Wednesday, July 3, 2024

How modern distributed systems scale by partitioning ?


1.0 Introduction

In the last 20 years, software systems moved to the internet and handled large volumes of data and millions of requests. Most people interact with these systems using a browser or a mobile device. At the back end, is not one powerful computer but generally a network of commodity computers. Both the processing and storage of data is spread across multiple computers. In this blog we discuss how large datasets can be stored using multiple commodity computers.

Partitioning is the process of breaking up a large dataset in parts so that each part can fit easily on the disk on one one node and be efficiently managed by each node. For very large data sets that cannot fit on 1 machine, data needs to be broken up into parts ( partition or shard). Each partition is stored on a different machine. This is just natural horizontal scaling. But most important is that, when it time to read the partitioned data, we need to be able to find (efficiently) which partition and node has the data we want to read.

Storage space is not the only benefit of partitioning. You are also spreading the compute required to read, write and process the data.

Partitioning is generally combined with replication to make the partitions highly available. But we do not discuss replication here. That is a topic for another blog.

2.0 Types of partitioning

There are 2 types of data that need to be considered: unstructured and structured.

Most discussions on partitioning discuss partitioning of data in databases ( structured data ) but not unstructured data which is outside databases in plain files. This blog discusses both unstructured data and structured data.

2.1 Structured data

The problem is more interesting for databases because it is not enough to break up the dataset into smaller parts. During reads you need to be able to find the data. And you need to do it fast. When the database receives a query - "Give me records for Customer X", How does it know which node hosts the data ? Does the database have to send the request to all the nodes ? That would be quite inefficient.

The goal is thus to partition data and query it efficiently. Another goal is to ensure that distribution of data between partitions is even. You do not want a situation where partition 1 has 70% of the data and the other 5 partitions has the remaining 30%. This will overload partition 1 ( known as a hot spot) and you lose the benefits of partitioning.

2 strategies are commonly used for database partitioning.

2.1.1 Range based partitioning

Database records are generally stored sorted based on the primary key.

Initially there is one partition with zero records.

As clients write to the database, the size of the partition increases. When it reaches a certain size say 10MB or 64MB, it is split into two partitions.

Each partition may be assigned to a different node.

This process is repeated as more data is added and partitions grow. If data is deleted and partitions shrink, then small partitions can be merged

To efficiently query data, the database needs to do some book keeping

-- which key range is in which partition

-- which partition is at which node

Starting with 1 partition and 1 node is not efficient for obvious reasons and databases typically start with configured number of partitions or a number of partitions proportional to the number of nodes.

To balance the load on nodes, partitions may need to be moved between nodes.

This is the strategy used by HBase, CockroachDb, MongoDb.

2.1.2 Hash based partitioning

The hash value calculated from the key is used to determine the location where the record can be stored.

The wrong way to determine the node is by using hash mod n, where n is the number of nodes. The problem with this approach is that when nodes are added or removed from the cluster, a very high percentage of the keys need to be removed.

A better approach is to start with a fixed number of partitions , way more that the number of the nodes the cluster will ever have , say for example 1000 or 10000. Partitions are logical. Hash ranges are assigned to partitions. Partitions are assigned to nodes either using numPartitions mod numNodes or other algorithms. This is shown in the top half of Figure 4. The bottom half of figure 4 visualizes the same as a ring as is done in many articles that to refers to this as consistent hashing. Think of partitions being placed on the ring. Each partition owns the key space from the position of the previous position to its position. The cluster needs to maintain a mapping of partitions to nodes. When a new node is added, the cluster can take a few partitions from existing nodes and assign to the new nodes. When a node is removed, the cluster assigns its partitions to other nodes. Looking up a key is a extra level of indirection. The hash of key maps to a partition. The partition node map tell you which node has the partition that has the key. Many studies has shown that this lead to less movement of keys between nodes as the cluster changes.

In popular press, this has the poorly understood name "consistent hashing". It is just hast hash based partitioning. Nothing consistent and nothing to do with consistency.

2.1.3 Secondary Indexes

So far we have been talking about partitioning by the primary key, also know as the primary index.

