The Benefits and Challenges of Containerized Microservices

We all know that testing and deploying software is a complex and time-consuming process. Can containerized microservices help? Maybe — here’s what to know…

Developing or improving apps using “microservices” — isolated and specific parts or functions of apps or software — is efficient and effective for many software development organizations. However, every company struggles with developing, testing, and deploying microservices regularly and with as few hiccups as possible. This is where containerized microservices can be helpful.

Containerization is the perfect complementary development practice for microservices. According to a 2018 survey, more than 64% of surveyed companies are adopting microservice architectures. If leveraged properly, containerization is an attribute because it helps you develop and operate microservices. But on the flip side, it also makes server provisioning and data storage a little more complex.

Therefore, organizations should only start using containerization for microservice development after fully analyzing the pros and cons, the challenges, and creating a strategy for overcoming the challenges in the future. Today, I’ll break each of these elements down in detail and explore potential strategies your company can use to implement containerized microservice development successfully.

Let’s hash it out.

Pros and Cons of Containerized Microservices

Image caption: An illustration of containerized microservices and how they operate on the backend.

Usingized microservices is a newer way of architecting applications that has become containerized over the last several years. In a nutshell, organizations or developers can create containerized microservices by applying individual application services within the same container environment. But what are containers and microservices? Before we get any further into this topic, let’s quickly define what each of these terms means.

A container is an environment within an operating system that’s designed to allow multiple applications (and their dependencies, like their configuration files and libraries) to be processes and run easily in isolated. (Note: this differs from traditional virtual machine environments that operate at the hardware level.) This allows software programs to be reliably run when moved from one computing environment to another. Regardless of whether an application is being run in the cloud or on a laptop, for example, the container mitigates any differences that exist between distributions in the operating systems.

Microservices, on the other hand, are an approach to developing applications as a collection of smaller services. This is accomplished via lightweight APIs in a single interface. The advantages to using microservices include the fact that they:

  • Can be independently,
  • Are coupled loosely, and
  • Are easy to test.

The many benefits of containerization — faster app testing, greater use of limited server resources, and significantly reduced overhead costs, to name a few — apply just as well for microservices development and testing as they do for other apps and code.

That said, your organization should know both the major advantages and potential drawbacks of containerized microservices before you start implementing them into your workflows or operations.

Advantages of Implementing Containerized Microservices

Containerized microservices can potentially provide your organization with many major benefits, including:

  • Much greater consistency when developing or testing automated microservice apps or code blocks. Since the microservice in question is isolated in a container, there are fewer variables to anticipate or deal with. This means you’ll likely face fewer potential problems during major stages like developing, testing, and deployment.
  • Improved scalability that supports growth. As opposed to virtual machine development (which has been around longer), containerization allows you to stack several containers on the same server hardware and even the same operating system environment if continual growth is required.
  • Greater isolation for microservices or other developed apps. It limits resource consumption and helps you stretch your limited resources and budget further, even while developing multiple microservices.
  • Groups of containerized microservices run efficiency. Because they require fewer resources, even running groups of microservices isn’t particularly burdensome on your organization. Compare this to the same number of microservices running in virtual machine environments.

Overall, containerized microservices offer greater efficiency and cost-effectiveness compared to developing and testing multiple microservices using virtual machines only or entirely.

Drawbacks to Using Containerized Microservices

All that said, containerized microservices do have some potential drawbacks to consider, such as:

  • Increased complexity for your workforce. Even today, many developers have trouble dealing with the abstract nature of containers, particularly when implementing microservices to larger apps/platforms. Fortunately, there are several proprietary container management or open-source tools that can assist developers with this.
  • Developers must be familiar with Kubernetes or a similar tool to ensure container orchestration. Your servers must also be attuned to different container runtimes and the network and storage resources required for each.
  • May not work with some legacy applications. While microservices are useful and have their place within app development, they may not work in all cases (depending on the apps you’re trying to run). This can pose an additional challenge when implementing them in containerized environments.

Because of these possible drawbacks, many developers use containerized microservices in most cases except when they have to deal with very small numbers of microservices. They may also choose virtual machine environments if they’re dealing with simple apps that have limited functionalities.

Develop a Strategy for Container-Based Microservices

Should you choose to use containerized microservices, you’ll need a great strategy to ensure proper implementation across your organization.

Emphasize Cybersecurity

Firstly, you’ll need to ensure that your cybersecurity doesn’t suffer from adopting container-based microservices. Remember, microservices in containerized environments can access a host server’s root capabilities if they are running in privileged mode. This permits them to have access directly to the root capabilities of the host. It won’t pay to take this possibility lightly, especially since cyber crimes and security breaches are up by about 11%. (Check out this cyber crime statistics article for other current cyber crime stats.)

Using container-based microservices also emphasizes the importance of good network policies and security context definitions. Your organization or cyber security team will need to ensure that containers are not accessible by unauthorized personnel. Frequent auditing or container image scans may be necessary.

Consider Container Runtimes

Another key consideration of containerized microservices relates to container runtimes (a component in software designed to run containers on the operating system of your host). For the best results, your team should leverage a complete set of configuration management tools (like JuJu, Rudder, or SysAid). The more management tools you have, the better you can tailor or tweak your containerization development process for your needs and limitations.

Check out this video on using Juju, which is one example of a popular configuration management tool:

Similarly, try to avoid deploying container runtimes individually or on their own beyond the execution stages. Your runtime provider could influence the overall cost-effectiveness of containerized microservice development. The Open Container Initiative is a collaborative project that’s currently trying to establish common container platform standards — use it to ensure your container runtimes run as well as they can.

Implement Orchestration Tools

Be sure to get everyone up to speed on orchestration tools like Kubernetes. This tool can help you automate important automation tasks across your servers. Alternatively, you can use other server orchestrators aside from Kubernetes, which could be overkill or overly complex if you don’t need a high scale or a distributed architecture.

Some alternatives include:

  • Google Cloud Run,
  • Rancher,
  • Docker Swarm, and
  • Nomad.
A screenshot of Google's Cloud Run platform.  The original image came from gregramblings.com.
Image source: Gregsramblings.com

Prioritize Networking and Communication

Your organization should also consider networking and communication issues that may arise. The microservices you develop will need to talk to one another or the central host server and operating system (OS). Service mechs may be able to handle requests between microservices using abstracted proxy components, solving this challenge.

Alternatively, if your containerized microservices communication via external endpoints, you’ll need a dedicated communication portal. The portal will verify and relay requests between external components and prevent accidental security breaches. Keep in mind that hiring a dedicated developer to develop a unique portal could be pricey — you can expect to pay at least $45 an hour for a developer to do a task like this.

Lastly, you may wish to invest in a load balancer (a networking solution designed to distribute traffic across several servers) if you anticipate high traffic between the containers.

Plan for External Storage

Don’t forget the plan for external storage between containers. By its very nature, containerization requires data to vanish when each instance is set down. So you’ll need an external data storage mechanism to keep valuable data or progress intact.

Luckily, many of the orchestration tools mentioned above will come with data storage solutions. When comparing data storage solutions, review the features and attributes of each tool to choose the best orchestration tool for your organization’s needs.

Final Thoughts on Containerized Microservices

At the end of the day, containers remain a popular way to deploy functional microservices, even if they bring a little extra complexity to the development table. It makes the testing and deployment of your software much more predictable. This is because you can use the same container (or environment) to host the software that you are testing or building for an upcoming deployment while using fewer resources than other options.

Your organization’s developers should research commercial and open-source tools that can assist with containerized microservice development to make the most of this novel but necessary strategy.

Leave a Comment