Microservices and Data Architecture – Who Owns What Data?

Medieval Master and Scholars

An important consideration with microservice architectures is their effect on an enterprise’s data architecture. In “Carving it up – Microservices, Monoliths, & Conway’s Law”, I touched on the likelihood of there being data fragmentation and redundancy with this style (not that monoliths have a good record regarding these attributes either). More important than data fragmentation and redundancy, is the notion of authoritativeness, which was mentioned in “More on Microservices – Boundaries, Governance, Reuse & Complexity”. When redundant data is locked up in monoliths with little or no interoperability and little or no governance, then it’s very easy to have conflicting data without an approved method of determining which copy represents the true state. The answer lies not in removing all redundancy, but in recognizing the fact that systems will share concepts and managing that sharing.

Multiple systems routinely share conceptual entities. In his post on bounded contexts, Martin Fowler used the example of Customer and Product concepts spanning Sales and Support contexts. In all likelihood, these would be shared by other contexts as well, Customer perhaps also appearing in an Accounts Receivable context while Product might also be part of the Catalog and Inventory contexts. While these contexts might share concepts, the details will differ from one to another (e.g. the Price attribute of a Product may be relevant to the Sales and Catalog contexts, but irrelevant to Support and Inventory). Control over these details will likely be isolated to a single context (e.g. while Price may be relevant to both the Sales and the Catalog contexts, it’s likely that the setting of the price is only the responsibility of the Catalog context).

Why the discussion about bounded contexts? The Organized around Business Capabilities characteristic of microservices elaborated in the Lewis and Fowler post is analogous to bounded contexts within a system. A microservice style of architecture brings the idea of a bounded context to a system of systems.

A common characteristic of monoliths is that they may be owned by one organizational unit, but contain several contexts that are rightly the domain of another organizational unit due to a lack of integration. Re-keying or scripting extracted data from one system to another can arguably be called eventual consistency, but it’s a poor alternative to what can be done with a service-based architecture. The section “Data duplication over Events” in Jeppe Cramon’s “Microservices: It’s not (only) the size that matters, it’s (also) how you use them – part 4” illustrates how cooperating services can share data in a controlled manner with the service owning the data broadcasting out changes to those consuming that data, whether they be other transactional systems or data stores used for analytics and reporting.

The “bounded context writ large” nature of a microservices style allows you to use Conway’s Law to improve your data architecture. When the technology supports the same communication and governance model as the business it is supposed to support, data conflicts can be reduced, if not eliminated. Don’t underestimate, however, the effects that legacy systems may have had on the business’ communication and governance model. Years of working around the existing systems may have influenced (officially and/or unofficially) that model. As Udi Dahan noted in “People, Politics, and the Single Responsibility Principle”:

This just makes it that much harder to decide how to structure our software – there is no map with nice clean borders. We need to be able to see past the organizational dysfunction around us, possibly looking for how the company might have worked 100 years ago if everything was done by paper. While this might be possible in domains that have been around that long (like banking, shipping, etc) but even there, given the networked world we now live in, things that used to be done entirely within a single company are now spread across many different entities taking part in transnational value networks.

In short – it’s freakin’ hard.

But it’s still important.

Just don’t buy too deeply into the idea that by getting the responsibilities of your software right, that you will somehow reduce the impact that all of that business dysfunction has on you as a software developer. Part of the maturation process for a company is cleaning up its’ business processes in parallel to cleaning up its’ software processes.

It should be obvious that some governance will be needed to untangle the monoliths and keep them so. The good news is that this particular style provides the tools to do it incrementally.

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3 thoughts on “Microservices and Data Architecture – Who Owns What Data?

  1. Pingback: Making and Taming Monoliths | Form Follows Function

  2. Pingback: Monolithic Applications and Enterprise Gravel | Form Follows Function

  3. Pingback: Microservices, Monoliths, and Modularity | Form Follows Function

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