Microservices – Boon or Bane for Technical Debt?

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Exponentially increasing demands for new software functionality, the growth of integrated mobile apps, and the pressure to get to market quickly are all contributing to increased software complexity.
Teams are often faced with trade-offs between quality and delivering on time. Quick and dirty code and design decisions, taken in haste, pile up to produce technical debt. A big chunk of technical debt stems from cutting short test cycles to meet deadlines, and if tests become more complex, the temptation to skip them altogether increases. A mountain of technical debt rises from version to version under the unrelenting pressure to release fast.

Given that it is difficult to make changes to large, monolithic applications, the microservices approach that allows development of individual applications may be a way to avoid or at least pay technical debt in an incremental manner. But taking a microservices approach is not a miracle cure for technical debt. There are several issues that must be overcome to truly reap the benefits of the smaller, independently developed services.
So, frankly, is microservices a boon or bane for technical debt? Let’s find out!

Why microservices is a boon

Almost every development team cuts a few corners to meet project deadlines, with the intention of fixing issues later. While such an approach can enable software organizations to meet the immediate needs it will increase technical debt in the long run.

The microservices architecture could offer an easier way to pay off technical debt in a software environment where delivery speed is becoming more and more important.

  • The microservices architecture gives software teams the ability to create applications that are more adaptable to new requirements.
  • Unlike traditional applications that are tightly coupled with instances highly dependent on each other, microservices components are independent of each other. Hence, changes to software can easily be made.
  • Microservices allow teams to pay off technical debt slightly easily. It allows bad code to be refactored, and questionable design decisions to be revisited – far quicker than with monolithic architecture.
  • By breaking down software into API-accessible microservices, each with its own purpose, technical debt can be addressed incrementally – service by service.
  • As teams scale from one service to another, debt will be paid off incrementally, and the interest-only impact will come in the form of slower release cycles or attrition.

Why microservices is a bane

Although microservices is a great approach to implement new features, the architecture can’t work miracles. Since very few organizations know exactly how much debt they have or where it resides, a microservice architecture may prove to be more difficult to adopt than it seems.

  • Very often, while creating a microservices architecture, instead of ensuring independent services, teams end up creating bad architecture that leads to unnecessary complexity in future releases.
  • Such complexity is often the root cause of technical debt, and also the hardest to pay off. In fact, managing complexity inside a distributed system is far more complex than in a monolithic architecture.
  • Microservices involves putting specific configuration files for each environment into every service. So, as the number of microservices grows, updating properties across multiple microservices causes multiple hours of wasted effort and frustrating bugs.
  • In addition, testing microservices-based apps is tough and time-consuming. When teams are struggling to meet stringent deadlines, the testing cycle is often cut short and sometimes skipped altogether – especially when testing is complex.
  • With a single library containing all potentially shared code in the project, message queues, ad hoc business domain logic, and security gets bundled into a single library. Any upgrade to library versions will invariably affect services. This will only increase technical debt further.
  • Securing microservices is an inherently difficult task. Since there are more services that manipulate data and can be called in a number of different ways, attack vectors are also more in number. This makes them more difficult to identify and resolve.
  • Microservices APIs are often created in a chaotic fashion. When implementing a new feature, development teams take the required services and add APIs as they see fit. Without the right set of standards in place, the end result could be a fragmented API that constantly changes.
  • With development and operations teams working in a siloed fashion, misunderstandings are common. Mistakes in configuration result in both teams spending a lot of time in solving avoidable issues.

Take the right approach

Technical debt is a natural byproduct of any software development project. And while there is no way to avoid it, there are some environments better suited to managing it.

The microservices architecture is an approach development teams are embracing; although there are complications to using the microservices architecture to overcome technical debt, it is likely to continue to grow in popularity.
Microservices does seem to make it easy to pay off technical debt. It also allows teams to refactor an existing service rather than coding from scratch. This approach gives businesses the ability to create applications that are far more adaptable to changing needs.

However, microservices will not magically overcome technical debt; recording where and how much debt exists is necessary for any organization to keep its debt in check. In addition, using a DevOps approach, ensuring frequent communication and collaboration between teams, embracing test automation, having several libraries and stable, well-crafted APIs makes working with microservices easier. Put together this is a great way to deal with technical debt.

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