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A high-level overview of what a Microservices architecture means and when it can be useful

Basic idea


(image source: O'Reilly)

  • The system is divided into several small services that each encapsulate a certain functional area across several layers of the technical stack, even down to the database
    • "Shared nothing", decrease coupling between services as much as possible
    • Sharing of a database between services is generally considered bad practice
      • Coupling: all services using the shared database must align and stay aligned regarding type of database, schema, additional validation to happen on top of database-level restrictions, ...
      • Increased risk of data corruption: a mismatch in the way different services use the database could result in the data becoming corrupted from the point of view of one or more of the services sharing the database
    • Freedom to choose or change the technology used by a service based on what makes most sense. Some service may use a relational database while another one uses a document store. A service providing information about the relationships between different users could switch to a graph database without any other service being affected by the change.
  • Different small teams each take ownership of one or more of these services
    • Team responsible for a microservice takes control of development and deployment
      • Each service is expected to handle reasonable error scenarios and recover if possible
    • Changes within a single functional domain (= single service) can happen within a single team
    • Coordination with other teams is only required if the communication with their services needs changes as well
    • Challenge: making sure integration points between services don't break (things like contract testing can help)
  • Services integrate with each other by passing messages, most often over HTTP or message queues
  • Typically combined with Continuous Delivery, automatic machine provisioning and deployment, ...
  • Monitoring and logging typically first-class architectural concepts
    • Several services, each of which might be scaled across several instances -> large number of processes to watch
    • This means having a good monitoring and logging setup is essential in keeping the system running smoothly


  • Can help with scaling the development organization into several teams that can (to a large extent) work independently of each other
    • Apart from decisions impacting the communication between services, different teams can work independently. This helps to scale the development organization, as communication is way more efficient within a small, focused team than within a large team with large scope.
    • Services can be developed and deployed independently
    • Different services can have different release cycles
  • Can help with scaling in the technical sense
    • Services can be scaled independently (you don't have to scale your entire monolith to support your most volatile component in terms of need for capacity)
    • Having a separate database per service can help with database scaling (each individual database will likely be smaller and will likely need to deal with less load)
  • Can be overkill (and introduce more problems than it solves) for a single small team
    • Adds complexity regarding testing, deployment, monitoring, ...
    • Network communication between services introduces a lot of ways for calls to fail
    • Any inappropriate coupling between different parts of the codebase becomes a much bigger problem if those parts are in different services
    • Limits the scope of DB-level transactions
  • Challenging to find the best way to divide the system into services
    • Defining this upfront is risky. Typically, it's best to start with a monolith or very small number of services and extract certain parts into separate services when it makes sense.
    • Finding good service boundaries is hard, refactoring service boundaries is very hard

Coupling in a microservices architecture

One requirement for a good microservices architecture is to minimize inappropriate coupling. However, some coupling is still needed to create a useful system.

Integration coupling

This type of coupling is the most obvious one: The fact that services communicate with each other means that services will still depend on each other to some extent. If your service needs customer data, there are scenarios where a change to the Customer service could impact you. As always, these dependencies should be carefully managed.

Service template coupling

Service template: shared template that all services can build upon

  • Contains general stuff like monitoring, logging, and authentication/authorization.
  • Teams maintaining the services build their services upon this template
  • Much easier to ensure compliance and manage upgrades to monitoring system etc. than if each service team would build their own version of this
  • This likely means all services will be built using the same language or limited set of languages. Although this takes away some of the freedom regarding technology, it also means that developers can more easily move between teams if necessary and that it's easier to create shared libraries or share knowledge between teams.

Example generic service templates: DropWizard and Spring Boot

Data duplication and bounded contexts

What if different services are interested in the same concept? Remember, sharing databases between services is considered bad practice!

Typical approach: each service stores its own representation of the concept

This can be seen as duplication, but:

  • If a service stores the data it needs, it is less dependent on other services (both regarding availability and code coupling)
  • Data that different services store for that same thing will depend on what the specific services need
  • Same domain concept may have completely different representations in different services
  • Data (or shape of data) regarding the same concept in different services will likely change at different times and for different reasons

This approach corresponds to the DDD concept of Bounded Contexts

Example: e-commerce system using a microservices architecture

  • Situation:
    • Customer service which manages a whole lot of data about each customer, including their shipping address
    • Order service, which maintains orders and needs the shipping address of the customer
  • Approach 1: let Order service store a customer ID with each Order
    • Whenever all information for an order needs to be retrieved, customer’s address is retrieved from the Customer service
    • Problem: if the Customer service is unavailable or the customer has been deleted, the Order service has no idea which address to use for the order
    • Problem: if the customer’s address changes, the current shipping address for a customer may not be the address that a certain order was shipped to
  • Approach 2: let Order service store customer ID and customer’s shipping address
    • Essentially, Order service stores a snapshot of the data it needs
    • If the order is retrieved from the Order service later on, the service will use the shipping address that it has stored

Some services may even be entirely focused on aggregating bits of data from other services!

  • Can be useful for search, analysis, ...
  • Example: functionality to view some general info about the most recent orders of customers, allowing to filter customers by some key attributes
    • Can make sense to put this in separate Insights service
    • Service gathers data from the Customer and Order services (could be push, through API calls or message queue, or pull)
    • Service stores data in a format that includes exactly the required information
    • When the service receives a request, it can gather the required data directly from its own database

Micro frontends


Even with microservices in the backend, the frontend is often monolithic:

Monolithic frontend

(image source )

  • Often a single, large and feature-rich single-page app cutting across all of the functional areas represented by the backend microservices
  • Problems:
    • Frontend can become so big that it’s difficult to maintain
    • Frontend often also developed by a separate team, meaning that that team needs to coordinate with the backend teams when building functionality.

Alternative approach: Micro frontends

Monolithic frontend

(image source )

  • Frontend is split into different parts in the same way that the backend is
  • Teams are responsible for their functional part of the application across the entire stack, from the database up to the frontend.
  • The actual frontend that the user interacts with is stitched together from the functional parts developed by different teams
    • Some patterns/frameworks available that can help

Implementation approaches:

  • Server-side template composition: HTML is rendered on the server side, the main template contains includes that insert the HTML of the relevant micro frontends
  • Build-time integration: The micro frontends are published as packages, which are then imported into the main "container" application as dependencies
    • Disadvantage: coupling at build and release time
  • Run-time integration via iframes: Use iframes to stitch together the different parts
    • Disadvantage: routing, history, and deep-linking are more complicated
    • Disadvantage: harder to create good responsive designs
  • Run-time integration via JavaScript: Each micro frontend will be a bundle.js file that can be released independently and is retrieved and mounted asynchronously as needed, using JavaScript
  • Run-time integration via WebComponents: Each micro frontend will define a custom HTML element (WebComponent) that the container application can instantiate