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Microservices Maturity: Dogma or Dogfooding? You Decide…

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I’ve received some great feedback after posting my proposal for a microservice maturity/classification model last week, some positive, and some negative.

Some private communications suggested that I may be getting caught up in the marketing hype, and several emails suggested that the microservice architecture really is just classical SOA re-invented. Other emails balanced out these comments by suggesting that microservices present an opportunity to learn and iterate on the mistakes made in the original implementation of SOA, especially now that we are embracing concepts such as domain-driven design, and are applying more consideration to well-defined software architectures.

The only public response I’ve seen so far is by my fellow London-based microservice and Spring framework expert Russ Miles – you can read it on the Simplicity Itself blog. In the interest of full disclosure I do know Russ personally (and have sank a few beers in his company), but that’s not going to influence what I think could be a great discussion about my proposal.

Maturity – not all it’s cracked up to be…

The first comment made by Russ is that the approach of creating a maturity model could be dangerous. I think this is totally fair, and it crossed my mind several times when writing the initial post. So much so, that I added the word ‘classification’ to the title as an alternative to maturity.

If you look at other maturity models, such as the Richardson model for APIs or the Continuous Delivery model, then there is a clear sense of scale, from negative to positive. As Russ quite rightly points out, there is room for interpretation in my model that smaller is better, and I probably should have taken more care to make it clear that I don’t think this is necessarily the case.

In some cases a monolithic, but well-structured, architecture may be the best solution. Russ has also conjectured in a recent talk a Skillsmatter that starting out with building a monolith and then moving to a microservice architecture may be the fastest way to build software. It’s definitely difficult to prove this beyond anecdotal evidence, but my instincts (and experience) tell me this is probably true in certain cases, especially at the current point in time where we have little in the way of modelling or tooling support for building microservices.

In my opinion Russ is quite right to think about how this model could be used negatively, and although my initial intention was to give people a model that they could look at and point to where they think their software is, it could easily be abused. I would be keen to get more feedback on how the model could be shaped or evolved to make my intentions clearer.

Size – it’s what you do with it that counts (but size still matters)

Russ also mentioned that size is a dangerous metric, and I agree. Although lines of code (KLOC) is potentially an arbitrary metric, especially with the variety of languages and frameworks currently available, I still do believe that size is important. Not in the “if you’re application is over a 100 lines, then it’s not a microservice” kind of way (which, in fairness, could have been read from my model), but in the perspective of encapsulation, responsibility and comprehension.

After a bit more thought, a measure of architectural/code cohesion is probably a better metric for this concept. I definitely believe the microservice architecture is rooted in the principle of high cohesion (and loose coupling), but it has been argued by the likes of Simon Brown and Bob Martin that this can be achieved in a monolithic codebase without the need for the creation of separate ‘services’. The key here is modularisation or componentisation.

Accordingly, I do believe that microservices should be ‘small’ in size. For me, this was one of the failings in the original approach with SOA. The lack of skilled modelling and architectural guidance allowed services to morph into ‘all singing and dancing’ applications that offered low cohesion. Hard system boundaries (and potentially expensive coordination and communication) provided by microservices in combination with the notions of ‘bounded contexts’ from domain-driven design (DDD) should make it more obvious to developers when we are straying outside the remit of a component.

Bloated vendor tools that emerged from traditional SOA also allowed developers to ‘cheat’ by circumventing the loose coupling that patterns such as the service bus initially proposed, and monstrosities such as the heavyweight ESB were born. These days we are seeing tooling emerge that encourage reactive systems and event-driven architectures based on small components (such as the very interesting AWS Lambda). With services such as AWS Lambda a codebase size limit is enforced due to the nature of execution. It will be interesting to see what applications emerge from these frameworks.

Putting a size limit on a codebase may not be an exact science, but I believe an upper bound can at least be used as a trigger to discuss if a service is growing beyond it’s original remit (or if the architectural quality is degrading). A lot of agile and architectural techniques I teach clients are not hard-and-fast rules to determine which decisions should be made, but often act as a cue for the team (or organisation) to engage in conversation or a whiteboard session to check that we are still designing high-quality software that models the business correctly.

Dogma or dogfooding – you decide…

The final section of Russ’ post contains the strongest argument, in that dogma over thinking will only lead us down the wrong path “A maturity model can be used in place of thinking; I’d like to avoid that if we can”. Yeah, this sucks, but I agree.

The problem is that my academic background drives me towards the sharing of ideas and proposals among my peers, and I enjoy the ensuing discussion. We should always take care to make sure we are being pragmatic in these discussions (and not “solving the world’s problems at the dinner table”), but I’m still a supporter of pushing stuff out to the public for comment.

Russ also makes a great reference to Greg Young’s talk at muCon last year, which should be essential watching for anyone building microservices. Paraphrasing Greg massively, he suggested that a lot of the concepts behind microservices have already been done before, and that if we aren’t careful then we will re-invent the wheel (albeit more ‘micro’ than before :-) ).

Greg’s observations about the negative impact of dogmatic standardisation and overly-opinionated vendor tooling were also especially damning, and I couldn’t help but nod in agreement through a lot of his talk (on a side note, the whole muCon conference was awesome, and I would highly recommend attending the next iteration later this year! Massive kudos to Russ for kickstarting this conference).

I’m definitely going to take care to avoid being dogmatic (or inspiring dogma), but I’m still keen to share my thoughts on things like the maturity/classification model. It might turn out that this approach isn’t useful, but I’ve already been using a slightly less polished version of this model with tech friends over the last few months to help them understand where their software stack currently sits in relation to the ‘unicorn’ organisations such as Netflix and Amazon (what else are techies going to discuss over a few beers! :- ).

Something that I believe could emerge from this type of proposal (which may be more valuable) is some kind of model that shows organisations where their software sits on the big picture scale of innovation, architecture and delivery. Each level of the model should also clearly show the benefits and drawbacks, and provide guidance on why (if at all) organisations should move some of their software to the next level. We would also need to show how organisations should go about doing this, both from a pragmatic organisational and cultural perspective (Conway’s law in action), and also from a technical tooling and process perspective.

I’m currently reading Jez Humble’s new book ‘Lean Enterprise’, and this is providing some superb inspiration for approaching these tasks. I’m also dogfooding some of my new models and processes, and as soon as I have some useful insights I’ll make sure I share them.

In summary…

I really appreciate Russ taking the time to reply to my original post, and I’m definitely going to think more of several of the great points he’s made (and I’m sure I’ll also catch up with him for a beer after an upcoming London Microservices User Group meetup).

I will also take more care to make my intentions clearer, but I’m still keen to share my thoughts and inspire debate. I’m also keen to avoid dogma, and focus more on dogfooding the model, and here I’ll use some of Russ’ comments to attempt to refine the model.

As usual, if anyone has any comments or feedback then please do get in touch!

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Published at DZone with permission of Daniel Bryant, DZone MVB. See the original article here.

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