Tuesday 10 March 2015

QCon London 2015: from hype to trendsetting - Part 1

Level [C3]

This year I could make it to the QCon London and I felt it might be useful to write up a summary for those who liked to be there but did not make it for any reason. This will also an opportunity to get my head together and summarise a couple of themes, inspired by the conference.

Quality of the talks was varied and initially pretty disappointing on the first day but rose to a real high on the last day. Not surprisingly, Microservices and Docker were the buzzwords of the conference and many of the talks had one or the other in their title. It was as if, the hungry folks were being presented Microservices with ketchup and next it would be with Mayonnaise and yet nothing as good as Docker with Salsa. In fact it is very easy to be skeptic and sarcastic about Microservices or Docker and disregard them as a pure hype.

After listening to the talks, especially ones on the last day, I was convinced that with or without me, this train is set to take the industry forward. Yes, granularity of the Microservices (MS) have not been crisply defined yet, and there is a stampede to download and install Microservices on old systems and fix the world. Industry will abuse it as it reduced SOA to Web Services by adding just a P to the end. Yes, there are very few people talking about the cost of moving to MS and explore the cases where you should stay put. But if your Monolith (even though pays lip service to SOA) has ground the development cycle to a halt and is killing you and your company, there is a thing or two to learn here.

Disclaimer: This post by no means is a comprehensive account of the conference. This is my personal take on QCon London 2015 and topics discussed, peppered with some of my own views, presented as a technical writing.


Yeah I know you are fed up with hearing the word - but bear with me for a few minutes. Microservices reminded me of my past life: it is a syndrome. A medical syndrome when it is first being described, does not have to have the Aetiology and Pathophysiology all clear and explained - it is just a syndrome, a collection of signs and symptoms that occur together. In the medical world, there could be years between describing a syndrome and finding what and why.

And this is what we are dealing here within a different discipline: Microservice is an emerging pattern, a solution to a contextual problem that has indeed occurred. It is a phenomenon that we are still trying to figure out - a lot of head scratching is going on. So bear with it and I think we are for a good ride beyond all the hype.

Its two basic benefits are mainly: smaller deployment granularity enabling you to iterate faster and smaller domain to focus, understand and improve. For me the first is the key.

So here are a breakdown of few key aspects of the Microservices.

Conway, Conway, Where Art Thou

A re-occurring theme (and at points, ad nauseum) was that MS is the result of reversing cause and effect in the Conway's law and using it to your advantage: build smaller teams and your software will shape like it. So in essence, turning Conway's law on its head and use it as a tool to naturally result in a more loosely coupled architecture.

This by no means is new, Amazon has been doing this for a decade. Size of the teams are nicely defined by Jeff Bezos as "Two Pizza Teams". But what is the makeup of these teams and how do they operate? As again described by Amazon, they are made up of elements of a small company, a start-up, including developers, testers, BA, business representative and more importantly operations, aka Devops.

Another point stressed by Yoni Goldberg from Gilt and Andy Shoup was that the teams charge other teams for using their services and need to look after their finances. They found that doing this reduced costs of the team by 90% - mainly due to optimising cloud and computing costs.

Granularity: "fits in my head" (does it?)

One of the key challenges of Microservices was to define the granularity of a Microservice differentiating it from the traditional SOA. And it seems we have now up a definition: "its complexity fits one's head".

What? This to me is a non-definition and on any account, it is a poor definition (sorry Dan). After all, there is nothing more subjective than what fits one's head, is it? And whose head by the way? if it is me, I cannot keep track of what I ate for breakfast and lunch at the same time (if you know me personally, you must have noticed my small head) and then we get those giants that can master several disciplines or understand the whole of an uber-domain.

One of the key properties of a good definition is that it is tangible, unambiguous and objectively prescriptive. Jeff Bezos was not necessarily a Pizza lover to use it to define Amazon team sizes.

In the absence of any tangible definition, I am going to bring my own - why not? This is really how I feel like the granularity of a MS should be, having built one or two, and I am using tangible metrics to define it.

Granularity of Microservices - my definition

As it is evident, Cross-cutting concerns of a Microservice are numerous. From security, availability, performance to routing, versioning, discovery, logging and monitoring. For a lot of these concerns, you can rely on the existing platform or common platform-wide guidelines, tools and infrastructure. So the crux of the sizing of the Microservice is its core business functionality, otherwise with regard to non-functional requirements, it would share the same concerns as traditional services.

When not to Microservice

Yoni Goldberg from Gilt covered this subject to some level. He basically said do not start with Microservice, build them when your domain complexity warrants it. He went through his own experience and how they improved upon the ball of mud to nice discreet service and then how they exploded the number of services when their
So takeaways (with some personal salt and pepper) I would say is do NOT consider Microservice if:
  • you do not have the organisation structure (small cross functional teams)
  • you are not practising Devops, automated build and deployment
  • you do not have (or cannot have) an uber monitoring system telling you exactly what is happening
  • you have to carry along a legacy database
  • your domain is not too big

Microservices is an evolutionary process

Randy Shoup explained how the process towards Microservice has been an evolutionary one, usually starting with the Monolith. So he stressed "Evolution, not intelligent design" and how in such an environment, Governance (oh yeah, all ye Enterprise Architects listen up) is not the same as traditional SOA and is decentralised with its adoption purely based on how useful a practice/ is.

Optimised message protocols now a must

Frequented in more than a couple of talks, moving to ProtoBuf, Avro, Thrift or similar seems to be a must in all but trivial Microservice setups. One of the main performance challenges in MS scenarios is network latency and cost of serialisation/deserialisation over and over across multiple hops and JSON simply does not cut it anymore

Source: Thrift vs Protobuf comparison (http://devres.zoomquiet.io/data/20091111011019/index.html)
Be ready to move your APIs to these message protocols - yes you lose some simplicity benefits but trading it off for performance is always a necessary evil to make. Rest assured nothing stops you to use JSON while developing and testing, but if your game is serious, start changing your protocols now - and I am too, item already added to the technical backlog.

What I was hoping to hear about and did not

Microservice registry and versioning best practices was not mentioned at all. I tried to quiz a few speakers on these but did not quite get a good answer. I suppose the space is open for grab.

Need for Composition Services/APIs

As experienced personally, in an MS environment you would end up with two different types of services: Functional Microservice where they own their data and are the authority in their business domain and Composition APIs which do not normally own any data and bring value by composing data from several other services - normally involving some level of business logic affecting the end user. In DDD terms, you could somehow find similarity with Facade services and Yoni used the word "mid-tier services".

Composition services can bring a lot of value when it comes to caching, pagination of data and enriching the information. They practically scatter the requests and gather the results back and compose the result - Fan-out is another term used here.

By inherently depending on many services, they are notoriously susceptible to performance outliers (will be discussed in the second post) and failure scenarios which might warrant a layered cache backed by soft storage with a higher expiry for fallback in case dependent service is down.

In the next post, we will look into topics below. We will discover why Docker in fact is closely related to the Microservices - and it is not what you think! [Do I qualify now to become a BusinessInsider journalist?]
  • Those pesky performance outliers
  • Containers, containers
  • Don't beat the dead Agile
  • Extra large memory computing is now a thing