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Microservices' benefits are clear, but getting there may not be

As businesses see microservices' benefits begin to accrue, IT may find itself facing a new set of challenges regarding implementation and continuing management.

Microservices architecture -- the development methodology in which a large application or entire system is constructed as a collection of narrowly focused, modular services -- continues to grow in popularity. The technology is alluring in its premise of combining small, single-function modules to yield a comprehensive business system; therefore, it holds great appeal for developers. But achieving comprehensive microservices benefits may ultimately require heightened attention to track and manage a potentially large number of microservice modules, compared with just a few do-it-all monolithic apps.

Implementing a microservices architecture offers a profound advantage that goes well beyond agility in app development and deployment. It allows the core business to be proactive and transformative -- staying ahead of competitors -- or reactive, if necessary, to play catch-up.

"If you are not continually improving your application, then your business is falling behind the competition," said Jeff Kaplan, managing director of THINKstrategies Inc., a Wellesley, Mass., cloud consultancy. "By architecting a large application or system as a series of very small microservices, it becomes much easier to update specific aspects and innovate."

Bert Ertman, a fellow at Luminis in the Netherlands and a frequent lecturer on microservices, agreed, noting that containers and microservices leverage each other's advantages. "Whether you claim to do microservices or not, I think striving for a more modular application architecture enables many good things, in general." Containers, he said, can be used without doing microservices, and microservices can be used without container technologies, but they complement each other by combining agility with portability.

Microservices benefits are growing

Writing in his blog, the chief architect of information systems at the Central Bank of the Russian Federation, Maxim Smirnov, listed a dozen scenarios for realizing microservices benefits via API calls, including product ordering, catalog management, trouble ticketing, customer management, billing and inventory management. In a microservices architecture, each module performs one function and uses a defined interface to interoperate with other modules.

The growing range of possibilities would appear to benefit every phase of an enterprise, but that's not exactly the case in the view of Donnie Berkholz, research director for the development, DevOps and IT ops channel at 451 Research. In practice, microservices benefits may not be equally distributed throughout the organization, he said.

"Microservices is increasing the burden on the development and operations teams, while creating significant business benefits," Berkholz said. "More and more companies want to become software-defined businesses, but to get there, they're going to have to dump a lot of their existing processes and tools."

Talent gap strikes again

The inevitable problem in trying to reap container and microservices benefits is the lack of expertise within corporate IT and the inability to comprehend the value proposition compared with a virtual machine architecture.

For Jeremy Steinert, DevOps practice lead at cloud consultancy WSM International in St. Clair Shores, Mich., they are old issues applied to a new technology. "We've seen a substantial uptick in work from our clients regarding microservices and containers over the last several months, but even we are still learning to build apps with these technologies and how to best compartmentalize the many components for efficient operation," he said. Using the two together yields both portability and scalability. "We can have dozens of nodes online in just a few minutes, and we are not restricted to where they run," he said.

While a key microservices benefit is that prized business agility, achieving it comes at the cost of implementing a microservices framework, along with managing a portfolio that could encompass hundreds of microservices for each legacy monolithic application that is ultimately replaced. "Adoption of containers has jumped from 6% to 14% of enterprises in just the last 12 months, but pace of reconfiguration into a microservices architecture is considerably slower," Berkholz said.

For developers, microservices and containers are a good place to focus, Berkholz said. "It's the oldest and the newest technologies that do well in salary surveys," he said. On the new side, that means microservices, containers and data science. Conversely, he said, it is the thinning ranks of COBOL developers, through retirement and demise, which keeps salaries high at the other end.

Joel Shore is news writer for TechTarget's Business Applications and Architecture Media Group. Write to him at [email protected] or follow @JshoreTT on Twitter.

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