Focus on Services, Not on Containers

Gray Calendar Icon Published: June 7, 2017
Gray Calendar Icon Updated: January 26, 2021

Containers may be super cool, but at the end of the day, they’re just another kind of infrastructure. A seasoned developer is probably already familiar with several other kinds of infrastructure and approaches to deploying applications. Another is not really that big of a deal. However, when the infrastructure creates new possibilities with the way an application is architected—as containers do—that’s a huge deal. That is why the services in a microservice application are far more important than the containerized infrastructure they run on. Modularity has always been a goal of application architectures, and now that the concept of microservices is possible, how you build those services end up dictating where they run and how they are deployed. Services are where application functionality meets the user, and where the value your application can provide is realized. That’s why if you want to make the most of containers, you should be thinking about more than just containers. You have to focus on services, because they’re the really cool thing that containers enable.

Services v. Containers

For conversation’s sake, using services and containers interchangeably is fine—because the ideal use case for a containerized application is one that is deconstructed into services, where each service is deployed as a container (or containers). However, the tactics cannot be synonymous. Services are an implied infrastructure, but more importantly, an application architecture. When you talk about a service that is part of your application, that service is persistent. You can’t suddenly have an application without a login page or a shopping cart, for example, and expect things to go well. Containers, on the other hand, are designed to live and die in very short time frames. Ideally, with every deployment or revert, the container is killed as soon as the new deployment is live and the traffic is routed to it. So containers are not persistent. And if the delivery chain is working correctly, that should not matter at all. Microservices, as both an application and an infrastructure term, does have some unique elements associated with it, which diverge the relationship even further.

  1. A single service can be deployed in multiple regions.
  2. Each region could have multiple versions—for example, for A/B testing or canary releases.
  3. Each service might have different lifecycles. Services tied specifically to the backend may be deployed less frequently than front-end services.

It doesn’t even necessarily mean that one service = one container, or one host. The service is the logical abstraction of functionality from your application, and not directly correlated to any infrastructure.

What does it mean to be service-focused?

Focusing on your services means that developers do not spend time optimizing or tinkering with container orchestration or configuration. If a gold master image is ready to go, an EDGAR vessel for code, then the developer should only be concerned about committing their code to it. If the developer is thinking about containers, then something is broken. Where the developer will need to think about containers is their development environment. A parity between their development environment and production is important. Making sure developers are testing on the right Docker image and have access to the other services and shift-left quality assurance (QA) are the only way to mitigate the “worked on my machine” issue. This is accomplished by leveraging strong container registries. However, even the development environment should be cookie-cutter, with minimal consideration.

How to accomplish a service-centric workflow

I wish I could say that being service-focused was an individual developer task. It’s not. The developer already wants to be hyper-focused on the functionality they are building, and if and when they get distracted by containers and their orchestration, it’s because they are nerds and want to tinker, not because they feel it’s their core responsibility. Maintaining a service focus is the responsibility of the entire team. It includes how the delivery chain is architected—not only to be fast, but to avoid the broader team’s need to interact with it. So service focus starts from management and trickles down to the delivery chain, or DevOps, to tooling, and the developer is either finally left holding the infrastructure bag, or is free to work. Here are the three key tenets of service focus:

  • Standardize development environments. You do this by finding a robust container registry, vetting images, and standardizing the tooling that developers have in their boxes. Because services are developed independently, one of the challenges is seeing new functionality in a service with the application at large. So on-demand integration environments that developers can deploy per commit are extremely useful.
  • Be immutable, don’t just say you are. To even think about being service-focused, you have to practice immutable infrastructure, not just talk about it. This means no changes to containers after they are deployed. Your option is run or delete. That’s it. Snowflake images or configurations are strictly forbidden, and there is no real reason to give access to individual containers beyond the functionality required by the service itself.
  • Create visibility. Service-based applications do have many times the moving parts of a monolithic application. This means that creating visibility and providing access to it for all relevant stakeholders is critical. Visibility should support infrastructure and application visibility as well. The team should be able to see the entire application and all the services in it, with inspection of individual containers. For the development team, application visibility is most important.

DevOps teams also need to do whatever they can to minimize the impact of things like networking and security, as these can be huge hurdles. The objective would be to offload as much as possible to orchestration tools. The service obsession goal is to avoid distractions, and focus on service functionality. If developers focus on building a great product, and DevOps focuses on building the best delivery chain, then the toolchain and processes will fall into place to support that—which, today, means containers and great orchestration. The outcome of better quality applications in the user’s hands, sooner rather than later, is what impacts your company’s bottom line. The mechanism to get there is not as critical. So the next time you talk about containers, consider turning the focus to how you can build better services. Chris Riley (@HoardingInfo) is a technologist who has spent 12 years helping organizations transition from traditional development practices to a modern set of culture, processes and tooling. In addition to being a research analyst, he is an O’Reilly author, regular speaker, and subject matter expert in the areas of DevOps strategy and culture. Chris believes the biggest challenges faced in the tech market are not tools, but rather people and planning.

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