To speed up retrieval of records, databases also have secondary indexes which can be very large and might need to be partitioned.

One approach can be to keep the secondary indexes local to the node on which the primary index partition is. The advantage of this approach is that since all related rows are on the same node, inserts/updates/deletes are are all local. But queries on the secondary index requires sending queries to all nodes and aggregating the responses.

Another approach is to create a global secondary index and partition it as an independent entity. However since the secondary index partitions might be on a different partition from the primary partition, CUD operations are more expensive. Transactions might be distributed. However range queries on secondary indexes are more efficient since closer records (by sort) are on the same partition.

2.2 Unstructured data

Unstructured data refer to ordinary files that have text or binary data. Of course we are talking about large files or many large files. This is the use case for a distributed file system such as HDFS (hadoop file system) or GFS ( Amazon ). Logically the implementation of distributed file system is similar to say a linux filesystem. You view the file system as a list of blocks of fixed size. On a single node linux file system , all the disk blocks are on one node. In a distributed file system, the blocks are spread across multiple nodes. In HDFS, the name node maintains the metadata for the distributed filesystem -- given a file , which blocks make up the file and which nodes have the blocks. To create a file, the name node may assign a block on a particular node and the client talks directly to service called data node running on the target node to write to block. To read a block, the name node directs the client to the data node that hosts the block and the client reads directly from that block. But the basic algorithm is simple -- break up the file data into blocks and spread them across nodes.

Another example is partitioning of topic logs in Apache Kafka is a messaging system ( they like to call it event streaming) where producers write messages to a topic and consumers read messages from the topic. The storage for a topic is a log file. New messages are appended to the end of log file. They are read from the front. Obviously the logs can grow beyond what can fit on a node. So log is broken into partitions and distributed across multiple nodes. The broker serves producers and consumer. A Kafka cluster has multiple brokers with each broker running on a seprate node managing multiple partitions.

3.0 Rebalancing

Rebalancing is the process of moving partitions between nodes to make the distribution of load even across all the nodes. This is necessary when nodes join or leave the cluster or if the cluster starts receiving more data for certain keys. Either way rebalancing is an expensive operation that needs lot of CPU, memory and network bandwidth. It can have an impact on the performance of regular CRUD processing. In a ideal world, we would like rebalancing to happen automatically behind the scenes, without end users knowing about it. But for performance reasons listed above, that rarely works well in practice. Some databases require an admin to manually start a rebalance, which can be done during a period of low load and monitored.

4.0 Routing

How does a client know which partition to connect to ? The short answer is that the database has to maintain mapping of partition to node. In the case of hash based partitioning, hash maps to a partition which maps to a node. In the case of range based partitioning the key maps to a key range which maps to a partition which maps to a node. The partition node map is available to nodes. If a client can connect to any node, then if the node does not have the partition to handle the clients request, it can redirect the client to the appropriate node or it can get the data from the target node and return to client.

5.0 Use case

There are cases where you might not have a ready made database doing server side partitioning for you and you might need to do it yourself. Or even when the database does it for you, you still need to pick the right partition key for the partitioning to be optimal. Let us look at some large datasets and discuss how they might be logically partitioned.

Let us say you are building a twitter like system.

Say 100 million tweets of 140 character per day

100M * ( 280 bytes + 20 bytes for id, timestamp)

30 GB / day

10 TB / year

Need to store 5 years to data

Need to store and query 50 TB

How does twitter work ?

Users follow other users.

When a user connects, we need to show the most recent tweets from the users he follows.

So we need to store about 50 TB of tweets. Given a user, we need to query say the 50 most recent tweets from the users he follows.

Using commodity hardware, 50TB would need say 25 nodes. What key would you use to partition the data ?

Option 1 : hash based partitioning based on user.

To store tweets, a hash of the user is to used to locate the node where the tweet is stored. To query - for each user that the user follows, use the hash to query the node for that users tweets. A problem with this approach is that some users tweet way more than other users. Their nodes are going to be overloaded while others are idle. Unbalanced load.

