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How does microservice communication work?

Take a look at microservices communications, who microservices talk to, and how to get it right.

Eric Goebelbecker Mar 21

Microservices are an important architectural pattern that’s gained widespread adoption because of their many benefits. By decoupling the different components of an application, they make it easy to scale up or down as needed, especially when combined with cloud architecture. Microservices are easier to upgrade and maintain since you can deploy each component independently. This makes microservices a design that helps companies save money while responding to customer requirements faster.

Since microservices are a distributed architecture, they need to communicate with each other and with clients. The right protocols help you leverage the power behind this distributed architecture. The wrong ones will cause problems and negate their many benefits.

Let’s look at microservices communications and how to get it right.

What are microservices?

Microservices have been around for a long time. They’re often associated with the Agile software movement and with Continuous Integration/Continuous Delivery. This makes microservices both mainstream and difficult to define since they’re wrapped into many different concepts.

Let’s look at a definition from Martin Fowler.

… the microservice architectural style is an approach to developing a single application as a suite of small services, each running in its own process and communicating with lightweight mechanisms, often an HTTP resource API. These services are built around business capabilities and are independently deployable by fully automated deployment machinery. There is a bare minimum of centralized management of these services, which may be written in different programming languages and use different data storage technologies.

This paragraph packs in several important points about microservices:

  1. They’re organized around business capabilities.
  2. Centralized management is diminished in favor of independent deployments and operations and even independent programming languages.
  3. They’re usually associated with resource-oriented HTTP APIs. (Usually RESTful.)
  4. But they’re not tied to a specific technology.

All these points have a direct impact on how microservices talk to each other. If they’re organized by business units, that means different departments must be able to coordinate how the services communicate. If these groups are going to use different programming tools, they still need to stick to protocols that work with the tools that other groups are using.

This is one of the reasons RESTful APIs are popular. You can find REST libraries for nearly any programming language.

Who do microservices communicate with?

Depending on their individual purpose, microservices need to communicate with clients, each other, and infrastructure such as data stores.

Many microservices are client-facing. This often means they use RESTful APIs to respond to client requests, but that’s not a requirement. Microservices don’t have to use REST, and using REST doesn’t make your application a microservice.

Microservices may need to speak to each other, too. Sometimes they use internal services to enrich responses before sending them to clients. In others, they publish the results of client transactions to a centralized messaging system for consumption by other services.

Many microservices act as brokers or gateways to data stores, such as relational databases, document stores, file storage, or legacy services.

Microservices communication

Synchronous and asynchronous are communication patterns used between two or more applications.

Synchronous microservices communication

In microservices and network messaging, synchronous communication uses blocking and solicited semantics: one party makes a request and waits for the other to respond. These request/response message flows take place over a single connection.

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This pattern is common for web applications, where the browser connects to a server, requests a web page, and then makes new connections and issues new requests based on the contents of the page, like images, style sheets, and scripts linked in the page. Each resource is a new synchronous request.

The synchronous pattern is common with RESTful APIs, which usually uses synchronous HTTP communications to GET, PUT, DELETE, and POST requests. 

Asynchronous microservices communication

Asynchronous communication uses non-blocking and unsolicited semantics. Clients and servers send messages and don’t wait for responses. A single request can elicit multiple responses, and requests and responses are sent in any order.

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This pattern is common over messaging systems like AMQP, MQSeries, and JMS. Web browsers and other web apps may also implement asynchronous messaging over WebSockets.

Communication with clients

While RESTful communications, or Representational State Transfer (REST), is used colloquially to describe a protocol for messages between clients and servers, it’s actually an architecture for designing how applications communicate.

REST is designed to be lightweight, synchronous, and stateless. When a client requests an object, they receive the current state. If they want updates, they make an additional request. If they want to update or alter the object, they send a new synchronous request. When applications use REST communications, they’re constrained to messages and message contents that are designed in advance.

REST is used widely across many web applications and has libraries and tooling for most popular programming languages.

GraphQL is a query language that’s designed to be more efficient and flexible than REST. It allows applications to create requests at runtime that filter for the entities and fields they need.

GraphQL can also collapse requests for more than one service into a single namespace or graph. This allows clients to talk to a single endpoint and issue a single query for data that spans more than one service. It also differs from REST because it is a strongly typed query language.

gRPC is a remote procedure call (RPC) framework developed by Google. It’s based on the HTTP/2 protocol and uses Protocol Buffers (protobufs) for its underlying data serialization format. So, clients and servers send and receive binary messages that deserialize into primitive types.

The protocol facilitates high performance, low latency, and low network overhead communication between web and mobile clients and back-end services. You can use it for bidirectional data streams. gRPC supports many languages and works with both synchronous and asynchronous programming models.

Communication with other services

Publish-Subscribe (pub/sub) messaging is a peer-to-peer messaging paradigm where applications connect to message brokers. Subscribers request messages based on topics or expressions that describe the messages they wish to receive. Publishers send messages to the broker, which delivers them to the appropriate subscribers.

Engineers commonly use this type of messaging for communications between microservices and the services they need to perform their jobs. It’s very effective for event-driven applications where one service needs to share something with several counterparts. The message payloads can use proprietary formats, JSON/YAML, or binary encoding like the protobuf format used by gRPC.

gRPC is also useful for communication between server processes. This implementation differs from the one used between browsers and microservices, as it doesn’t use HTTP and supports several programming languages. 

Learn more about microservices

We’ve looked at how microservices communicate. We discussed synchronous and asynchronous messaging, the two dominant messaging semantics, and then looked at the most common messaging protocols for exchanging messages between microservices and their clients. Then we saw how microservices commonly communicate with each other.

Now that you’ve learned about how microservices communicate, see how you can build and test them:

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