Getting rid of monoliths: #lagom and microservice hooha

The road to ridding application monoliths is one wrought with many obstacles, mostly organisational. Whatever your reason behind this brave move, you have convinced yourself that you will fix this big ball of mud, somehow… You will no longer stand for this shanty town of a spaghetti code, riddled with nonsensical donkey poo. The code no longer speaks to you, it has surpassed the point of having a smell. This abomination has a cyclomatic “flavour” that you can almost taste it at the tip of the tongue. No amount of Ballmer’s peak is going to help. So you are going to make good on that promise to your linting tool, probably Sonar, for whom you have whispered hours of sweet nothings to the tunes of Bob Marley, “Don’t worry ‘bout a thing ’cause every little thing gonna be alright…” What once was a good idea has hideously mutated into a giant walking talking abomination that crawls under your skin and haunts your every step. Under the guise of some sound architectural decisions, you are going to pay down this technical debt, hard. You are going to to do microservice, and you are going to ship Docker containers. If this is you, read on.

The biggest modern day monoliths of them all, J2EE

Tasked with the daunting task of ripping apart functional applications into microservices, you will battle bikeshedders whilst debating your silly asses off with armies of monolith fandom. During what seems to be a very long coup d’état, this attempt to evangelise a newer leaner architecture and approach is riddled with skeptics. “What is frontend without JSF or JSP?! How dare you even question server-push technology like XYZFaces? Then how about the JNDI lookups and EJBs?! Surely you cannot replace these things?”

So six years ago, I had a very pleasant experience of pulling out Glassfish with embedded Jetty, replacing I-Hate-My-Faces with some simple JS (nowadays we call it the MEAN stack, or its many other permutations), and started building APIs with microservice principles. Turns out that is what Spotify did too at the time. So there you go haters. Bottom line, do not use J2EE no matter what if you care about having a competitive advantage. But if you need some good reasons, here are some:

  • Most J2EE containers are grounded on the notion of vertical scalability last I checked. Clustering should be idempotent and stateless, and scaling horizontal.
  • J2EE containers are not cloud native. Just look at their clustering! Unless you feel like having VPNs and private networks across different public clouds or data centers, you can probably just forget it.
  • So let’s put it behind the load balancer? No, most J2EE containers don’t do shared session persistence out of the box.
  • Let’s not kid ourselves, you will customise the crap out of this J2EE container; dropping war files upon war files to fix all its shortcomings.
  • Your sysadmins do not work with war/jar/ear files. They are *nix gurus deserving to be treated like one. Ship your product like an actual product, sir! Apt/yum/brew is your friend and please follow Filesystem Hierarchy Standard (FHS) for goodness sake.

Decide exactly what you are going to piecemeal

Have a very clear idea of the different categories or lifecycles of the applications you are going to transform. Timing is important, as with showing results. Afterall, this is the minimum viable product (MVP) approach naturally. Highly recommend avoiding system of records to begin with, those are definitely not quick wins and you will be in an arduous match, going for the full 5 rounds. Your future competitive advantage does not sit in your ERP or CRM systems. If it does, then um, yeah.

  • Isolate and separate clearly the functionality you are transforming or building
  • Ensure the isolation goes all the way down to infra, this is devops after all
  • Think of how to horizontally scale
  • Think of elasticity
  • Think of shared persistence across network

Java is dead, long live Java!

The trend a few years back was relentlessly hating on Java and Java devs. Evidence shows otherwise. Java is still around and it is going to be around for quite some time to come. No need to switch out it just yet even after the programming nuclear winter imposed by object-orientation and Java/.NET alike. Good code, good ecosystem based on tooling, and good solid design patterns go a long way, regardless of application domain or programming languages.

The truth is the same could have been said about node.js. I recall a number of years back, few colleagues quoted Hacker News regarding the state of node.js and how immature it was and Java was the “preferred” choice, even though the sysadmin community bagged the crap out of Java at the time. If you make strategic decisions predominantly based on the whims of HN, then you are just as plonkers as the next troll. What your node.js/Java boys and girls need to remember:

  • Repeatable, testable build pipelines. Think CI/CD.
  • Coding standards and linting, no brainers there
  • Packaging. Do the right thing, treat sysadmins as your end customers.
  • Separate out load balancing or clustering to other applications like nginx or haproxy. TCP stack makes more sense when written in C.
  • Lord forbid you try to do TLS termination in Java. This is really not cool bro. You got a number of other choices, so do not add this complexity to the landscape. There are no OpenSSL implementation in Java, and OpenSSL is already difficult to maintain as it is.
  • Good monitoring and logging practices goes a long way
  • Think network. Think TCP and HTTP.
  • Your JVM will live on top of a kernel. Know them. Tune that JVM and tune that kernel if needed.

So, microservices. Heard of #lagom?

So you have found a good set of business functional requirements to transform into a set of microservices. Heard of #lagom? Maybe Dropwizard or Springboot? The choices are probably all OK, and when doing microservices, there are simply no bad choices in my opinion. The gains outweigh the means here. The kicker is that there are probably a number of customised endpoint you will need to integrate with. This could be HTTP, something-else-over TCP or whatever. There could also be JPA or other nosql data stores you need to use. Pick your microservice framework component knowing that this is a framework and it can easily grow. The microservice strategy can easily bloat into “milliservice” or “services” (SOA?) if you are not careful. So just how do you stop the size of the code base from expanding? Keep distinct business functionalities as separate services and code bases. The sizing is up to you. Also, split up common functionalities into submodules. Both Dropwizard and Springboot has a bunch. Lagom for example has recently being introduced as the microservice framework for Java, it does have quite a lot of these connectors already in place. For me, I opted to homebrew our own microservice framework for maximum flexibility, ownership, and performance tuning.

Either way, armed with your chosen messiah of a framework, the idea here is to rain down free non-functional requirements across multiple projects and dev teams. Cost leadership for all!

  • Ease of hooking up to modern monitoring tools with a configurable metrics set. JVM memory, vmstat, iostat, CPU, JVM gc, etc etc
  • Ease of pulling out logs into say Influxdb or something.
  • Connectors to DBs should be submoduled and shared for future projects. Polyglot persistence ftw.
  • API documentation is super important. Do not assume your API users know your API, and make a point of doing backward compatibility
  • Follow semver.

Keeping your head above water is number one. Hang in there, the good days will come. Just remember, nothing is new in software since 1970, they just get modern marketing hype. And lastly, your fancy new microservice is legacy as soon as you launch. So please do consider the future generations. Let’s end this cycle of spaghetti monster code through old fashion craftsmanship.


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