Option 2 : hash based on randomly generated tweet id

The problem with this approach is the for every query, you have to query every server and aggregate the results. Inefficient for queries.

Option 3: hash based on timestamp

Timestamp is relevant because for each feed request we want the latest tweets. It would be good if tweets are sorted by timestamp. However with such as hash, at any given point in time , one server is overloaded as all the writes are going to the server.

Option 4:

Given the choices, inefficient query (option 2) is more tolerable that unbalanced load (option 1) which could crash some of the servers making the system unavailable. But we also want queries to return the most recent data (sorted by timestamp). So we can improve querying little bit by combining option 2 and 3. Assume a timestamp in epoch time in increments of 1 sec, the tweetid could be timestamp + auto incremented seq. The sequence gives randomness to the tweet id and will give uniform distribution across node.

So given a epoch 1692547708 you will have tweet ids like

1692547708 1

1692547708 2

1692547708 3

1692547708 n

Of course you are wondering how to generate unique tweet ids in a distributed system. That is a topic for another blog.

6.0 Summary

Partitioning data and spreading it across nodes is fundamental to distributed system. Special thought needs to be given to how the partitioned data can be queried efficiently. Hash based partitioning and range based partitioning are two popular strategies. Nodes can fail or additional nodes may need to added to scale. To ensure that load is even across nodes, partitions may be moved between nodes in a process called rebalancing. For best results design your partition keys so that load is distributed evenly and querying is efficient.

7.0 Related Content

CockroachDB Review

Sunday, June 30, 2024

CockroachDb Review: Should I use CockroachDb ?


CockroachDb is a modern distributed database that promises linear scalability with strict serializability.

Server side sharding is automatic. Nodes can be added easily as needed. Claims to provide the SERIALIZABLE isolation level.

Most distributed databases such as Cassandra, MongoDb, HBase etc sacrifice consistency to achieve high availability. CockroachDb distinguishes itself by claiming to be distributed and the same time offer strong consistency that even single node databases do not offer.

This falls into a database category called NewSql or DistributedSQL as opposed to NoSql (Cassandra, MongoDb)

When to choose CockroachDb ?

You should choose CockroachDb if

    Your data is of a global scale.

    As data size increases, you need to scale horizontally to several nodes.

    You need data to be distributed and localized in specific geographical regions. For
    example EU data resides in Europe while US data resides in US.

    You need strong consistency. Serializable isolation level.

    You need to keep the SQL / relational data model.

    You need distributed transactions.

You may want to pass on it if

    You data size can easily fit on a node for the foreseeable future.
    You organization is more comfortable with a stable proven database. (CockroachDb is
    still maturing).
    You data model is heavily normalized and you do a lot of joins in your queries. While this
    database can support joins, it is still not recommended in a highly distributed


Architecture is based on Google's Spanner paper.

It is a key value store with a SQL interface on top of it.

Database is a cluster of nodes. All nodes are equal. Nodes may join and leave the cluster at any time.

Sorted map of key values pairs. Fully ordered monolithic key space. All tables/indexes go into the same key space by encoding tablename/indexname/key together.


Key value pairs are broken up into contiguous ranges. 

When range size reaches 512 Mib (2 power 20) It is split into 2 ranges.

Each range is assigned to a node and replicated. 

If you have 1 node all the shards are in that node. To scale, you add more nodes and the shards get distributed across nodes. A minimum of 3 nodes is recommended. 

Very easily spin up node(s) and add to cluster anywhere. 

Btree like index structure used to locate shard that has a key.


Data in each range is replicated using the Raft consensus algorithm.

A minimum replication factor of 3 is needed.

This provides the high availability. Data is available as long as a majority of the nodes in the cluster are available.


By adding a country or region to the primary key, you can limit storage to keys to a particular region. So European data can be make to reside in Europe, US data in US and so. This has 2 benefits
There is a performance benefit and data is local to its users.

It can satisfy legal requirements where data is not allowed to leave a country or region.



Any node can receive a request to read a key/value.

Request is forwarded to the node that is the raft leader for that table/range.

