We’re hearing a lot about microservices lately, as both the cloud and emerging container technologies move toward broad distribution of the entire data environment, from infrastructure to the application layer.
But what exactly is a microservice, and how will it improve upon the old way of turning data into usable knowledge?
According to tech consultants James Lewis and Martin Fowler, the roots of the concept date back to the early days of UNIX, but it has since evolved into the practice of separating a single application into distinct services, each with their own process and communications mechanisms. In this way, they can be configured, scaled and otherwise manipulated in a variety of ways. The advantage is that it allows data operators to customize their own workflows to a greater degree and improve resource utilization by accessing only the functions they need rather than the entire application. For the enterprise, however, it adds another layer to an already complex data architecture.
Top cloud providers are already jumping on the microservices train by offering fine-grained networking and control mechanisms that support highly dynamic application environments. Microsoft recently showed off the Azure Service Fabric that will support microservice functionality in conjunction with the newest version of Windows Server, due out later this year. The platform offers built-in intelligence that supports self-healing and automated scalability, as well as microservice orchestration and management for both stateful and stateless functions. Meanwhile, Visual Studio will be equipped with new tooling and command-line functions for faster development and debugging.
VMware is getting into the act as well, working up its own stripped-down Linux environment that supports hypervisor containerization to provide a more active environment for cloud-native microservices. Dubbed Project Photon, the effort combines other recent initiatives like Project Lightwave, which oversees identity and access control, and the EMC/Pivotal Project Lattice for rapid cloud development. The system is expected to be embedded within the ESXi hypervisor, providing an open source connection to VMware’s proprietary virtualization platform.
And of course, container leader Docker has its sights set on the microservices market, promising a fully integrated microservice architecture that could then extend to leading cloud providers like Amazon, Microsoft and IBM. Key aspects of the plan are improved orchestration, networking and storage, as well as the continued development of open APIs and plug-ins that would allow Docker to function with legacy development environments.
Containers are considered to be a key driver for microservices in the enterprise, but not the only one, says IT investor Lenny Pruss. As he explained to ZDNet, the fact that every organization’s business model is gravitating toward software is creating enormous pressure to become as light and unrestricted by hardware constraints as possible. Distributed environments help in this regard, but breaking down applications and services to discrete components adds an entirely new dimension to data flexibility. As well, web-based data center functionality enables the enterprise to support core operations from an operational rather than capital investment perspective, so streamlining the application architecture serves to make supporting advanced data functions even less of a burden than it is now.
It is important to remember that all of this is happening in theory at the moment. As enterprise executives are finding out with their own cloud deployments, the lofty ideal of what each new technological development could achieve is always followed by the messy details of actually achieving it. There is every reason to think that a microservices architecture will emerge in the relatively near future, but exactly how functional it will be, and how expensive to operate, is still very much up in the air.
Arthur Cole writes about infrastructure for IT Business Edge. Cole has been covering the high-tech media and computing industries for more than 20 years, having served as editor of TV Technology, Video Technology News, Internet News and Multimedia Weekly. His contributions have appeared in Communications Today and Enterprise Networking Planet and as web content for numerous high-tech clients like TwinStrata, Carpathia and NetMagic.