In recent years, the rise of the internet and the ubiquity of mobile computing have made it necessary for application developers to design their applications focusing on a lightweight, self-contained component.

Developers need to deploy applications quickly and make changes to the application without a complete redeployment. This has led to a new development paradigm called "microservices," where an application is broken into a suite of small, independent units that perform their respective functions and communicate via APIs.

Although independent units, any number of these microservices may be pulled by the application to work together and achieve the desired results.

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What are microservices?

Microservices architecture, often called microservices, is an architectural approach or style of application development. It involves dividing large applications into smaller, functional units capable of functioning and communicating independently.

Microservices architecture was developed to overcome the challenges and difficulties posed by monolithic architectural approaches to application development. 

Monolithic architecture is like a large container holding all software components of an application: user interface, business layer, and data interface. This had several limitations such as inflexibility, lack of reliability, difficulty scaling, slow development, and so on. It was to bypass these issues that microservices architecture was created.

Monolithic Architecture vs Microservices Architecture

Applications running on microservices architecture are deconstructed and separated into smaller units (microservices) that the client can access using an API gateway. These microservices are each independently deployable but can communicate with one another when necessary. 

Breaking down an application into microservices allows for faster development, easier bug detection and resolution, smoother maintenance, flexibility, and higher availability and scalability.

How does Microservices Architecture work?

Microservices architecture focuses on classifying the otherwise large, bulky applications. Each microservice is designed to address an application’s particular aspect and function, such as logging, data search, and more. Multiple such microservices come together to form one efficient application. 

Microservices Architecture

This intuitive, functional division of an application offers several benefits. The client can use the user interface to generate requests. At the same time, one or more microservices are commissioned through the API gateway to perform the requested task. As a result, even larger complex problems that require a combination of microservices can be solved relatively easily.

Key Benefits of Microservices Architecture

Using microservices architecture in application development can be highly beneficial. Below are some of its key benefits.

Benefits of Microservices

1. Requires less development effort to scale up

Due to the independent nature of microservices, smaller development teams can parallelly work on different components to update existing functionalities. This makes it significantly easier to not only identify hot services and scale independently from the rest of the application but also improve the application as a whole.

2. Can be deployed independently

Each microservice constituting an application needs to be a full stack. This enables microservices to be deployed independently at any point. Since the microservices are granular in nature, it’s easy for development teams to work on one microservice to fix errors and then redeploy it without redeploying the entire application.

3. Microservices offer improved fault isolation

In monolithic applications, the failure of even a small component of the overall application can make it inaccessible as a whole. In some cases, determining the error could also be tedious. With microservices, isolating the problem-causing component is easy since the entire application is divided into standalone, fully functional software units. If errors occur, other non-related units will still continue to function. 

4. No dependence on one Tech Stack

A technology stack refers to a set of programming languages, databases, front-end and back-end tools, frameworks, and other such components used by the developers to build an application. With microservices, developers have the freedom to pick a technology stack that is best suited for one particular microservice and its functions. They have absolute control instead of having to opt for one standardized tech stack that encompasses all of an application’s functions.

What is microservices architecture used for?

Put simply, the microservices architecture makes app development quicker and more efficient. Agile deployment capabilities combined with flexible application of different technologies drastically reduce the duration of the development cycle. The following are some of the most vital applications of microservices architecture.

1. Data processing

Microservices speed up data processing tasks since applications running on microservice architecture can handle more simultaneous requests. Larger amounts of information can be processed in less time, allowing for faster and more efficient application performance.

2. Media content

Companies such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video handle billions of API requests daily. Services such as OTT platforms offering their users massive media content will benefit from deploying a microservices architecture. Microservices will ensure that the plethora of requests for different subdomains worldwide is processed without delays or errors. 

3. Website migration

Website migration involves a substantial change and redevelopment of a website’s major areas, such as its domain, structure, user interface, and so on. Using microservices will help you avoid business-damaging downtime and ensure your migration plans execute smoothly without any hassles. 

4. Transactions and invoices

Microservices are perfect for applications handling high payments and transactions volumes and generating invoices for the same. The failure of an application to process payments can cause huge losses for companies. With the help of microservices, the transaction functionality can be made more robust without changing the rest of the application.

Microservices tools

Building a microservices architecture requires a mix of tools and processes to perform the core building tasks and support the overall framework. Some of these tools are listed below.

1. Operating system

Arguably the most basic tool required to build an application is an operating system (OS). One such operating system that allows great flexibility in development and use is Linux. It offers a largely self-contained environment for the execution of program codes and a series of options for large and small applications in terms of security, storage, and networking. 

