4 min read

What are microservices?

In terms of software, ‘services’ could be thought of as little chunks of functionality. Services are a part of service-oriented architecture (SOA). Services are stateless, adhere to a contract (shared standards), are autonomous, relatively granular, and should be a ‘black-box’ for the user. Microservices are a logical extension of services. Microservices are services that perform only one function. This matches the Unix philosophy, “Do one thing, and do it well.” But who cares? And what about DevOps? Well, although the title is a cliche, DevOps and microservices based architecture are absolutely a match made in heaven. Following the philosophy of fully explaining terms, let’s talk a bit about DevOps.

What is DevOps?

DevOps, which come from the words “development operations,” is a process that is used to create software. DevOps is not one specific philosophy or process, there are many variants, but there are some shared features across most of the variants. DevOps advocates for a continuous development process where as many elements of this process are as automated as possible. Each iteration of a product is coded, built, tested, packaged, and released, and then monitored. This is referred to as the DevOps toolchain. When there is a need or desire to upgrade or change functionality or the way a product is designed, the process begins again. The idea is that DevOps should run in a circular fashion, always upgrading and always getting better. There are myriad tools in use right now within various flavors of DevOps. These tool are designed to meld with the DevOps tool chain and have revolutionized the development process for many developers and companies.

Why microservices and DevOps go together

You should already see why microservices and DevOps go together so well. DevOps calls for continuous monitoring, testing, and deployment of software. Microservices are inherently modular, because they are intended to perform a single function. Software that is modular easily fits into the DevOps structure. Incremental changes can be made to parts of a project, perhaps a single microservice. If the service contracts and control mechanisms are properly created, a single microservice should be able to be easily upgraded, built, tested, deployed and monitored without sending a cascading wave of bugs through adjacent services. DevOps really doesn’t make much sense outside of a structure like this. If your software is designed as a behemoth interconnected, interdependent ball of wax, changing part of the functionality will ‘break’ everything. This means that as changes or upgrades to a software are made, almost every change, no matter how big or small, will trigger what amounts to an almost full rewrite, or upgrade of the software in question. When applied to this kind of project, most DevOps processes would actually hinder the development process instead of helping. When projects are modularized at a relatively granular level, such as when a project is employing a microservice based structure, DevOps expedites delivery time and quality simultaneously.

It should be noted that both a microservice architecture and DevOps processes are not tied to any specific tools or languages. These are philosophies for development and could be applied many different ways. That being said, there are many continuous integration and deployment tools, as well as, many different automation tools that are designed for use within a DevOps framework.

Criticisms of microservices

There are some criticisms of the microservice structure. One criticism is that using microservices does not get rid of the complexities of a traditional program. Those complexities are just moved onto the network that the services are using to communicate. Stress to the network is another criticism of the microservice architecture. This is because the service architecture distributes the elements of a program or process around a network in various places. In order for these services to perform cohesive functions, they must utilize the network to communicate. Depending on how many services make up a program or process, this could translate into significant network activity, which then creates problems of its own. Another criticism is that microservices can sometimes become, so called, ‘nanoservices.’ This is a service that performs a function so small that cost of the service actually outweighs the utility of the service. These criticisms should be kept in mind, but, in my opinion, they don’t amount to enough to impact the usual functionality of microservices in a DevOps environment.

Using microservices in the DevOps process helps fully realize the potential of continuous integration, testing a deployment promised by DevOps. These tools combined can optimize computing in a manner that should be utilized during development whenever possible.

Erik Kappelman wears many hats including blogger, developer, data consultant, economist, and transportation planner. He lives in Helena, Montana and works for the Department of Transportation as a transportation demand modeler.


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