Microservices or Monoliths – Fences and Neighbors

Photo of fence separating fields from a road

 

At the end of my last post, “What Makes a Monolith Monolithic?”, I stated that I didn’t consider the term “monolithic” to be inherently derogatory. It is, rather, a descriptive term relating to the style of organizing an application’s architecture. Depending on the context the system operates within, a monolithic architectural style could lie anywhere on the continuum between perfectly suited and perfectly disastrous. Placing it on that continuum requires a sense of what qualities are most needed or desired and which can be traded off in their stead. Everything comes with a cost, and attempting to ignore that fact merely sets us up for unpleasant future surprises.

After an initial period of unbridled enthusiasm, opinion seemed to gel around the idea that highly distributed application architectures (aka microservice architectures) were not suitable to all contexts. There are prerequisites for jumping into the microservices pool in terms of problem architecture, infrastructure, and organization. Attempting to shoehorn a microservice architecture into an environment that cannot support it will be overly expensive at best and a failure of apocalyptic proportions at worst.

There are many aspects of application design that are commonly recognized as beneficial: modularity, loose-coupling, high cohesion, and separation of concerns. It is critical to realize that these aspects can be found in systems with microservice architectures, monolithic systems, and everything in between. Distributed architectures are not necessary for modularity, nor any of those other aspects. In fact, one could easily create an application with a microservice architecture whose qualities are opposite to these desirable ones.

There are, however, situations where the benefit of a microservice architecture outweighs the costs and complexity. The ability to independently deploy and scale the various parts of an application is a major benefit, in my opinion. A well designed microservice architecture can even allow for the components of an application to be replaced on the fly. These features are not unique to microservice architectures, but are arguably easier to achieve than in other application architectures.

Real design, balancing both costs and benefits, is required. Sticking a bit of network in between the components is insufficient to ensure success. Deliberate design, especially as the boundaries multiply, is critical for an effective system. Identifying and providing for those boundaries at the conceptual level (i.e. before they become physical) is key. Good fences can either make for good neighbors, or they can create a maze of barriers.

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What Makes a Monolith Monolithic?

Photo of Stonehenge, 1877

 

It seems like everybody throws around the term “monolith”, but what do we mean by that?

Sam Newman started the ball rolling yesterday with this tweet:

My first response was a (semi) joke:

I say semi joke because, in truth, semantics (i.e. meaning) is critical. The English language has a horrible tendency to overload terms as it is, and in our line of work we tend to make it even worse. Lack of specificity obscures, rather than enlightens. The problem with the term “monolith” is that, while it’s a powerfully evocative term, it isn’t a simple one to define. My second response was closer to an actual definition:

The purpose of this post is to expand on that a bit.

The “mono” portion of the term is, in my opinion, the crucial part. I believe that quality of oneness is what defines a monolithic system. As I noted in the second tweet, it’s a matter of meta-coupling, whether that coupling exists in the form of deployment, data architecture, or execution style (Jeppe Cramon‘s post “Microservices: It’s not (only) the size that matters, it’s (also) how you use them – part 3” shows how temporal coupling can turn a distributed system into a runtime monolith). The following tweets between Anne Currie and Sam illustrate the amorphous nature of what is and isn’t a monolith:

Modules that can be deployed to run in a single process need not be considered monolithic, if they’re not tightly coupled. Likewise, running distributed isn’t a guarantee against being monolithic if the components are tightly coupled in any way. The emphasis on “in any way” is due to the fact that any of the types of coupling I mentioned above can be a deal killer. If all the “microservices” must be deployed simultaneously for the system to work, it’s a distributed monolith. If the communication is both synchronous and fault intolerant, it’s a distributed monolith. If there’s a single data store backing the entire system, it’s a distributed monolith. It’s not the modularity that defines it (you can have a modular monolith), but the inability to separate the parts without damaging the whole system.

I would also point out that I don’t consider “monolithic” to be derogatory, in and of itself. There is a trade-off involved in terms of coupling and complexity (and cost). While I generally prefer more flexibility, there is always the danger of over-engineering. If we’re hand-carving marble gargoyles to stick on a tool shed, chances are the customer won’t be pleased. The solution should bear at least a passing resemblance to the problem context it’s supposed to address.

