The API Gateway pattern versus the Direct client-to-microservice communication

The API Gateway pattern versus the Direct client-to-microservice communication

In a microservices architecture, each microservice exposes a set of (typically) fine‑grained endpoints.
This fact can impact the client‑to‑microservice communication, as explained in this section.

Direct client-to-microservice communication

A possible approach is to use a direct client-to-microservice communication architecture. In this
approach, a client app can make requests directly to some of the microservices.

Direct Client To Microservice Communication

In this approach. each microservice has a public endpoint, sometimes with a different TCP port for each
microservice. An example of a URL for a particular service could be the following URL in Azure:

http://sixwares.cloudapp.azure.com:88/
In a production environment based on a cluster, that URL would map to the load balancer used in the cluster, which in turn distributes the requests across the microservices. In production environments, you could have an Application Delivery Controller (ADC) like Azure Application Gateway between your microservices and the Internet. This acts as a transparent tier that not only performs load balancing but secures your services by offering SSL termination. This improves the load of your hosts by offloading CPU-intensive SSL termination and other routing duties to the Azure Application Gateway. In any case, a load balancer and ADC are transparent from a logical application architecture point of view.

A direct client-to-microservice communication architecture could be good enough for a small microservice-based application, especially if the client app is a server-side web application like an ASP.NET MVC app. However, when you build large and complex microservice-based applications (for 42 Architecting Container- and Microservice-Based Applications example, when handling dozens of microservice types), and especially when the client apps are remote mobile apps or SPA web applications, that approach faces a few issues.

Consider the following questions when developing a large application based on microservices:

    • How can client apps minimize the number of requests to the backend and reduce chatty communication to multiple microservices?

Interacting with multiple microservices to build a single UI screen increases the number of roundtrips across the Internet. This increases latency and complexity on the UI side. Ideally, responses should be efficiently aggregated in the server side—this reduces latency, since multiple pieces of data come back in parallel and some UI can show data as soon as it is ready.

    • How can you handle cross-cutting concerns such as authorization, data transformations, and dynamic request dispatching?

Implementing security and cross-cutting concerns like security and authorization on every microservice can require significant development effort. A possible approach is to have those services within the Docker host or internal cluster, in order to restrict direct access to them from the outside, and to implement those cross-cutting concerns in a centralized place, like an API Gateway.

    • How can client apps communicate with services that use non-Internet-friendly protocols?

Protocols used on the server side (like AMQP or binary protocols) are usually not supported in client apps. Therefore, requests must be performed through protocols like HTTP/HTTPS and translated to the other protocols afterwards. A man-in-the-middle approach can help in this situation.

    • How can you shape a façade especially made for mobile apps?

The API of multiple microservices might not be well designed for the needs of different client applications. For instance, the needs of a mobile app might be different than the needs of a web app. For mobile apps, you might need to optimize even further so that data responses can be more efficient. You might do this by aggregating data from multiple microservices and returning a single set of data, and sometimes eliminating any data in the response that is not
needed by the mobile app. And, of course, you might compress that data. Again, a façade or API in between the mobile app and the microservices can be convenient for this scenario.

Why consider API Gateways instead of direct client-to-microservice communication

In a microservices architecture, the client apps usually need to consume functionality from more than one microservice. If that consumption is performed directly, the client needs to handle multiple calls to microservice endpoints. What happens when the application evolves and new microservices are introduced or existing microservices are updated? If your application has many microservices, handling so many endpoints from the client apps can be a nightmare. Since the client app would be coupled to those internal endpoints, evolving the microservices in the future can cause high impact
for the client apps.

Therefore, having an intermediate level or tier of indirection (Gateway) can be very convenient for microservice-based applications. If you don’t have API Gateways, the client apps must send requests directly to the microservices and that raises problems, such as the following issues.

  • Coupling: Without the API Gateway pattern, the client apps are coupled to the internal microservices. The client apps need to know how the multiple areas of the application are decomposed in microservices. When evolving and refactoring the internal microservices, those actions impact maintenance pretty badly because they cause breaking changes to the client apps due to the direct reference to the internal microservices from the client apps. Client apps need to be updated frecuently, making the solution harder to evolve
  • Too many round trips: A single page/screen in the client app might require several calls to multiple services. That can result in multiple network round trips between the client and the server, adding significant latency. Aggregation handled in an intermediate level could improve the performance and user experience for the client app.
  • Security issues: Without a gateway, all the microservices must be exposed to the “external world”, making the attack surface larger than if you hide internal microservices not directly used by the client apps. The smaller the attack surface is, the more secure your application can be.
  • Cross-cutting concerns: Each publicly published microservice must handle concerns such as authorization, SSL, etc. In many situations those concerns could be handled in a single tier so the internal microservices are simplified.

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