Refactoring Your App with Microservices

on Jun 1, 2017

So you’ve decided to use microservices. To help implement them, you may have already started refactoring your app. Or perhaps refactoring is still on your to-do list.

In either case, if this is your first major experience with refactoring, at some point, you and your team will come face-to-face with the very large and very obvious question: How do you refactor an app for microservices? That’s the question we’ll be considering in this post.


Refactoring Fundamentals

Before discussing the how part of refactoring into microservices, it is important to step back and take a closer look at the what and when of microservices. There are two overall points that can have a major impact on any microservice refactoring strategy.


Refactoring = Redesigning

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Refactoring a monolithic application into microservices and designing a microservice-based application from the ground up are fundamentally different activities. You might be tempted (particularly when faced with an old and sprawling application which carries a heavy burden of technical debt from patched-in revisions and tacked-on additions) to toss out the old application, draw up a fresh set of requirements, and create a new application from scratch, working directly at the microservices level.

As Martin Fowler suggests in this post, however, designing a new application at the microservices level may not be a good idea at all. One of the key takeaway points from Fowler’s analysis is that starting with an existing monolithic application can actually work to your advantage when moving to microservice-based architecture.

With an existing monolithic application, you are likely to have a clear picture of how the various components work together, and how the application functions as a whole. Perhaps surprisingly, starting with a working monolithic application can also give you greater insight into the boundaries between microservices. By examining the way that they work together, you can more easily see where one microservice can naturally be separated from another.


Refactoring isn’t generic

There is no one-method-fits-all approach to refactoring. The design choices that you make, all the way from overall architecture down to code-level, should take into account the application’s function, its operating conditions, and such factors as the development platform and the programming language. You may, for example, need to consider code packaging—If you are working in Java, this might involve moving from large Enterprise Application Archive (EAR) files, (each of which may contain several Web Application Archive (WAR) packages) into separate WAR files.


General Refactoring Strategies

Now that we’ve covered the high-level considerations, let’s take a look at implementation strategies for refactoring. For the refactoring of an existing monolithic application, there are three basic approaches.



With this strategy, you refactor your application piece-by-piece, over time, with the pieces typically being large-scale services or related groups of services. To do this successfully, you first need to identify the natural large-scale boundaries within your application, then target the units defined by those boundaries for refactoring, one unit at a time. You would continue to move each large section into microservices, until eventually nothing remained of the original application.


The large-to-small strategy is in many ways a variation on the basic theme of incremental refactoring. With large-to-small refactoring, however, you first refactor the application into separate, large-scale, “coarse-grained” (to use Fowler’s term) chunks, then gradually break them down into smaller units, until the entire application has been refactored into true microservices.

The main advantages of this strategy are that it allows you to stabilize the interactions between the refactored units before breaking them down to the next level, and gives you a clearer view into the boundaries of—and interactions between—lower-level services before you start the next round of refactoring.

Wholesale Replacement

With wholesale replacement, you refactor the entire application essentially at once, going directly from a monolith to a set of microservices. The advantage is that it allows you to do a full redesign, from top-level architecture on down, in preparation for refactoring. While this strategy is not the same as microservices-from-scratch, it does carry with it some of the same risks, particularly if it involves extensive redesign.


Basic Steps in Refactoring

What, then, are the basic steps in refactoring a monolithic application into microservices? There are several ways to break the process down, but the following five steps are (or should be) common to most refactoring projects.

(1) Preparation: Much of what we have covered so far is preparation. The key point to keep in mind is that before you refactor an existing monolithic application, the large-scale architecture and the functionality that you want to carry over to the refactored, microservice-based version should already be in place. Trying to fix a dysfunctional application while you are refactoring it will only make both jobs harder.

(2) Design: Microservice Domains: Below the level of large-scale, application-wide architecture, you do need to make (and apply) some design decisions before refactoring. In particular, you need to look at the style of microservice organization which is best suited to your application. The most natural way to organize microservices is into domains, typically based on common functionality, use, or resource access:

  • Functional Domains. Microservices within the same functional domain perform a related set of functions, or have a related set of responsibilities. Shopping cart and checkout services, for example, could be included in the same functional domain, while inventory management services would occupy another domain.
  • Use-based Domains. If you break your microservices down by use, each domain would be centered around a use case, or more often, a set of interconnected use cases. Use cases are typically centered around a related group of actions taken by a user (either a person or another application), such as selecting items for purchase, or entering payment information.
  • Resource-based Domains. Microservices which access a related group of resources (such as a database, storage, or external devices) can also form distinct domains. These microservices would typically handle interaction with those resources for all other domains and services.

Note that all three styles of organization may be present in a given application. If there is an overall rule at all for applying them, it is simply that you should apply them when and where they best fit.

(3) Design: Infrastructure and Deployment

This is an important step, but one that is easy to treat as an afterthought. You are turning an application into what will be a very dynamic swarm of microservices, typically in containers or virtual machines, and deployed, orchestrated, and monitored by an infrastructure which may consist of several applications working together. This infrastructure is part of your application’s architecture; it may (and probably will) take over some responsibilities which were previously handled by high-level architecture in the monolithic application.

(4) Refactor

This is the point where you actually refactor the application code into microservices. Identify microservice boundaries, identify each microservice candidate’s dependencies, make any necessary changes at the level of code and unit architecture so that they can stand as separate microservices, and encapsulate each one in a container or VM. It won’t be a trouble-free process, because reworking code at the scale of a major application never is, but with sufficient preparation, the problems that you do encounter are more likely to be confined to existing code issues.

(5) Test

When you test, you need to look for problems at the level of microservices and microservice interaction, at the level of infrastructure (including container/VM deployment and resource use), and at the overall application level. With a microservice-based application, all of these are important, and each is likely to require its own set of testing/monitoring tools and resources. When you detect a problem, it is important to understand at what level that problem should be handled.



Refactoring for microservices may require some work, but it doesn’t need to be difficult. As long as you approach the challenge with good preparation and a clear understanding of the issues involved, you can refactor effectively by making your app microservices-friendly without redesigning it from the ground up.


Michael Churchman started as a scriptwriter, editor, and producer during the anything-goes early years of the game industry. He spent much of the ‘90s in the high-pressure bundled software industry, where the move from waterfall to faster release was well under way, and near-continuous release cycles and automated deployment were already de facto standards. During that time he developed a semi-automated system for managing localization in over fifteen languages. For the past ten years, he has been involved in the analysis of software development processes and related engineering management issues.

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