Microservices Explained: Not Your Father’s SOA

Microservices are frequently referred to as a variant or derivative of service-oriented architecture (SOA), if not essentially the same thing. While there are similarities and both are designed around the concept of services, that’s where the similarities end. Each was created around a different set of principles and intended to address different problems.

Microservices architecture is built around key concepts that, when applied, not only differentiate it from other architectures but deliver advantages that accelerate software delivery and help to scale large, complex applications. To deliver on the promise of cloud-native, microservices must be loosely coupled so that, ultimately, they are independently deployable. Any microservice can be updated and deployed—just that containerized microservice—without requiring changes to other microservice(s). Loosely coupled microservices mean they are not sharing databases or maintaining state, for example.

How big should a microservice be? Or, in other words, how much should it do? The answers range from ‘a single thing’ to ‘a small set of related code with high cohesion’. Another factor is that getting too granular can overrun a microservices-based application with large numbers of microservices, increasing complexity and making triage through observability and tracing very challenging.

Scaling microservices-based apps is another important factor. Autonomous microservices can be replicated and scaled for performance and workload using container orchestration tools such as Kubernetes.

Microservice communications are achieved through well-thought-out APIs created around the business or operational capabilities the microservice provides to anyone or anything engaging through the API. The API, and data provided through the API, are often referred to as ‘technology-independent.’ It’s probably better stated that microservice APIs are built using approaches like RESTful and GraphQL over networks that are not tied to any one specific operating environment, technology or programming language. JSON, YAML and XML similarly represent data that is transferable across technologies.

The following diagram of a media application demonstrates the principles of microservices architecture. Microservices for scheduling media, digital rights management, tracking impressions and adding new ad insertions are loosely coupled, autonomous and have well-defined API interfaces. Each microservice can be changed, enhanced and deployed rapidly and independently of other microservices.

Service-oriented Architecture, or SOA, emerged to solve a very different problem; the overwhelming size and complexity of monolithic applications. Monolithic applications have very large codebases that often don’t do a good job of compartmentalizing functional or business logic. This makes changes to the codebase challenging even to developers who know much of the codebase well.

Services in SOA were often used to gather a collection of similar business logic together and then share them as a service with other parts of the application, as needed. Technologies like message buses are used to make requests of a service and operate as traffic managers for requests across multiple services and other parts of the application. While reusability was a critical design consideration, SOA services were still quite large, and deploying services at high velocity was not an important design consideration. SOA services often take considerable time to code and test the service including interdependencies across other parts of the application before deploying as part of a larger software release.

One important note: There are benefits and drawbacks to microservices and SOA architectures; neither is ‘better’ than the other. Which architecture to use when mainly depends on the purpose of the application you are building. For larger, more complex enterprise application environments that require integration with many other applications, you might choose SOA. That’s a better fit than for smaller applications that don’t require middleware elements for managing the requests within the app or between other applications. Microservices, on the other hand, are better-suited for smaller and well-partitioned web-based systems. They are becoming the standard for today’s cloud-native applications, and also are a great fit for developing a mobile or web application because they give developers more control.

Microservices Explained: Not Your Father’s SOA

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