It has been nearly 2 years since I started working at Agency Revolution, a team working on a software platform that utilizes Microservices architecture to build a highly scalable system for Automation Marketing. It comes with both pros and cons when building a Microservices system from scratch and I’m not for nor against Microservices. There are many articles and books on the Internet talking about the advantages of Microservices so I’m not going to write another post about the benefits of using Microservices. This post is just a summary of my experience and the difficulties after 2 years working with it as well as how we deal with those issues to get the most value of Microservices.

First, let me introduce a bit about the tech stack that we are using. We have been running our application on our private server for about 2 years before migrating to Google Cloud Platform. There are 3 types of service in the system. They are

  • HTTP services: the services for handling synchronous requests, the requests that need the response immediately (e.g. requests from frontend to display for users)
  • Google PubSub workers: the services for handling asynchronous requests. They are queued for later processing in the background and ensured by Google PubSub
  • Timer workers: The services that run at intervals.

HTTP services are used for handling simple requests, which can be completed within milliseconds/seconds. For the long-running tasks, we published a message to Google PubSub and schedule it to be processed later by the Google PubSub workers. Each of them is deployed and scaled as a pod in Kubernetes.

First problem - Overhead before you can get the scalability to work

Microservices add quite a lot of unnecessary overhead in the beginning, both human and computing resources.

Computing Resources overhead

One thing that you have to pay for is the performance cost of starting a lot of small processes. If your resources are limited, this can slow down the whole system. You need to think carefully when you start with a full Microservices system from scratch whether you really need to break down the whole system into smaller parts, whether you have enough computing power or how large you will scale your application.

Imagine that there are about 10 modules in your system for 10 different domain business. If you are building a Microservices system, you will probably split your application into many smaller services, one for each domain. Each of them may be implemented using a simple HTTP JSON Api server. Instead of calling the exposed functions each module provides like in the monolithic design, you will have to initiate an http request calling to the corresponding service, get the response data and continue processing. The problem arises when there are many modules/services that are rarely used, just serve a few requests per day. You still have to keep those http web servers alive to listen and process api requests. What happen when you system grows to 100 services (or more)? How many of them will actually be used/stressed all the time? Think about the isolated backing services used for each service. All of them still consumes your CPU/RAM even if they serve no requests. A monolithic application can easily share the computing resources among all the modules.

We ran into this situation when our application grew to about 100 small services. We had to keep all the HTTP services and Google PubSub workers alive to handle HTTP requests and process messages from Google PubSub. Some workers are extremely rarely used, for example, the worker to delete one customer (runs just once or twice every month). We wasted a lot of resources keeping those small services running just to wait for incoming messages/requests. We solved this issue partially for the Google PubSub workers by implementing a Workers Scheduler service. It is a Timer worker that keeps track of messages published to Google and send requests to Kubernetes master server to create new pods and destroy running pods based on some predefined rules.

Data Transferring cost

Another overhead is the cost of transferring data through network. In a monolithic design, each function call is simply passing the reference to the real object through parameters. There is no need for cloning the object itself. However, communication between difference services requires serializing, deserializing the whole object and transfer it over the network. This can lead to a major performance issue if cross-service communication happens frequently. To solve this, you will need filter only the necessary fields before sending the object to the next service. Also, your API need to be designed in a way that allows the caller to specify the fields to return to reduce network transferring.

There are some other solutions that I believe they can improve the performance for encoding/decoding objects through services like FlatBuffers or Protobuf. I will come back to write another post about the comparison once I finished integrating one of them in the architecture.

Human Resources overhead

You also need to invest a lot of human resources in devops and setting up production pipeline in the beginning to automate the deployment of all services (yeah you can not deploy hundred of services manually!). You have to spend a lot of time on defining a standard interface for communicating between services because you cannot initiate all the remote api calls manually every time.

Testing is also a complex process, deciding whether to go with unit test in each service or integration test where one service would require many other services to be started are really matter. You can decide to mock all the dependent services but you will have to repeat this step many times if one service is consumed a lot by many others and update all the mocks when there are breaking changes in that service. You can choose another approach to start all the dependent services along with the one you need to test, but it’s also increase the overhead of setting up and making sure everything works together properly and automatically.

To be continued…