Leader returns the data to the node that requested it. Since leader returns the data, no consensus is required.

Node returns it to the client.


Any node can receive a request to write a key/value.

Request is forwarded to the node that is the raft leader for that table/range.

Leader writes the value to its log and initiates consensus with replicas for the range. When majority acknowledges, the key/value is considered committed and leader notifies the requesting node which notifies the client


Supports transactions that spans multiple tables and rows.

Transactions can be distributed, that is span multiple nodes.

The supported isolation level is strict serializability which is the highest isolation level. Strict serializability means that not only are transactions ordered, but they are ordered as per wall clock time.
Transaction protocol is an improvement over two phase commit. In parallel, participants acquire locks and create write intents. The transaction is marked staged. When the client commits, if all locks are acquired and writes are replicated, the coordinator immediately returns success to client. In background the transaction is marked committed. This is one round trip between transaction coordinator and each participant - unlike two phase commit - which requires two round trips.

Hybrid logical clocks are used to timestamp each transaction. Timestamp is the version for MVCC.

Data Model

Clients see only the SQL row column relation model
Wire protocol is same as Postgresql wire protocol.


Efficient range scan.
Geo partitioning improves performance by locality.
Distributed SQL execution.
Distributed transactions will be slow.
Generally you do not want distributed transactions over large distances. If you build a 3 node CockroachDb cluster with 1 node in NewYork, 1 in London and 1 in San Francisco, the write latencies are going to be very high due to the round trips for RAFT and distributed transactions. The cluster topology needs to be designed appropriately to give you the lowest latency at the desired level of high availability.


Good command line tools and UI console make the the administration easy.
Since all nodes are equals, number of moving parts that need to be administered is low.


If you need a globally distributed database with strict serializability, this is definitely a database to look at. It has good pedigree. However remember that distributed databases are not drop in replacement for your traditional RDBMSs. Distributed queries especially joins and distributed transaction can be slow. So some application redesign, some denormalization is always required.

Note: Moved from

Monday, February 28, 2022

Quick Review: Mysql NDB cluster

 This is a quick 2 min overview of Mysql NDB Cluster. The goal is to help you decide within a minute or two, whether this is an appropriate solution for you.

Cluster of in-memory Mysql databases with a shared nothing architecture.

Consists of Mysql nodes and data nodes.

Mysql nodes are Mysql servers that get data from data nodes. Data nodes hold the data using the NDB storage engine. There are also admin nodes.

NDB nodes serve the data from memory. Data is persisted at checkpoints.

Data is partitioned and replicated.

Up to 48 data nodes and 2 replicas for each fragment of data.

ACID compliant.

READ_COMMITTED  isolation level.

Sharding of data is done automatically. No involvement of user or application is required.

Data is replicated for high availability. Node failures are handled automatically.

Clients can access data using NDB Api. Both SQL and NOSQL styles are possible.

This is not a good general purpose database. It is suitable for certain specific use cases of telecom and game but not for general OLTP.

Feels like it has too many moving parts to manage.

High performance -- it is serving data from memory.


Not a general purpose distributed databases. Unless you are in telecom or gaming or know for sure why this meets your use case, don'nt even think about it.

If you are on Mysql and want high availability, try Mysql InnoDb Cluster, which is much easier to understand and use.


Mysql Documentation for NDB cluster

Monday, February 14, 2022

Quick Review: Mysql InnoDb Cluster


This is a quick 2 min overview of Mysql InnoDb Cluster. The goal is to help you decide within a minute or two, whether this is an appropriate solution for you.

Simple HA solution for Mysql.

Built on top of MySql group replication.

It has 3 Components:

Replication: Uses existing mysql asynchronous replication capabilities. Default is Primary and secondary configuration. Writes go to master which replicates to slaves. Slaves can service reads

Mysql router: Provides routing between your application and the cluster. Supports automatic failover. If the primary dies. The router will redirect writes to the secondary that takes over.

Mysql shell: This is an advance shell that let you code and configure the cluster.

