Monday, February 05, 2018

What Makes MicroServices Different from SOA?

In this article I will discuss what is different between MicroServices and a traditional Service Oriented Architecture as such an architecture may look looks like when you know for example Oracle SOA. I also discuss some of misconceptions heard or read concerning MicroServices. It is written by and for a person that knows SOA and is wonders what to do with MicroServices. If MicroServices is what you do already, I probably have little news for you.
I wrote this article many months ago, but somehow forgot to publish.

What's Different Compared to Traditional SOA?

In his article on InfoWorld Matt McLarty states that this question should not matter. The real question is: "what we can learn from the SOA movement", and I concur with his 5 important lessons. Nevertheless, even after reading his article, people like me will keep on wondering what the practical implications may be on the way we use our technology now and how we should change that.

All in all most of the MicroServices principles are fundamental to what I would consider to be a "good" Service Oriented Architecture. Of course, there is no such thing as the SOA, although in my opinion many best practices, and lessons learned the hard way, have lead to identifying some generic characteristics of the more successful ones, which in the below I refer to as classical SOA.

The way I see it (from my classical SOA perspective):

Statefull vs Stateless

MicroServices are stateless by principle. In SOA it is a best practice to avoid stateful services but that is not a principle. You should try to avoid stateful BPEL, but when creating a composite service that involves one or more asynchronous services, that leaves you little choice. As I explain in my previous blog about MicroServices and BPM and Case Management, the latter two are stateful by definition, so there you also don't have a choice.

However, in case of aynchronous (request/response) communication, some next time you may consider using events instead, where the response is not handled by an asynchronous callback but by publishing an event by means of the EDN or using JMS). Generally this complicates the implementation, but who said that MicroServices did not come with a price?


SOA is about reuse. In a classical SOA there often are a number of small, reusable "technical" services that are then reused to compose bigger "business services". Examples include some service to handle asynchronous interaction in a generic way, and a service that retrieves some list of values from a database. We made them to speed up the development process, because creating the next application takes less time by reusing the services we created for the previous one. 

Everybody happy, until a new requirement makes we have to change the generic service with potential impact on all existing applications using it. If you are lucky some regression test suite is available to verify that the existing functionality keeps on working, but even then you may find that people don't feel comfortable unless all the other applications have been retested as well. You then may come to a point where you start wondering if all that reuse was such a great idea.

Much more than classical SOA, MicroServices are about minimal function services build around business capabilities (not necessarily 'fine-grained'), where reuse is even discouraged if that introduces dependencies that may jeopardize business agility. There obviously is reuse with MicroServices (a reusable printing service provides a sensible business capability), but you should for example avoid shared custom Java libraries that are deployed independently. Also in a classical SOA you can avoid this by making sure that you package a specific version of the library with the service so that it will never be impacted by any change unless you want it to.

In general, compared to classical SOA, applying MicroServices principles will make you start thinking differently about the responsibility, and granularity of services. Again, this may come with a price as some functionality may have to be duplicated to support business agility.

Data Services vs Data Replication

In a classical SOA we may not think for a second before deciding we need a (reusable) data service to get customer data. When reading about MicroServices you will find that the (already classical) example of a bad practice is having some sort of a CustomerDataService that may fail, and with that result in the failure of an OrderService to complete successfully.

It is for this reason that the Design for Failure principle implies that a MicroService should have its own data store when possible, and may have its own copy of shared business data like customer data. In this way the successful completion of the OrderService is never dependent on some CustomerDataService to be available. Data is synchronized when necessary and feasible.

You may already have realized that this is a specialization of the reuse issue addressed in the previous section. You will also realize that this is one of the more, if not most complex challenges to address, and the choice to replicate data is not be an easy decision to make.


The interface of MicroServices should be simple, which almost de facto seems to imply REST (over HTTP) and JSON. With classical SOA this typically is SOAP and XML, although by no means you are limited to that. For a while already we start seeing more and more SOA services with REST interfaces.

Multiple vs Single Containers

With classical SOA many services will be deployed on the same SOA container, all sharing the same infrastructure (data sources, messaging, Operations tooling, etc.) that the container provides. Reuse of that infrastructure being the reason to do so.

However, as a result, one single service behaving badly can impact all other services on the same container. I have seen cases where a single failing service brought down the complete container. One of the reasons to deploy every version of a MicroService in its own container is to prevent this type of issues. In this way it can be scaled, improved, and fixed without affecting any other MicroService. 


As I explain in my previous posting about MicroServices, there can be quite a few challenges to overcome when business functionality has to be supported by a set of MicroServices working together. Quite a few of those you could be avoided or addressed much more easily when all services would be deployed on the same container (which in a classical SOA is more or less the default), in particular related to monitoring and Operations.

If there is any area in which MicroServices could quickly start adding value to a classical SOA, then it is by orchestrating MicroServices (instead of classical SOA services) in case of Business Process Management or Case Management. Compared to classical SOA, what you will get "for free" is that the cluttering of the orchestration by technical aspects will be kept to the minimum (if existing at all) as you will be orchestrating business functions with (mostly) business-oriented interfaces.

Technology Choices

With classical SOA the technology is limited to what the SOA container supports. For example, in case of Oracle you primarily implement your services using BPEL, Mediator or BPMN, simply because that is the easiest to do. Of course there can be good arguments for restricting the technologies used (even in a MicroServices environment you might want to have guidelines on that) but in practice you may find that this does not always result in the best designed, constructed, and operating service. If all you have is a hammer...

In contrast, MicroServices are polyglot regarding technology, where for each individual MicroService you will use the technology that is best suited considering the functionality you have to provide and the skills present in the team. Different types of MicroServices may have a complete different way of implementation, and using a complete different set of technologies. However, except for the interface, the technology used is completely transparent for the consumer. 

Message Transformation

Another MicroServices principle is smart endpoints / dumb pipes, meaning that there is no transformation or enrichment happening in some Enterprise Service Bus. If an ESB is used then that is limited to routing and perhaps as a layer for enforcing security. In a classical SOA architecture transformation and some types of enrichment is typically done in the Service Bus.

Some Misconceptions About MicroServices

Finally I would like to address some of the misconceptions I hear and read about MicroServices:
  • DevOps implies MicroServices. It's more the other way around. DevOps is about culture and shared responsibility for the operation of one application. That can also be applied to many other architectures.
  • SOA is not MicroServices. Many see MicroServices is a sub-domain of SOA. As James Lewis and Martin Fowler state, some consider MicroServices as SOA done right.
  • There is no use for a Enterprise Service Bus in a MicroService architecture. Well, you may still need the routing and security features it can offer (see also the section Message Transformation above). Perhaps not the traditional Enterprise Service Bus as we know it, but more something that you could call a "Business Event Bus".

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