Not Goto, Microservices Considered Harmful

Ian Smith, Oct 2023

Episode 3

This is the third of a three part series of articles. The first of these explains the problems created by microservices in development. The second discusses two key problems, and the microservices’ advocates claims about these problems: dependencies and horizontal scaling. This, final article covers the cost, both operational and development, of typical microservice deployments.

Few authors who write about microservices discuss the operational costs of microservices. This is not a vast conspiracy on the part of the cloud providers, but yet one has to assume that the executives at Google Cloud, AWS, and Azure are well aware of the benefits they have received from this deployment strategy. This deployment strategy (neé architecture) suffers from a quite particular problem: overprovisioning; not something Azure et al are excited to point to, much less correct.

This overprovisioning of resources, notably cloud servers, when deploying as a microservice architecture comes from two sources, hopes and dreams. A “full” microservice deployment with one server per service has enourmous scaling possibilities, since each service can be scaled, at minimum, on its own machine to the limits of that server’s resources. With proper programming (and even more complexity) services can be scaled and deployed on additional servers– if they are needed. That last qualification is doing a great deal of lifting.

Every startup or small company wants to grow (and dreams of it!), at least to being a medium sized company. Thus, the people putting the microservice architecture in place, often the full variant, are “planning for the future” and “making sure we don’t paint ourselves into a corner” and so forth. This sounds completely reasonable until you think about the cost-savings on cloud servers that could be had with something like a single server deployment. For a small company, the ability save $20K or $40K per year on operational costs might be something the management should be thinking about trading off against the risk of “not being able to service all the customers that want to pay us”. Having more cash now, a well-tested alerting system, and a plan for expanding capacity quickly can be a good choice compared paying for more cloud resources based on hope.

Continuing our example of the small company that hopes to get “big”, what is the cost of the additional complexity and developer difficulty when using a microservice architecture? A simple, single machine monolith is easier to construct and operate… and what is the time-to-market worth to the firm? (See episode one for more on this) It’s hard to make general statements about the time to market advantage of doing something simple. Even if you believe the simple, monolithic approach has some probability of failing to scale up as needed, is it still worth it because of faster feedback from customers and the cash in the bank? Time-to-market value is hard to quantify, developer cost is not.

If you have a developer making $50K (almost certainly not in the USA!) and you expect them to work 37 hours per week (some meetings intrude) and 50 weeks a year, saving an hour per week is worth $1.4K/year. Obviously, it’s triple that for a developer making $150K. Don’t forget to add about %10 in the EU because of more vacation! With even a modest five person engineering group based in the USA, it’s easy to realize $20K/year in savings at only a savings one hour per week. I would argue, and I am sure many developers would agree, that a simpler architecture is worth a few hours per week. If your lower complexity solution with your 5 person team, also is worth $30K by avoiding over-provsioning suddenly you have created $50K in extra cash! As I stated in episode 1, I am not naive to the idea that there are cases where other factors become more important than the complexity of the software and the ease of its construction. However, it seems that any prudent manager should be considering time to market, operational costs, and developer expense when considering a more complex architecture.

I have been hard on microservices on this article. I also believe that I have elucidated issues with microservices as well as one could in a small amount of space. The truly awful problem of microservices are the people collecting large consulting fees to promote an architecture that might be good for your business, but said consultant does not fully explain the potential problems. I prefer to think of microservices precisely opposite way of such a consultant: Start with the presumption of doing the simplest thing that could possibly work and consider the costs of microservices as alternative approach. Surprisingly often, ease of development, time to market, and operational costs are enough to convince decision makers to avoid microservices, especially at the beginning of a project. You also might want to ask the developers.

I will finish with this screen capture taken from the website of a fortune 500 company. Is anything missing?


The life of the dead company is placed in the memory of the still alive companies.

Last modified October 16, 2023: updated with complexity boar (404d23e)