On microservices and distributed architectures

On microservices and distributed architectures

Like the boiling frog, we often fail to appreciate just how significantly the infrastructure upon which we rely as developers has improved over the last decade. When I began working with the Rails framework in 2010, everything from the hardware we used for local development, to the infrastructure upon which we tested and deployed, was positively anemic by today’s standard.

My personal laptop, reasonably high-end for the time, had a 5400 RPM spinning disk and 2 GB of RAM. SSDs were exotic, even on servers. Nowadays, you can get bare metal servers with 512gb-1tb of RAM, 2x multi-core CPUs and terabytes of fast SSD storage for a price that is perfectly reasonable for even small companies. Similarly, you can easily and cheaply launch fleets of high-spec virtual servers with providers like Amazon Web Services and DigitalOcean at minutes’ notice.

In many ways, it seems to me that we are often basing architectural decisions on imagined constraints. In my experience, a decision to embrace a microservices architecture should not follow primarily from concerns about scalability.

Typically the burden and overhead of managing several services across several environments (development, testing, QA, production, etc) is a huge multiple of that of managing a more monolithic codebase. Furthermore, scaling a monolithic application, within most practical bounds, is actually often simpler and cheaper than scaling a more distributed app.

From a technical perspective (speaking in this instance of web apps) a monolithic application can scale very naturally. The application tier can scale horizontally to an almost infinite degree by adding more application servers. Particularly high-traffic pages with largely static content can easily be placed behind a reverse proxy cache like Varnish (or a commercially-hosted sibling like Fastly). High-traffic pages with more dynamic content can still have their performance dramatically improved with strategies like fragment caching (using a memory store like Redis or Memcached). Relational databases can scale to immense capacity either in hosted/managed forms (such as Amazon RDS) or hosted on your own hardware. Master-Slave replication schemes can allow database reads to scale in a horizontal manner similar to scaling the application tier. Only extremely write-heavy apps present any significant challenges in this area, and even these scenarios now have a multitude of purpose-built solutions such as Cassandra and Citus (this is also not something that will be overcome any more easily with a microservices solution).

So when should you adopt microservices solutions? To me there are two especially compelling scenarios. One is what I would call the “service bridge” scenario. This would be where you have a niche feature that has a significantly different traffic profile to your larger app and, more importantly, would introduce extremely awkward dependencies to your application tier.

A good example of this might be something like IP geolocation, which could require data sets of hundreds of megabytes or more (assuming something like the Maxmind’s binary data files) that you may not want to shoehorn into your primary application (so as not to bloat your application server). Such a niche dependency might be better implemented as a microservice (though I would argue you would probably be better off delegating to a hosted provider with an API).

Microservices architectures are also well-suited in circumstances where you have a very large organization with many domain-focused teams that would benefit from a very high degree of autonomy. One of the organizations most visibly advocating for and implementing service oriented architectures early on was Amazon (as  wonderfully documented by Steve Yegge in his famous Google Platforms Rant [archive link]). It’s arguable that this vision of service oriented architecture (SOA) is more along the lines of having multiple large, monolithic applications with distinct teams and some data shared, rather than the common understanding of microservices (which is more akin to single applications composed of several small services).

When adopting microservices, be mindful of the unique challenges of the architecture, and have a plan to address them. These should not be incidental concerns but a primary focus from the outset if your team is to thrive. Things such as bootstrapping the development environment and having cohesive QA and versioning practices can be challenging with a microservices architecture. So too can logging and tracing. Many (especially in the context of smaller organizations) take an ad-hoc approach to these issues because they can still manage to make the system function, but oversights of this nature can become serious liabilities at scale.

The critical thing that I hope to convey is that microservices should not be adopted as a default solution for the problem of scaling an application. They can be a great fit for scaling teams and organizations, as well as for wrapping up functionality that it is particularly impractical to fit within your primary application’s deployment. The matter of scaling an application can be addressed extremely effectively with a monolithic codebase and traditional horizontal scale-out methods.


Hi! I'm Nicholas and I like building stuff. I'm software consultant working primarily with web technologies. I write here on related topics such as the Ruby on Rails web framework and DevOps solutions, in addition to travel and other matters of personal interest. I keep a homepage at nicholas.zaillian.com and am available for contract work (both remote and on-site depending on location. Send an email to hi@hackernotes.io).

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