Works best over a local area network. Performance degrades over wide area networks

Easy to setup. Simple commands that are entered on the mysql shell. 

var cluster = dba.createCluster('testCluster')




Cluster elects the primary. If you want a particular server to be the primary, you can give it extra weight.

Client do not connect directly to the servers. Rather they connect to the Mysql router that provides the routing as well failover.

MySql InnoDB clusterSet provide additional resiliency by replicating data from a primary cluster to a cluster in another datacenter or location. If the primary cluster becomes available, one of the secondary cluster can become the primary.


Provides scalability for reads and some HA for Mysql deployments. Simple, easy to use solution. No sharding. Some consistency issues will there when you read from replicas that lag a little bit


Sunday, November 1, 2020

Building Globally Distributed Applications

A globally distributed application is one where the services and data for the application are partitioned and replicated across multiple regions over the globe. Popular distributed applications that everyone is familiar with are Facebook,, Gmail, Twitter, Instagram. However more and more enterprise applications are finding the need to become distributed because their user base is increasingly distributed around the globe. But not every company has the expertise of a Facebook or Amazon or Google. When going distributed, it is not enough to just spin up instances of your service on AWS or Google cloud on various regions. There are issues related to data that must be addressed for the application to work correctly. While consumer centric social media applications can tolerate some correctness issues or lags in data, the same might not be true for enterprise applications. This blog discusses the data and database issues related to a globally distributed application. Lastly, we discuss 2 research papers that been around since early part of this decade, but whose relevance is increasing in recent times.

Building globally distributed applications that are scalable, highly available and consistent can be challenging. Sharding has to be managed by the application. Keep it highly available requires non database tools. When you have been on a single node database whether it is Mysql or Postgresql etc, it is tempting to scale by manual sharding or one of the clustering solutions available for those databases. It might appear easy at the beginning but the cost of managing the system increases exponentially with scale. Additionally, sharding and replication lead to consistency issues and bugs that need to be addressed. Scaling with single node databases like Mysql beyond a certain point has extremely high operational overhead.

NoSql databases such as Cassandra, Riak, MongoDB etc offer scalability and high availability but at the expense of data consistency. That might be ok for some social media or consumer applications where the dollar value of individual transaction is very small. But not in enterprise applications where the correctness of each transaction is worth several thousands of dollars. In enterprise applications, we need distributed data to behave the same way that we are used to with single node databases.

Let us look at some common correctness issues that crop up with distributed data.

Example 1 : A distributed on line store with servers in San Francisco, New York and Paris.

Each server has 2 tables products and inventory with the following data.
Inventory: (product, count):

Customer Jose connects to server in San Francisco and buys widget2 at time t1. At time t2, Customer Pierre connects to a server in Paris and also buys widget2. Assume t2 > t1 but t2-t1 is small.

Expected Behavior : Jose successfully completes transaction and gets the product. Since inventory of widget2 is now zero, Pierre’s transaction is aborted.
Actual Behavior (in an eventually consistent system): Both transactions complete. But only one of the customers gets the product. The other customer is later sent an apologetic email that widget2 is out of stock.

Example 2: A distributed document sharing system with servers in New York, London, Tokyo

Operation1: In London, User X creates a new empty document marked private.
Operation2. User X makes update 1 to document.
Operation3: User X deletes update 1.
Operation4: User X makes update 2.
Operation5: User X changes the document from private to public.
Due to network issues, only operations 1,2, 5 reach Tokyo. 3 and 4 do not.
In Tokyo, User Y tries to read the shared document.

Expected behavior: The document status is private and Y cannot read the document.
Actual behavior: Y is able to read the document but an incorrect version. The document has update1 which is deleted and is missing update2 which needs to be there.

The problems above are known as consistency issues. Different clients are seeing different views of the data. What is the correct view ?

Consistency here refers to C in the CAP theorem, not the C in ACID. Here Consistency means every thread in a concurrent application correctly reads the most recent write at that point in time.

How do you fix the above issues ? In a single node database, Example1 can be fixed by locking the row in the inventory table during update and Example2 is not even an issue because all the data is in one node. But in a distributed application data might be split across shards and shards replicated for high availability. User of the system might connect to any shard/server and read/write data. With NoSql databases, the application has to handle any in consistencies.

