Microservices coreography with event streams

I recently had the opportunity to attend Fred George's talk "IoT and MicroServices in the Home" at YOW! Nights. The talk is available on YouTube and it's strongly recommended! Another similar talk is Perryn Fowler's "Microservices and IoT: A Perfect Match", also available on YouTube. These talks are somehow similar and describe the use of event streams to "organize" several microservices that monitor and control some IoT devices such as lights and sensors. I found the topic very interesting, and I wanted to try this type of architecture myself. The systems presented in the aforementioned talks are based on real-time data processing, and I want to figure out whether this approach can be also used for other use cases.

Edison Cars

Edison Cars is an hypothetical low-cost manufacturer of electric vehicles that wants to sell its products online. The newly born company has a shiny state-of-the-art UI for its sales, and it needs to communicates such information to other departments of the company, such as the warehouse, the assembly lines and so forth and so on. There are several ways to implement an IT infrastructure capable to support such business model.


Well. No. 😬

Synchronous RESTful Services

A first approach consists in the implementation of several microservices, one for each division of the company. As soon as a customer buys a new car, the sales service stores a new record in its DB, and then it invokes all the services required to "implement" the sale. Such approach is known as services orchestration. Soon enough we will find out that the sales app is required to know too much: it has to know which are the services required, how to invoke them, and eventually in which order. Every time we want to add a new service, we are required to modify the sales app to make it aware of the new app it needs to communicate with.


Another solution consists in the use of queues, such as SQS, Que or similar. With this implementation, the sole responsibility of the sales app is to (sell a car and) enqueue the data about the sale. Such information is then retrieved and processed by workers in the other services. Usually a queue works for a single consumer, which removes the job from the queue. Therefore, this is not an ideal solution if we need to share the same information between several services, unless we instanciate a queue for each required service and we enqueue the same information over and over again.

The sales app is still required to know about other services, in the form of queues, but through this architecture it is not required to know how to invoke such services. Its sole responsibility now is to post a message to a queue. The overall system is also more fault-tolerant, because it will keep working even if one of the other services is down. With services orchestration, the downtime of one of the services affects the sales app, because it is not able to communicate with the other apps required to complete the sale. In this new model, the sales app can complete the sale as soon as it publishes the message to the queue. Once the faulty service is up and running again, it will simply subscribe to the queue again and process the remaining job, without blocking the entire business.

Data Feeds

To make the sales app completely independent from other services, we can introduce a data feed. A data feed is a JSON/XML representation of one or more entities stored in the DB (e.g. orders) that can be consumed by other services. Such services periodically check the feed for updates and create a local copy of such data in their local DB. In this scenario, a warehouse app can check the feed and order new pieces when it detects a new order, a dashboard app can update its statistics and so son.

The sales app now is not required to know about other systems at all, new services can be easilly added and removed, and the overall architecture is still very fault-tolerant. In this scenario, even the downtime of a source of information won't affect the whole system. Let's say there's a customer app, which stores the information required for the billing and the shipment. Even if this app is down for some reason, the fault won't affect hypothetical billing and shipping apps, because they hold a copy of the customers information in their local DB.

This solution works well when data is not updated often and the local copy is good enough to continue operations. On the other hand, we are stressing source apps (e.g. sales, customers, etc.) which are accessed often to provide fresh data. This can potentially slow down the app when there are many downstream systems and/or the feed is particularly heavy.

Event Streams

With an event stream, the sales app is required to pubilsh the sale event and the relative data to a message broker. Downstream systems subscribe to the event stream and get notified every time there is a new event. The advantages are the same of the Data Feed solution, but we have added an extra layer between the data source and its consumers. The message broker is an external system, therefore the sales app is not queried constantly. Consumer systems read directly from the stream and store the data locally, achievieng the same decoupling and resiliency goals. Is this the silver bullet then? Can I use it for any use case?

RabbitMQ Hands-on

I've tried to build the microservices for Edison Cars using RabbitMQ, as suggested by Fred George in his talk. Other possible technologies are AWS Kinesis and Apache Kafka, even though RabbitMQ is simple enough to play with it and quickly test some ideas. The source code of my little project is available on GitHub. In this implementation, for each new order in the sales app, a new record is stored in the DB, and the event is published on the exchange. Basically, an exchange is an object that receives messages and pushes them to queues:

def publish(order:) connection = open_connection channel = connection.create_channel exchange = channel.fanout('orders', :durable => true) message = create_message(order) exchange.publish(message, :persistent => true) connection.close end

The data source needs to open a connection, create a channel and an exchange (both idempotent operations), and then publish the message. The code on the consumer side is very similar:

def consume(queue_name, block) connection = open_connection channel = connection.create_channel exchange = channel.fanout('orders', :durable => true) queue = channel.queue(queue_name, :auto_delete => false) queue.bind(exchange) begin queue.subscribe(:block => block, :manual_ack => true) do |delivery_info, properties, body| json = JSON.parse(body) if Order.find_by_external_id(json['external_id']).nil? order = Order.new(order_data(json)) order.save end end rescue Interrupt => _ channel.close connection.close end end

Once the consumer receives a message from the exchange, it looks in the DB to determine whether it already has a copy of that order, and it stores it otherwise. This mechanism will avoid duplicate copies of the data and wrong operations based on it. I'm failry sure that the customer wants to buy only one car at the time!


All good then? Well, not really. Let's take a look at the weak points of this architecture:

  • If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?: Not in the RabbitMQ world. If the source publishes a message to the exchange with no existing queue, the message is discarded, lost. For example, if the sales app sells a car before any other service had the chance to subscribe to its exchange, the orders are lost and never delivered to anyone. Unlikely, but it may happen. The solution that I've implemented so far is to create a queue in the datasource, named history. Basically, the data source produces the data and publishes it to the exchange, but it also "consumes" it in a sort of backup queue. By doing this we ensure that there's always at least one consumer of the queue, which is the data source itself.

  • Adding Services: when a new consumer subscribes to the exchange, it reads the data from that moment on. For example, imagine that you want to add a new service to your architecture to create statistics over the sales. This service will not have access to the historical timeseries of such sales, but only to the sales made from the moment it subscribes to the exchance on. To address this problem, I added a small Rake task, that subscribe to the aforementioned history queue, and populates the DB. This is the same as having a feed, even though we are still dealing with the event stream with no overhead for the datasource.


So, what's the outcome of my little experiment? The advantages of queues, data feeds and event streams in terms of decoupling and resiliency are obvious. Although event streams are very interesting, it is possible to use this solution in selected use cases only.

For example, should Edison Cars share its sales data through streams? Well, as usual, it depends. Streams shouldn't be used for, let's say, a billing app. Such data should be always available at any point in time, while with the stream, the information lives in the stream until someone consumes it. Although it is possible to make the data persistent in the exchange, it's not reccomended, for at least two reasons. By doing so, we are creating a copy of the data that should live only in the DB. Furthermore, this data may become outdated and can potentially lead to wrong outcomes.

On the other hand, there are use cases where event streams can be preferred to data feeds. Edison Cars could decide to send a confirmation email to the user once a sale has been made, and this scenario can be easilly implemented with a mailing app that "listen" to the exchange and sends a message for every new object in the queue. A list of possible use cases is available on the Kafka website, and it includes messaging, metrics,log aggregation, etc. And, of course, real-time data processing for IoT devices, as per the talks that inspired this post. 🙂