesion, low coupling

This is a principle borrowed from Object Oriented Programming, let's remember what they mean


coupling is the degree of interdependence between software modules.


This means, if two modules, functions or services rely too much on each other, chances are if I make a change on one, I'll have to make a change on the other one to compensate, this makes our code and architecture less orthogonal, which means exactly that, a change in one part of the system, will affect other unrelated parts, just like driving a helicopter.


cohesion refers to the degree to which the elements inside a module belong together.


This means, it's a measure of how much the elements inside a module belong together, not necessarily they rely on each other, but they all work together towards a common objective.

In general cohesion is increased if:

By keeping related functionality together, we are automatically increasing cohesion and lowering coupling, and this is exactly what we want.

What does this mean in microservices?

Well, it's easy to think of coupling and cohesion withing the same computer program or the same code base, but in microservices this means exactly the same, keep related functionality together so you don't have that logic spread all over the place and duplicated in more than one service. This also mean, keep services using similar or related data together, either logically or physically.

One hit, one transaction

This means, avoid distributed transaction at all costs, they are difficult to implement and even more difficult to debug if something goes wrong, ideally one write operation to your system should directly affect one service, what happens offline could be a different story. For example, we could have our payments service which deals with a third party payment gateway to charge our users' credit cards, to keep things under Single Responsibility Pattern (SRP), we will have a separate invoicing service which handles generating and sending invoices to the users (I know, we could separate things even more by having a separate notification service that handles sending the emails but let's keep it at this level for the sake of simplicity).

So, the only thing my client needs to know is I need to make a payment, whatever happens afterwards it's not my client's problem, it only needs to hit the payments service with the needed payload and get the response to show it to the user. What happens under the hood is my payments service's problem, it needs to somehow notify the invoicing service that it needs to email an invoice to a specific user, this has to happen offline, either we start a separate thread or use a message queue for it and we notify either generating an event or via an HTTP call, but this needs to happen offline and be fault tolerant so we don't keep the client waiting for something that is our internal process, as well as updating the inventory, generating accounting ledger entries, etc.

Choreography over orchestration

This is, to me, one of the most important best practices I've learned then it comes to microservices oriented architecture, when we think of distributed transactions we often have some sort of director or conductor, which is the service that initiated the transaction, it will know, what needs to happen and in which order, also, it will be the responsible to roll everything back if any part of the transaction fails, transactions need to be Atomic, right?. This is a very dangerous approach because, if something goes wrong while performing the transaction, nothing can guarantee something won't happen while rolling it back, leaving the system in an inconsistent state and giving us lots of headaches down the road when having to debug some weird behavior in our system.

The best way to implement these kind of distributed transactions, i.e., business processes that need to update more than one service is through Choreography, if you think about a choreography, there's no conductor, everyone knows what they need to do, where they need to go, the only signal is the music. This means, in microservices, we just need to notify everyone something happened, and the concerning services will react accordingly, either updating their database, emitting another event or sending a notification to the user.

In order to properly implement choreography we need to build resilient services by putting in place fault tolerance logic or processes so, if some service fails to react, it can heal itself or someone gets notified.

Don't rely on HTTP

Peter Deutsch and James Gosling wrote about the 8 fallacies of distributed computing and the first one was

The network is reliable

A million things can happen when you rely on the network, maybe the requests times out, maybe there's a broken link, maybe subnet permissions were changed maybe the host we are trying to reach is unavailable, maybe a rat ate a network cable, lots of things can happen and we are not in control of all of them, even withing our own private network.

What I'd recommend instead is to have a communication layer in the form of a message bus, it can be a queue like RabbitMQ or a data streaming pipeline like Apache Kafka of course there will be a bit of network communication between your services and the communication layer, or your services and the database system, but that's being taken care of by the corresponding drivers or libraries or deal with those, so, you can assume they're fault tolerant and the data will reach its destination.

There will be cases where you can't avoid rely on HTTP or any network protocol, for example, you need to serve your website somehow, and you need to query your services somehow too, so, in this case I'd recommend to go for a REST API or whatever protocol you prefer for external communication (third party services and client-server) and using a message bus for inter-service communication.

A note about the fallacies

Some people will say that the 8 fallacies of distributed computing are obsolete nowadays because there are tools already that handle everything for us, replication, secure networking, authentication, networks are sophisticated so, latency is not a problem anymore but, just because someone is taking care of something for us, doesn't mean that something isn't there, imagine building a system without these tools, you'll have to face them anyways, besides, there are countries where the computer networks are not as good as in the US or Europe for example, so, I wouldn't say these fallacies are becoming irrelevant. Even if you're not implementing replication or security yourself, you need to think about it and use something that handles that for you.

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