In traditional RDBMSs , database developers are given a knob called isolation level to control what concurrent threads can read. In this old blog I explain what isolation levels are. The safest isolation level is the SERIALIZABLE where the database behaves as if the transactions were executing in a serial order with no overlap, even though in reality they are executing concurrently. Most developers use the default isolation level which is generally READ_COMMITTED OR READ_REPEATABLE. In reality, these isolation levels are poorly documented and implemented differently by different vendors. The result is that in highly concurrent applications, there are consistency bugs even in traditional single node RDBMs. In a distributed database with data spread across shards and replicated for read scalability, the problem is compounded further. Most NoSql vendors punt the problem by claiming eventual consistency, meaning if there are no writes for a while, eventually all reads on all nodes will read the last write.

Consistency is often confused with isolation, which describes how the database behave under concurrent execution of the transactions. At the safest isolation level, the database behaves as if the transactions were executing in serial order, even though in reality they are executing concurrently. At the safest consistency level, every thread in a concurrent application correctly reads the most recent write. But most database documentations are not clear on how to achieve this in an application.

The problems in examples 1 and 2 would not occur if those applications/databases had the notion of a global transaction order with respect to real time. In example 1, Pierre’s transaction at t2 should see the inventory as 0 because a transaction at t1 <t2 set it to zero. In example 2, Y should only be able to read upto operation2 . It should not be able to read operation5 without operations 3,4 which occured before 5.

In database literature, the term for this requirement is called “Strict Serializability” or sometimes “external consistency”. Since this technical definitions can be confusing, it is often referred to as strong consistency.

2 research papers that have been around for a while provide answers on how this problems might be fixed. The papers are the Spanner paper and the Calvin paper.

Their approach is solving the problem can summarized as follows:
1. timestamp transactions with something that reflect their occurrence in real time
2. Order transactions based on timestamp
3. Commit transactions in the above order.

But the details of how they do it are significantly different. Let us look at how they do it.

Spanner paper from Google

Spanner is database built at Google and the paper describes the motivation and design of Spanner. Spanners approach involves
1. The use of atomic clocks and GPS to synchronize clocks across hosts in different regions and the true time API to give accurate time across nodes, regions or continent.
2. For a read/write transaction, spanner calls the true time API to get a timestamp. To address overlaps between transactions that are close to each other, the timestamp is assigned after locks are acquired and before they are released. 
3. The commit order equals timestamp order.
4. Read for particular timestamp is sent to any shard/replica that has the data at that timestamp.
5. Read without timestamp (latest read) are serviced by assigning a timestamp.
6. Writes that cross multiple shards use two phase commit.
And of course,
7. It can scale horizontally to 1000s of nodes by sharding.
8. Each shard is replicated.
And most importantly, 
9. Even though, it is a key value store, it provide SQL support to make it easy for application programmers.
CockroachDb and Yugabyte are 2 commercial databases based on spanner.

Calvin Paper

The Calvin paper addresses the above problem using distributed consensus protocols like Raft or Paxos. 
1. Every transaction has to first go through distributed consensus and secure a spot in a linear replication log. 
2. One can view the index in the log as the timestamp. 
3. The committed entries in the replication log are then executed in the exact same serial order by every node in the distributed database. 
4. Since the transaction log is replicated to every shard, it does not need or use two phase commit. In a transaction involving multiple shards, if a shard dies before committing a particular transaction, then on restart it just has to execute the uncommitted transaction from it replication log.
5. No dependency on wall clocks or time API.
6. No two phase commit.
7. No mention of SQL support.

 FaunaDb is an example of a database based on Calvin.

This class of databases that offer horizontal scalability on a global scale without sacrificing consistency is also called NewSql. 