Microservices – Sharpening the Focus

Motion Blurred London Bus

While it was not the genesis of the architectural style known as microservices, the March 2014 post by James Lewis and Martin Fowler certainly put it on the software development community’s radar. Although the level of interest generated has been considerable, the article was far from an unqualified endorsement:

Despite these positive experiences, however, we aren’t arguing that we are certain that microservices are the future direction for software architectures. While our experiences so far are positive compared to monolithic applications, we’re conscious of the fact that not enough time has passed for us to make a full judgement.

One reasonable argument we’ve heard is that you shouldn’t start with a microservices architecture. Instead begin with a monolith, keep it modular, and split it into microservices once the monolith becomes a problem. (Although this advice isn’t ideal, since a good in-process interface is usually not a good service interface.)

So we write this with cautious optimism. So far, we’ve seen enough about the microservice style to feel that it can be a worthwhile road to tread. We can’t say for sure where we’ll end up, but one of the challenges of software development is that you can only make decisions based on the imperfect information that you currently have to hand.

In the course of roughly fourteen months, Fowler’s opinion has gelled around the “reasonable argument”:

So my primary guideline would be don’t even consider microservices unless you have a system that’s too complex to manage as a monolith. The majority of software systems should be built as a single monolithic application. Do pay attention to good modularity within that monolith, but don’t try to separate it into separate services.

This mirrors what Sam Newman stated in “Microservices For Greenfield?”:

I remain convinced that it is much easier to partition an existing, “brownfield” system than to do so up front with a new, greenfield system. You have more to work with. You have code you can examine, you can speak to people who use and maintain the system. You also know what ‘good’ looks like – you have a working system to change, making it easier for you to know when you may have got something wrong or been too aggressive in your decision making process.

You also have a system that is actually running. You understand how it operates, how it behaves in production. Decomposition into microservices can cause some nasty performance issues for example, but with a brownfield system you have a chance to establish a healthy baseline before making potentially performance-impacting changes.

I’m certainly not saying ‘never do microservices for greenfield’, but I am saying that the factors above lead me to conclude that you should be cautious. Only split around those boundaries that are very clear at the beginning, and keep the rest on the more monolithic side. This will also give you time to assess how how mature you are from an operational point of view – if you struggle to manage two services, managing 10 is going to be difficult.

In short, the application architectural style known as microservice architecture (MSA), is unlikely to be an appropriate choice for the early stages of an application. Rather it is a style that is most likely migrated to from a more monolithic beginning. Some subset of applications may benefit from that form of distributed componentization at some point, but distribution, at any degree of granularity, should be based on need. Separation of concerns and modularity does not imply a need for distribution. In fact, poorly planned distribution may actually increase complexity and coupling while destroying encapsulation. Dependencies must be managed whether local or remote.

This is probably a good point to note that there is a great deal of room between a purely monolithic approach and a full-blown MSA. Rather than a binary choice, there is a wide range of options between the two. The fractal nature of the environment we inhabit means that responsibilities can be described as singular and separate without their being required to share the same granularity. Monoliths can be carved up and the resulting component parts still be considered monolithic compared to an extremely fine-grained sub-application microservice and that’s okay. The granularity of the partitioning (and the associated complexity) can be tailored to the desired outcome (such as making components reusable across multiple applications or more easily replaceable).

The moral of the story, at least in my opinion, is that intentional design concentrating on separation of concerns, loose coupling, and high cohesion is beneficial from the very start. Vertical (functional) slices, perhaps combined with layers (what I call “dicing”), can be used to achieve these ends. Regardless of whether the components are to be distributed at first, designing them with that in mind from the start will ease any transition that comes in the future without ill effects for the present. Neglecting these issues, risks hampering, if not outright preventing, breaking them out at a later date without resorting to a re-write.

These same concerns apply higher levels of abstraction as well. Rather than blindly growing a monolith that is all things to all people, adding new features should be treated as an opportunity to evaluate whether that functionality coheres with the existing application or is better suited to being a service from an external provider. Just as the application architecture should aim for modularity, so too should the solution architecture.

A modular design is a flexible design. While we cannot know up front the extent of change an application will undergo over its lifetime, we can be sure that there will be change. Designing with flexibility in mind means that change, when it comes, is less likely to be an existential crisis. As Hayim Makabee noted in his write-up of Rotem Hermon’s talk, “Change Driven Design”: “Change should entail extending the system rather than refactoring.”

