Smart Endpoints, Dumb Pipes

I read an interesting article recently called How do you cut a monolith in half? There are a lot of thoughts in the article that resonate with me and some that I disagree with, prompting this response.

The overall message of the article is don’t use a message broker to break apart a monolith because it’s like a cross between a load balancer and a database, with the disadvantages of both and the advantages of neither. The author argues that message brokers are a popular way to pull apart components over a network because they have low setup cost and provide easy service discovery, but they come at a high operational cost. My response to that is the same advice the author puts forward: it depends.

I think it’s important not to conflate “message broker” and “message queue.” The article uses them interchangeably, but it’s really talking about the latter, which I see as a subset of the former. Queues provide, well, queuing semantics. They try to ensure delivery of a message or, more generally, distribution of work. As the author puts it: “In practice, a message broker is a service that transforms network errors and machine failures into filled disks.” Replace “broker” with “queue” and I agree with this statement. This is really describing systems like RabbitMQ, Amazon SQS, TIBCO EMS, IronMQ, and maybe even Kafka fits into that category.

People are easily seduced by “fat” middleware—systems with more features, more capabilities, more responsibilities—because they think it makes their lives easier, and it might at first. Pushing off more responsibility onto the infrastructure makes the application simpler, but it also makes the infrastructure more complex, more fragile, and more slow. Take exactly-once message delivery, for example. Lots of people want it, but the pursuit of it introduces a host of complexity, overhead (in terms of development, operations, and performance), and risk. The end result is something that, in addition to these things, requires all downstream systems to not introduce duplicates and be mindful about their side effects. That is, everything in the processing pipeline must be exactly-once or nothing is. So typically what you end up with is an approximation of exactly-once delivery. You make big investments to lower the likelihood of duplicates, but you still have to deal with the problem. This might make sense if the cost of having duplicates is high, but that doesn’t seem like the common case. My advice is to always opt for the simple solution. We tend to think of engineering challenges as technical problems when, in reality, they’re often just mindset problems. Usually the technical problems have already been solved if we can just adjust our mindset.

There are a couple things to keep in mind here. The first thing to consider is simply capability lock-in. As you push more and more logic off onto more and more specialized middleware, you make it harder to move off it or change things. The second is what we already hinted at. Even with smart middleware, problems still leak out and you have to handle them at the edge—you’re now being taxed twice. This is essentially the end-to-end argument. Push responsibility to the edges, smart endpoints, dumb pipes, etc. It’s the idea that if you need business-level guarantees, build them into the business layer because the infrastructure doesn’t care about them.

The article suggests for short-lived tasks, use a load balancer because with a queue, you’ll end up building a load balancer along with an ad-hoc RPC system, with extra latency. For long-lived tasks, use a database because with a queue, you’ll be building a lock manager, a database, and a scheduler.

A persistent message queue is not bad in itself, but relying on it for recovery, and by extension, correct behaviour, is fraught with peril.

So why the distinction between message brokers and message queues? The point is not all message brokers need to be large, complicated pieces of infrastructure like most message queues tend to be. This was the reason I gravitated towards NATS while architecting Workiva’s messaging platform and why last month I joined Apcera to work on NATS full time.

When Derek Collison originally wrote NATS it was largely for the reasons stated in the article and for the reasonstalk about frequently. It was out of frustration with the current state of the art. In my opinion, NATS was the first system in the space that really turned the way we did messaging on its head (outside of maybe ZeroMQ). It didn’t provide any strong delivery guarantees, transactions, message persistence, or other responsibilities usually assumed by message brokers (there is a layer that provides some of these things, but it’s not baked into the core technology). Instead, NATS prioritized availability, simplicity, and performance over everything else. A simple technology in a vast sea of complexity (my marketing game is strong).

NATS is no-frills pub/sub. It solves the problem of service discovery and work assignment, assumes no other responsibilities, and gets out of your way. It’s designed to be easy to use, easy to operate, and add minimal latency even at scale so that, unlike many other brokers, it is a good way to integrate your microservices. What makes NATS interesting is what it doesn’t do and what it gains by not doing them. Simplicity is a feature—the ultimate sophistication, according to da Vinci. I call it looking at the negative space.

The article reads:

A protocol is the rules and expectations of participants in a system, and how they are beholden to each other. A protocol defines who takes responsibility for failure.

The problem with message brokers, and queues, is that no-one does.

NATS plays to the strengths of the end-to-end principle. It’s a dumb pipe. Handle failures and retries at the client and NATS will do everything it can to remain available and fast. Don’t rely on fragile guarantees or semantics. Instead, face complexity head-on. The author states what you really want is request/reply, which is one point I disagree on. RPC is a bad abstraction for building distributed systems. Use simple, versatile primitives and embrace asynchrony and messaging.

So yes, be careful about relying on message brokers. How smart should the pipes really be? More to the point, be careful about relying on strong semantics because experience shows few things are guaranteed when working with distributed systems at scale. Err to the side of simple. Make few assumptions of your middleware. Push work out of your infrastructure and to the edges if you care about performance and scalability because nothing is harder to scale (or operate) than slow infrastructure that tries to do too much.

One Reply to “Smart Endpoints, Dumb Pipes”

  1. Would love a blog post/example on how you can have the client manage a successful request/response using a message queue that doesn’t provide message persistence or delivery guarantees. RabbitMQ and Kafka work well in they can (arguably) be considered a database; the client publishes a message and trusts the thing that needs to happen will happen. Retry mechanisms/persistence/etc in message systems allow this to be true. I’m all for ‘do one thing and do it well’, would love to see how the responsibility shift to the client works so larger systems can be built on NATS.

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