In summary, if you are a building a globally distributed application that needs strong consistency, doing it on your own with SQL or NoSql database can be non trivial. Consistency is hard enough in a single node database. But on a distributed database, consistency bugs are harder to troubleshoot and even harder to fix. You might want to consider one of the NewSql databases to make life easier. Review the Spanner and Calvin papers to understand the architectural choices that are available. This will help you pick a database that is right for you. Spanner and Calvin papers have been around for almost a decade. But they have become more relevant now as real databases based on them become more popular. Most importantly understand what is consistency is and apply it, for lack of which can cause severe correctness bugs in your application. 


The Spanner paper

The Calvin paper

Consistency and Isolation

Sunday, January 20, 2019

A Microservices Introduction

Modern distributed applications are built as a suite of microservices. In this blog we discuss the characteristics of microservices. We will also compare microservices to its predecessors like SOA and monolithic applications. We point out the benefits and downsides of a microservices architecture.

1.0 Introduction

Let us start with a little bit of history and go back to late 90s or early 2000's. Web applications were monolithic. A single web container would serve the entire application. Even worse, a single web container would serve multiple applications. Not only was this not scalable, it was a development and maintenance nightmare. A single bug could bring multiple applications down. And there was an ownership issue. You had multiple teams/developers contributing code. When there was a bug, the ownership was not clear and bugs would bounce around among developers.

Around mid 2000's the new buzz word was service oriented architecture SOA. This was promoted by large web application server companies. See my blog on SOA written in 2010. SOA encouraged number of good design philosophies such as interface based programming, loosely coupled applications, asynchronous interaction. REST, XML,JSON and messaging platforms enabled SOA. SOA was a big improvement, but the tools and deployment technologies were still heavyweight.

The microservices architecture is the next step in evolution further improving the ideas from SOA.

Many dismiss microservices as another buzz word. But having developed real world applications using tools listed in section 3.0, I see real value and benefit in this architecture.

2.0 Description

The main idea around microservices is that large complex systems are easier to build, maintain and scale using independently built and owned smaller services that work together.

Each microservice is a modular fine grained application providing a specific service. Let us say you have an application that has a UI , authentication, Apis for customer info, Apis for uploading documents, Apis for analytics. You may have a microservice for the UI, a microservice for customer apis, a document upload microservice, an analytics microservice.

A microservice is fully functional.

A microservice performs one specific business or IT function.

The development of the microservice can be done independently.

A microservice runs as its own process.

A microservice communicates using common protocols such as REST/Http.

A microservice offers services via its Apis. It can communicate with other microservices using their APIs.

A microservice is deployable to production independently.

When your application has multiple microservices, each could be developed in a different or the most suitable programming language or framework suited for that service.

A microservice should scale horizontally by just running more instances of the microservice.

Testing, bug fixing, performance tuning etc on the microservice should happen independently without affecting other microservices.

The above listed characteristics make it easier to build large complex systems.

3.0 Enabling Technologies

A number of newer frameworks have made building microservices easier.

For Java programmers, Dropwizard and SpringBoot are very useful frameworks for building microservices. The old way was monolithic application servers like websphere, weblogic , jboss etc. Dropwizard and SpringBoot turn the table by embedding the web server within your java application. Development is much easier as you are developing a plain java application with a main method. The entire microservice is packaged in one jar and can be run with the java -jar command. For additional information, please read my blog comparing Dropwizard to Tomcat. For Javascript, python and other languages there are similar frameworks.

To start with microservices, a framework as mentioned above is all you need. Once you have developed and use several microservices, the following platforms may be useful.

Docker is a containerization technology that makes it easier to manage production deployments. This is of interest for a dev-ops person who has to roll out services to production.

Kubernetes is platform for automation, deployment and scaling of containerized applications.

4.0 Disadvantages

For smaller business and smaller applications, the overhead of  many microservices could be a problem. If your infrastructure is one or two $20 per month VMs on AWS (or other cloud providers) you will not have enough memory/cpu/disk for multiple microservices.

The increased network communication is a cost.

Each microservice is its own process. The remote calls have a serialization/deserialization cost.

5.0 Conclusion

Microservices are a logical next step in the evolution of  the development of complex applications.
They are a best practice. But they are not a silver bullet that solve every problem.


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