A full-blown MSA architecture is one possible outcome for an application. It is, however, not the most likely outcome for most applications. What is important is to avoid unnecessary constraints and retain sufficient flexibility to deal with the needs that arise.

[London Bus Image by E01 via Wikimedia Commons.]

Microservice Principles, Technical Debt, and Legacy Systems

Is there a circumstance where the answer to Architect Clippy‘s question is “yes”? In “Microservice Architectures aren’t for Everyone” I used this tweet to underscore the observation that a team that can’t produce a well-modularized monolith is unlikely to be helped by trying to distribute the problem. On the other hand, a team (or teams) tasked with rehabilitating a “Big Ball of Mud” might well find some value in the principles behind microservice architectures.

Some of the relevant principles are cohesion and replaceability. As Dan North noted in “Microservices: software that fits in your head”:

One way to manage the mess is to maximise the likelihood that everyone knows what’s going on in the codebase. This requires two things: consistency and replaceability. Consistency implies you can make reasonable assumptions about unfamiliar parts of the application. Replaceability means you can kill code easily and replace it with something better.

Without achieving separation of concerns, any architectural refactoring effort will be an exercise in chasing fires across the codebase. A divide and conquer strategy that applies the single responsibility principle at a macro level will be more likely to facilitate identification and remediation of lower-level technical debt. Monoliths can benefit from being carved up, not because small is inherently better, but because they reach a point where independence of their components becomes beneficial, even crucial. Components that share fewer dependencies (such as a shared data store) and have independent release cycles offer a great deal of flexibility in structuring an application and the team(s) that develop it.

In “Microservices allow for localized tech debt”, Jim Plush stated: “It’s much easier mentally to tackle $10,000 of debt across 4 credit cards at $2500 each than 1 card at the full $10,000.” Even more to the point, it’s much easier to tackle that debt when you split it with three other people (teams) each working independently.

Re-writes have a well-deserved bad reputation. Shared platforms and shared data stores will often mean that the transition from the legacy system to the re-written one will be a high-risk “big bang” affair. As Edmond Lau observed in “How to Avoid One of the Costliest Mistakes in Software Engineering”, you want to “…get as quickly as possible to a state where you’re again making incremental improvements”. Getting to this state may well happen quicker when the parts are separated.

Microservices, SOA, Reuse and Replaceability

Unicorn

While it’s not as elusive as the unicorn, the concept of reuse tends to be talked about more often talked about than seen. Over the years, object-orientation, design patterns, and services have all held out the promise of reuse of either code or at least, design. Similar claims have been made regarding microservices.

Reuse is a creature of extremes. Very fine grained components (e.g. the classes that make up the standard libraries of Java and .Net) are highly reusable but require glue code to coordinate their interaction in order to yield something useful. This will often be the case with microservices, although not always; it is possible to have very small services with few or no dependencies on other services (it’s important to remember, unlike libraries, services generally share both behavior and data.). Coarse grained components, such as traditional SOA services, can be reused across an enterprise’s IT architecture to provide standard high-level interfaces into centralized systems for other applications.

The important thing to bear in mind, though, is that reuse is not an end in itself. It can be a means of achieving consistency and/or efficiency, but its benefits come from avoiding cost and duplication rather than from the extra usage. Just as other forms of reuse have had costs in addition to benefits, so it is with microservices as well.

Anything that is reused rather than duplicated becomes a dependency of its client application. This dependency relationship is a form of coupling, tying the two codebases together and constraining the ability of the dependency to change. Within the confines of an application, it is generally better for reuse to emerge. Inter-application reuse will require more coordination and tend to be more deliberately designed. As with most things, there is no free lunch. Context is required to determine whether the trade is a good one or not.

Replaceability is, in my opinion, just as important, if not more so, than reuse. Being able to switch from one dependency to another (or from one version of a dependency to another) because that dependency has its own independent lifecycle and is independently deployed enables a great deal of flexibility. That flexibility enables easier upgrades (rolling migration rather than a big bang). Reducing the friction inherent in migrations reduces the likelihood of technical debt due to inertia.

While a shared service may well find more constraints with each additional client, each client can determine how much replaceability is appropriate for itself.