2. Programming languages

One of the benefits of using a microservices architecture is that you can use a variety of programming languages across applications for different services. Different programming languages have different utilities deployed based on the nature of the microservice. 

3. API management and testing tools

When building an application using a microservices architecture, the various services need to communicate. This is accomplished using application programming interfaces (APIs). For APIs to work optimally and desirably, they need to be constantly monitored, managed and tested, and API management and testing tools are essential for this.

4. Messaging tools

Messaging tools enable microservices to communicate both internally and externally. Rabbit MQ and Apache Kafka are examples of messaging tools deployed as part of a microservice system. 

5. Toolkits

Toolkits in a microservices architecture are sets of tools used to build and develop applications. There are different toolkits available to the developers, and these kits fulfill different purposes. Fabric8 and Seneca are some examples of microservices toolkits. 

6. Architectural frameworks

Microservices architectural frameworks offer convenient solutions for application development and usually contain a library of code and tools to help configure and deploy an application. 

7. Orchestration tools

A container is a set of executables, codes, libraries, and files necessary to run a microservice. Container orchestration tools provide a framework to manage and optimize containers within microservices architecture systems. 

8. Monitoring tools

Once a microservices application is up and running, you need to constantly monitor it to ensure that everything is working smoothly and as intended. Monitoring tools help developers stay on top of how the application works and avoid potential bugs or glitches. 

9. Serverless tools

Serverless tools further add flexibility and mobility to the various microservices within an application by eliminating server dependency. This helps in the easier rationalization and division of application tasks.

Challenges associated with microservices architecture

The microservices architecture comes with its fair share of challenges, from deployment to operation and maintenance. Some of these challenges are discussed below.

1. Inter-service communication

Although microservices can exist and function independently, they often need to interact and communicate with other microservices to fulfill certain demands or tasks. This necessitates maintaining a fully functional API serving as a communication channel between multiple services constituting the application. 

2. Distributed logging

When different and independently operating microservices are deployed as part of an application, each of these services has a distinct logging mechanism. This results in large volumes of distributed log data that are unstructured and difficult to organize and maintain. 

3. Transaction spanning

Distributed transactions refer to transactions that require the deployment and proper functioning of a series of microservices to run. This means that a transaction spans multiple microservices and databases and a small failure in just one will result in a transaction failure. 

4. Cyclic dependencies between services

A cyclic dependency in a microservices architecture refers to the codependency of two or more application services or modules. Cyclic dependencies can make it difficult to scale the application or independently deploy and manage microservices. They’re also infamous for making code more complex to maintain. If they persist for long, decoupling becomes close to impossible.

Examples of companies that adopted microservices architecture

With recent advances in cloud technology, many big brands have now advocated moving from a monolithic to a microservices architecture for better functionality. Let's look at two such companies that have vastly improved their business by leveraging microservices.

1. Amazon

If you look at Amazon's retail website in 2001, it essentially worked as a single, monolithic application. The lack of application flexibility made developers struggle while untangling dependencies when upgrading or scaling the services. As a result, Amazon struggled to meet the needs of its rapidly growing customer base. 

To solve this issue, the Amazon development team split the large, monolithic application into smaller, independent services managed and handled by separate developer teams. Amazon's efforts eventually led to the creation of a highly decoupled, service-oriented architecture that we now refer to as microservices architecture. These changes made Amazon overcome all of its scalability and service outage problems and hit a market cap of $1.7 million. The image below is a visual representation of the microservices architecture deployed by Amazon in 2008.

Amazon microservices architecture

Image source

2. Netflix

Netflix started its movie streaming business in 2007. Within just a year, it started facing severe scalability issues and service outages. In 2008, Netflix failed to ship DVDs to customers for three consecutive days. This is when they decided to switch to a distributed cloud system with Amazon Web Services (AWS) as the cloud provider. 

Later in 2009, Netflix began moving its application architecture from monolithic to microservices, and this process was finally completed in 2012.

This move to a microservices architecture enabled Netflix to overcome its scalability challenges and offer its services to millions around the world. In 2015, Netflix's API gateway successfully processed 2 billion API requests daily – thanks to a group of over 500 cloud-hosted microservices. The cost of streaming was also reduced, which allowed Netflix to make significant financial gains. Netflix's application consisted of over 700 microservices by 2017, and the streaming service has grown exponentially over the past decade.

Switch from monolithic to microservices architecture

Microservices architecture is the most accepted and reliable approach to developing cloud applications today. It’s highly backed due to the various advantages it brings to tech development teams in the form of shorter development times, improved flexibility, and greater reliability. 

It is also unnecessary for a business with existing applications to build the microservices architecture from scratch. Several options are now available that allow converting web applications from monolithic to microservices.

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