Fears for Tiers – Do You Need a Service Layer?

Tiered Wedding Cake

One of the perils of popularity (at least in technology) is that some people equate popularity with efficacy. Everyone’s using this everywhere, so it must be great for everything!

Actually, not so much.

No one, to my knowledge, has created the secret sauce that makes everything better with no trade-offs or side effects. Context still rules. Martin Fowler recently published “Microservices and the First Law of Distributed Objects”, which touches on this principle. In it, Fowler refers to what he calls the First Law of Distributed Object Design: “don’t distribute your objects”. To make a long story short, distributed objects are a very bad idea because object interfaces tend to be fine-grained and fine-grained interfaces perform poorly in a distributed environment. “Chunkier” interfaces are more appropriate to distributed scenarios due to the difference in context between in-process and out of process communication (particularly when out of process also crosses machine, even network boundaries). Additionally, distributed architectures introduce complexity, adding another contextual element to be accounted for when evaluating whether to use them.

In his post, under “Further Readings”, Fowler references an older post of his on Dr. Dobb’s titled “Errant Architectures” (a re-packaging of Chapter 7 of his book Patterns of Enterprise Application Architecture). In that, he discusses encountering what was a common architectural anti-pattern of the time (early 2000s):

There’s a recurring presentation I used to see two or three times a year during design reviews. Proudly, the system architect of a new OO system lays out his plan for a new distributed object system—let’s pretend it’s some kind of ordering system. He shows me a design that looks rather like “Architect’s Dream, Developer’s Nightmare” with separate remote objects for customers, orders, products and deliveries. Each one is a separate component that can be placed in a separate processing node.
I ask, “Why do you do this?”

“Performance, of course,” the architect replies, looking at me a little oddly. “We can run each component on a separate box. If one component gets too busy, we add extra boxes for it so we can load-balance our application.” The look is now curious, as if he wonders if I really know anything about real distributed object stuff at all.

The quintessential example of this style was the web site presentation layer with its business and data layer behind a set of web services. Particularly in the .Net world, web services were the cutting edge and everyone needed them. Of course the system architect in the story was confusing scalability for performance (as were most who jumped onto the web service layer bandwagon). In order to increase the former, a hit is taken to the latter. In most cases, this hit is entirely unnecessary. A web application with an in-process back-end can be load-balanced much more simply than separate UI and service sites, without suffering the performance penalty of remote communication.

There are valid use cases for a service layer, such as when an application provides a both an interactive user interface and is service-enabled. When there are multiple user interfaces, some front ends will benefit from physical separation from the back-end (native mobile apps, desktop clients, SharePoint web parts, etc.). Applications can be structured to accommodate the same back-end either in-process or out of process. This structure can be particularly important for applications that have both internal (where internal is defined as built and deployed simultaneously with the back-end) and external service clients as these have different needs in terms of versioning. Wrapping the back-end with a service layer rather than allowing it to invade a particular service implementation can allow one back-end to serve internal and external customers either directly or via services (RESTful and/or SOAP) without violating the DRY principle.

Many of the same caveats that apply to composite applications formed from microservices (network latency, serialization costs, etc.) apply to these types of applications. It makes little sense to take on these downsides in the absence of a clear demonstrable need. Doing so looks more like falling prey to a fad than creating a well thought out design.

[Wedding Cake Image by shine oa via Wikimedia Commons.]


4 thoughts on “Fears for Tiers – Do You Need a Service Layer?

  1. Once again, a great post.
    An analogy in the same token: Micro-cars are a fantastic idea if you live in a dense metropolitan and just need to drive to work. I would highly not recommend using micro-cars as the distribution infrastructure for a large retailer or for a furniture chain – You will have a fantastic throughput and a shocking productivity.


  2. Pingback: A Service by Any Other Name | Form Follows Function

  3. Pingback: Microservices – Sharpening the Focus | Form Follows Function

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