Putting Microservices to Work on the Network

Microservices are set to revolutionize enterprise applications, including those that govern software-defined networking architectures. But while this new architecture is emerging quickly, implementation is likely to be more complicated than simply deploying new software into legacy infrastructure.

Microservices are pretty much what they sound like: highly specialized functions that can be linked under common APIs to create more complex functions. A navigation app, for example, can utilize multiple microservices related to GPS access, traffic data monitoring, weather reporting and a host of other functions. In the networking space, an app may tap into any number of microservices to handle provisioning, security, forwarding, messaging, etc.

The ultimate goal, of course, is to automate the collection and integration of microservices so that any given app is able to compile its own resources to do whatever is required of it. This allows users to merely define what they want and let the app do the rest, which is pretty much the basis for intent-based networking.

This is why Cisco and others are making key investments in microservices technology as part of the larger shift away from fixed hardware architectures toward software- and services-driven networks. Will Townsend, of Moor Insights & Strategy, notes on Forbes that Cisco has invested in Avi Networks and is a reseller of the Avi Vantage platform that features microservice-based load balancing, firewall management and self-service IT. As well, MuleSoft is out with the Anypoint platform that simplifies the process of converting legacy infrastructure to a microservices framework, while Anuta Networks‘ ATOM system utilizes containers to implement discovery, provisioning, telemetry and other functions.

To provide effective networking, of course, microservices will need the ability to navigate complex networking infrastructure themselves. This is where the Google-led Istio project hopes to make a difference. It allows microservices to offload their individual connectivity functions to establish service-to-service interaction over distributed architectures. The system integrates with the Kubernetes container management platform to enable intelligent routing, orchestration and load balancing, which should be particularly handy for cloud-native applications navigating multi-cloud ecosystems.

Meanwhile, newcomers like Bayware are developing specialized network microservices platforms aimed at optimizing network behavior no matter where the application wanders. The system handles things like intent-based flow management, application-level security and policy control, visibility into microsegment and service chains, and programmable data path control. It also includes an SDK for creation and update of microservices, as well as an orchestration engine, a processing service for flow management and forwarding execution, and a connectivity agent that maintains access to available network resources.

All of this will have a profound effect on the way networks are designed and managed. Much of the manual oversight of today’s infrastructure will shift to application-layer environments and will remain largely hidden from users and IT managers alike. The management layer itself will shift to a policy-based approach that governs microservices’ leeway when it comes to consuming resources and protecting data. And even the programmers who are coding all of these apps will catch a break because most of the basic functions will already be available as microservices for easy integration into their app.

At the moment, however, it’s best that we don’t get too far ahead of ourselves. This change is more than just a simple technology swap, but a wholesale re-imagining of the networking stack and the culture that has grown around it over the past half-century or so.

Implementing microservices is actually the easy part. The real challenge will be to change the functional mindset of the knowledge workforce.

Arthur Cole is a freelance journalist with more than 25 years’ experience covering enterprise IT, telecommunications and other high-tech industries.

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