Microservices and distributed systems are unreliable. Here's what to do about it

Software Engineering Aug 24, 2022

Consider all the unpredictable, real-world problems that occur over networks:

  • Hardware failures
  • Deployment issues
  • Network congestion
  • Transient errors
  • ... the list goes on!

Let's look at a simple real-world example and do the math.


Imagine a simple blog website with a web server and a database.

In this scenario, we have two points of failure: if either the web server or the database goes down, the whole system becomes unavailable.

Our overall availability is the probability that π—―π—Όπ˜π—΅ services are available at the same time:

Availability = (server uptime %) 𝗑 (database uptime %)
Availability = 0.9999 𝗑 0.9999 = 99.98%

Notice how the availability of our system is lower than either of the individual components.

Now what happens as our system scales and becomes even more complex?

Say we introduce more dependencies – new data stores, micro-services, or SaaS integrations.

Our availability continues to drop exponentially with every new service we add:

Availability = (service uptime %) ^ (number of services)

Complexity leads to unreliability. We must proactively work against this principle to build reliable products and services.

But how?

Here are four practical tips I recommend:

Evaluate your critical path

  • Make your product fault-tolerant and gracefully recover when non-essential services are unavailable.
  • Code defensively by isolating errors with πšπš›πš’/πšŒπšŠπšπšŒπš‘ and logging them as warnings.

Try, try again.

Most API libraries support retries out of the box - use them!

  • Avoid the thundering herd problem by using exponential backoff.
  • Consider if your request is idempotent and can be safely retried.

Reduce, reuse, recycle.

  • If your application doesn’t rely on real-time data, cache it instead and refresh when needed.
  • Fall back to cached data when the service becomes unavailable.

Scale horizontally

Finally, you can avoid single points of failure by scaling each component horizontally to create redundancy.

  • Database -> Replication with automatic failover
  • API -> Multiple servers with high-availability load balancer
  • Frontend -> Use CDN to distribute static assets


Product Management Today