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How to Migrate to Microservices (And Recognize When You Need Them)

Microservices can become a strong pillar of innovation, but the process of adopting them can bring organizations to a standstill if handled incorrectly.

While microservices bring many advantages, such as solving issues with complexity or accelerating the velocity of deployments, they also present a lot of new challenges that can really slow down the process of innovation.

At PSL, we've been dealing with microservices since before they were hip, so we wanted to share our knowledge with you on the initial process of adopting them, along with some tips on how to decide if they're the right choice for your organization. 

Managing Complexity 

One of the best arguments for migrating to microservices is if the business is dealing with too much complexity in its software development ecosystem. Take some of these use cases for example.

Data Complexity: When a company's data gets out of control, it becomes far more manageable to separate data sources for individual areas of your business. For instance, instead of bulking them all together you could have one database for users, one for products, one for payments, and one for services. With microservices, each of these databases is independent for each microservice, making them much more bite-sized and easier to maintain.

Team Size Complexity: As development teams grow, everybody inevitably ends up working with the same code, making it difficult to maintain quality and avoid mistakes. Microservices can help with managing the complexity of larger teams by allowing them to divide into sub-teams, each focused on a specific microservice instead of the entire monolith.

Deployment Complexity: One single application or deployment requires you to scale the whole thing simultaneously, which is not a huge issue for smaller apps, but becomes expensive and resource-heavy when the application scales. Microservices allow you to deploy or scale different parts of an application independently, so different teams can update parts of the application without impacting the rest of the deployment. The main advantage of this granularization is the ability to deploy numerous times per day.

The core concept behind microservices, as shown by all of the above complexity use cases, is granularity, which makes applications easier to manage, faster to work with, and less complex. It also helps with incrementing the velocity of deployments and speeding up the release of code.

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Focus on Continuous Improvement, Not Big Bang Re-Factors  

If complexity is something your organization struggles with, or if you're looking for a way to deploy software more quickly and regularly, then microservices could be the answer.

But wait! If this is your first foray into software development, it's best to start with a monolith application instead of jumping into microservices from scratch.

This tempered approach will allow you to uncover pain points within your existing application, indicating if and when you need microservices. If the complexity becomes an issue, then it's time to start migrating.

At PSL, we are advocates of continuous improvement over a "Big-Bang", change-everything-now approach, so we highly recommend starting with just one area of the application that could benefit from a microservice. Look for one area that needs to be decoupled in order to be scaled, or something that could do with being it easier to maintain, and so on.

Facing the Inevitable Challenges  

Businesses should be very cautious about big-bang re-factors because it comes with a cost—your businesses cannot innovate until the migration is done, which can often take years. Microservices make the whole process more manageable, sure, but not without challenges.

For example, in the beginning, you'll need to keep two applications co-existing for a while until the microservice is ready to take over that aspect of the monolith. Managing data becomes more cumbersome as a result. While this hurdle is difficult to avoid, there are some syncing patterns that help sync queues between old and new databases.

Another challenge is managing your front-end. If you have an existing monolith and then plug in a microservice, you need to find a way for both front-ends to co-exist, potentially with different technologies. Again, there's an existing pattern called micro frontends that allows you to plug different front-ends from different services into one cohesive entity. 

[Time for a refresher on how to work with remote teams? | 4 Tips for Working with Virtual Teams]

Best Practices in the Migration Process  

Before even thinking about microservices, companies should practice good architecture design patterns, like domain-driven design, and try to separate aspects of their monoliths so that the eventual migration to microservices is smoother.

During the move to microservices, we highly recommend a widely accepted pattern called the Strangler Pattern, an approach that involves incrementally replacing existing functionalities with new microservices. By taking this approach, you can release one microservice, build trust in it, and begin to see how it provides value, which gives you all the insight you need to choose new areas of the app to separate. The incremental approach allows you to add value to the business and avoid dangerous big-bang approaches.

The idea is to create a proxy for one piece of functionality, so people are directed to that instead of the full monolith. If you want to separate your payment module, for example, you send payment requests to that microservice instead of the existing monolith.

It's really important to have a mature team that is experienced with things like infrastructure automation, distributed systems, and architectural design patterns. When you migrate, your team will need to be updated on all of these proficiencies to deal with the new challenges that come with managing transactions, asynchronous communication, and keeping your app under control. 

Final Takeaways  

Companies in today's technological climate rise and fall by their ability to innovate, so they should be very cautious about adopting microservices before the organization is completely ready to do so, otherwise, innovation could end up being an afterthought.

If your organization is truly ready for microservices, the best way to overcome the inevitable challenges is to start slowly and keep it simple. Get it into production, monitor it, learn from it, and think about which microservice could be the next advantageous move. With a strategic and thoughtful approach, microservices can help your organization explore new paths of innovation. 

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