Do Microservices Make SOA Irrelevant?

on May 9, 2017

Is service-oriented architecture, or SOA, dead? You may be tempted to think so.

But that’s not really true. Yes, SOA itself may have receded into the shadows as newer ideas have come forth, yet the remnants of SOA are still providing the fuel that is propelling the microservices market forward.

That’s because incorporating SOA principles into the design and build-out of microservices is the best way to ensure that your product or service offering is well positioned for the long term. In this sense, understanding SOA is crucial for succeeding in the microservices world.

In this article, I’ll explain which SOA principles you should adopt when designing a microservices app.

Introduction

In today’s mobile-first development environment, where code is king, it is easier than ever to build a service that has a RESTful interface, connect it to a datastore and call it a day. If you want to go the extra mile, piece together a few public software services (free or paid), and you can have yourself a proper continuous delivery pipeline. Welcome to the modern Web and your fully buzzworthy-compliant application development process.

In many ways, microservices are a direct descendant of SOA, and a bit like the punk rock of the services world. No strict rules, just some basic principles that loosely keep everyone on the same page. And just like punk rock, microservices initially embraced a do-it-yourself ethic, but has been evolving and picking up some structure which moved microservices into the mainstream. It’s not just the dot com or Web companies that use microservices anymore—all companies are interested.

 

Definitions

For the purposes of this discussion, the following are the definitions I will be using.

Microservices: The implementation of a specific business function, delivered as a separate deployable artifact, using queuing or a RESTful (JSON) interface, which can be written in any language, and that leverages a continuous delivery pipeline.

SOA: Component-based architecture which has the goal of driving reuse across the technology portfolio within an organization. These components need to be loosely coupled, and can be services or libraries which are centrally governed and require an organization to use a single technology stack to maximize reusability.

 

Positive things about microservices-based development

As you can tell, microservices possess a couple of distinct features that SOA lacked, and they are good:

Allowing smaller, self-sufficient teams to own a product/service that supports a specific business function has drastically improved business agility and IT responsiveness (to any directions that the business units they support) want to take.

Automated builds and testing, while possible under SOA, are now serious table stakes.

Allowing teams to use the tools they want, primarily around which language and IDE to use.

Using-agile based development with direct access to the business. Microservices and mobile development teams have successfully shown businesses how technologists can adapt to and accept constant feedback. Waterfall software delivery methods suffered from unnecessary overhead and extended delivery dates as the business changed while the development team was off creating products that often didn’t meet the business’ needs by the time they were delivered. Even iterative development methodologies like the Rational Unified Process (RUP) had layers of abstraction between the business, product development, and the developers doing the actual work.

A universal understanding of the minimum granularity of a service. There are arguments around “Is adding a client a business function, or is client management a business function?” So it isn’t perfect, but at least both can be understood by the business side that actually runs the business. You may not want to believe it, but technology is not the entire business (for most of the world’s enterprises anyway). Back in the days when SOA was the king on the hill, some services performed nothing but a single database operation, and other services were adding a client to the system, which led to nothing but confusion from business when IT did not have a consistent answer.

 

How can SOA help?

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After reading those definitions, you are probably thinking, “Microservices sounds so much better.” You’re right. It is the next evolution for a reason, except that it threw away a lot of the lessons that were hard-learned in the SOA world. It gave up all the good things SOA tried to accomplish because the IT vendors in the space morphed everything to push more product.

Enterprise integration patterns (which define how new technologies or concepts are adopted by enterprises) are a key place where microservices are leveraging the work done by the SOA world. Everyone involved in the integration space can benefit from these patterns, as they are concepts, and microservices are a great technological way to implement them.

Below, I’ve listed two other areas where SOA principles are being applied inside the microservices ecosystem to great success.

 

API Gateways (née ESB)

Microservices encourage point-to-point connections, and that each client take care of their own translations for dates and other nuanced things. This is just not sustainable as the number of microservices available from most companies skyrockets.

So in comes the concept of an Enterprise Service Bus (ESB), which provides a means of communication between different application in an SOA environment. SOA originally intended the ESB to be used to carry things between service components—not to be the hub and spoke of the entire enterprise, which is what vendors pushed, and large companies bought into, and left such a bad taste in people’s mouths.

The successful products in the ESB have changed into today’s API gateway vendors, which is a centralized way for a single organization to manage endpoints they are presenting to the world, and provide translation to older services (often SOA/SOAP) that haven’t been touched in years but are vital to the business.

 

Overarching standards

SOA had WS-* standards. They were heavy-handed, but guaranteed interoperability (mostly). Having these standards in place, especially the more common ones like WS-Security and WS-Federation, allowed enterprises to call services used in their partner systems—in terms that anyone could understand, though they were just a checklist.

Microservices have begun to formalize a set of standards and the vendors that provide the services. The OAuth and OpenID authentication frameworks are two great examples. As microservices mature, building everything in-house is fun, fulfilling, and great for the ego, but ultimately frustrating as it creates a lot of technical debt with code that constantly needs to be massaged as new features are introduced.

The other side where standards are rapidly consolidating is API design and descriptions. In the SOA world, there was one way. It was ugly and barely readable by humans, but the Web service definition language (WSDL), a standardized format for cataloguing network services, was universal.

As of April 2017, all major parties (including Google, IBM, Microsoft, MuleSoft, and Salesforce.com) involved in providing tools to build RESTful APIs are members of the OpenAPI Initiative. What was once a fractured market with multiple standards (JSON API, WASL, RAML, and Swagger) is now becoming a single way for everything to be described.

 

Conclusion

SOA originated as a set of concepts, which are the same core concepts as microservices architecture. Where SOA fell down was driving too much governance and not enough “Just get it done.”

For microservices to continue to survive, the teams leveraging them need to embrace their ancestry, continue to steal the best of the ideas, and reintroduce them using agile development methodologies—with a healthy dose of anti-governance to stop SOA Governance from reappearing. And then, there’s the side job of keeping ITIL and friends safely inside the operational teams where they thrive.

 

Vince Power is a Solution Architect who has a focus on cloud adoption and technology implementations using open source-based technologies. He has extensive experience with core computing and networking (IaaS), identity and access management (IAM), application platforms (PaaS), and continuous delivery.

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