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Developer search prompts a migration to microservices

See how microservices have changed the development team's makeup, not just the application architecture, for one company on its way to leave monolithic apps behind.

Most stories of a migration to microservices start with developers yearning for more application stability during frequent code updates, or the ability to scale without resource compromises, or a route out of dependency hell.

But for Scott Bassin, engineering director at Ibotta Inc., a Denver-based mobile shopping rewards provider, none of those usual reasons applied. He wanted to attract and retain the best developers.

New developers struggled to comprehend a whole application to develop features or improvements for it. "The monolith was hard to get into engineers' heads," Bassin said. With microservices, engineers can focus on one independent functional component of the application: "[Microservices] future-proof the app for the skilled workforce," he said.

Microservices vs. monoliths

Microservices are generally language-independent, so an organization can stick with whatever modern code language the staff already uses, such as Java or Python. Developers must adjust their perspective on application architecture to make the migration to microservices. "Developers need to understand how the architecture impacts how [they] build good software," said Jason Bloomberg, president at analysis firm Intellyx in Suffolk, Va.

Developers in independent teams can work concurrently on an application with a microservices architecture, but they must understand the context of their project within the broad architecture. Microservices are grouped by business domains for the core values they provide, Bloomberg explained. Microservices that share a business domain are tightly coupled to provide related tasks and functionality within applications. To compose an application, these domains form loosely coupled relationships amongst each other. Organizations considering a migration to microservices should model the existing application framework to this relationship-based setup.

The monolith [app structure] was hard to get into engineers' heads. ... [Microservices] future-proof the app for the skilled workforce.
Scott Bassinengineering director, Ibotta

When microservices are decoupled in this way, engineers know exactly what problem to focus on, Bassin said. He added that the microservices architecture drives development to a degree he didn't anticipate when the migration began -- it pushes what he calls slowness factors, such as scaling limitations and dependencies, out of application features.

Organizations that modernize applications address technical debt, especially in large enterprises, said Brandon Carroll, director of transformation, DevOps and cloud services at IT services provider TEKsystems Inc. in Hanover, Md. Developers aren't required to manage code in place with microservices as they do with monolithic apps, and they can quickly release code to a container rather than deploy a whole app update, he said. Enterprises can reduce total cycle times and deploy releases faster with independent microservices because they no longer manage thousands of lines of dependent code.

Migration advice: Start early, hire to disrupt

Ibotta's team turned to microservices development with the addition of its 30th engineer, but Bassin said if he could go back to day one, he would have started the migration to microservices sooner. He advises other software teams to lift core functionality out of a monolithic application more proactively than his team did.

Ibotta's developers still work with a monolith in tandem with microservices, and that's not an unusual scenario, Bloomberg said. Modularized applications are patterns that date back to the advent of object-oriented programming and then service-oriented architecture, but there's no magic formula. Microservices solve some problems with additional flexibility and new business capabilities, even when the big, old software architecture refuses to die, he said.

Hiring managers should seek team members that advance the organization's digital roadmap -- you don't pick up microservices developers to maintain the status quo, Bloomberg said. "You're [hiring them] to get a software-based capability that will change the nature of your business."

Carroll exhorted company leaders to engage with this effort and prepare not only to hire great talent, but also shepherd existing staff through the cultural and skills changes to work with microservices.

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Should organizations pursue a gradual migration to microservices or rearchitect the whole application at once?