Messaging naturally provides high availability, scalability, location transparency, prioritization, stage transactionality, fault tolerance, great monitoring, simple error handling, and efficient and flexible resource management. However, messaging can be much harder to employ in practice due to a fundamentally different programming model.

Mats3 is a client side Java library that makes asynchronous message-oriented interservice communications mimic a synchronous, blocking and linear/sequential way of coding, greatly reducing the mental shift and cognitive load, and increases developer productivity when using messaging. You gain all the positives of messaging, while virtually eliminating the negatives.

Going a bit deeper into the rationale behind Mats, we’ll look at Message Oriented architectures vs. the more standard synchronous blocking RPC typically employed in a multi-service architecture.

In a microservice architecture one needs to communicate between the different services. The golden hammer for such communication is REST-ish services employing JSON over HTTP.

(A note here: The arguments here are for service-mesh internal IPC/RPC communications. For e.g. REST endpoints facing the user/client, there is a “synchronous-2-Mats-bridge” called the MatsFuturizer, from which you can perform a Mats Request initiation which returns a Future, which will be resolved when the final Reply message comes back to the same node. There is also the library MatsSockets that is built on top of Mats and WebSockets, which pulls the message-oriented asynchronousness of Mats all the way out to the end-user client, with client libraries available for JavaScript and Dart/Flutter)

Asynchronous Message Oriented architectures are superior to synchronous REST-based systems in a number of ways, for example:

  • High Availability: For each queue, you can have listeners on several service instances on different physical servers, so that if one service instance or one server goes down, the others are still handling messages.
  • Location Transparency: Service Location Discovery is avoided, as messages only targets the logical queue name, without needing information about which nodes are currently consuming from that queue.
  • Scalability / Elasticity: It is easy to increase the number of nodes (or listeners per node) for a queue, thereby increasing throughput, without any clients needing reconfiguration. This can be done runtime, thus you get elasticity where the cluster grows or shrinks based on the load, e.g. by checking the size of queues.
  • Handles load peaks / Prioritization: Since there are queues between each part of the system and each stage of every process, a sudden influx of work (e.g. a batch process) will not deplete the thread pool of some service instance, bringing on cascading failures backwards in the process chain. Instead messages will simply backlog in a queue, being processed as fast as possible. At the same time, message prioritization will ensure that even though the system is running flat out with massive queues due to some batch running, any humans needing replies to queries will get in front of the queue. Back-pressure (e.g. slowing down the entry-points) can easily be introduced if queues becomes too large.
  • Transactionality: Each endpoint has either processed a message, done its work (possibly including changing something in a database), and sent a message, or none of it.
  • Resiliency / Fault Tolerance: If a node goes down mid-way in processing, the transactional aspect kicks in and rolls back the processing, and another node picks up. Due to the automatic retry-mechanism you get in a message based system, you also get fault tolerance: If you get a temporary failure (database is restarted, network is reconfigured), or you get a transient error (e.g. a concurrency situation in the database), both the database change and the message reception is rolled back, and the message broker will retry the message.
  • Monitoring: All messages pass by the Message Broker, and can be logged and recorded, and made statistics on, to whatever degree one wants.
  • Debugging: The messages between different parts typically share a common format (e.g. strings and JSON), and can be inspected centrally on the Message Broker.
  • Error/Failure handling: Unprocessable messages (both in face of coded-for conditions (validation), programming errors, and sudden external factors, e.g. db going down) will be refused and, after multiple retries, eventually put on a Dead Letter Queue, where they can be monitored, ops be alerted, and handled manually - centrally. Often, if the failure was some external resource being unavailable, a manual (or periodic attempts at) retry of the DLQ’ed message will restart the processing flow from the point it DLQ’ed, as if nothing happened.

However, the big pain point with message-based communications is that to reap all these benefits, one need to fully embrace asynchronous, multi-staged distributed processing, where each stage is totally stateless, but where one still needs to maintain a state throughout the flow.

Standard Multi Service Architecture employing REST RPC

When coding service-mesh internal REST endpoints, one often code locally within a single service, typically in a straight down, linear, often “transaction script” style - where you reason about the incoming Request, and need to provide a Response. It is not uncommon to do this in a synchronous fashion. This is very easy on the brain: It is a linear flow of logic. It is probably just a standard Java method, using e.g. a Servlet or Spring’s @RequestMapping. All the code for this particular service method resides in the same project. You can structure your code, invoke service beans or similar. When you need information from external sources, you go get it: Either from a database, or from other services by invoking them using some HttpClient. (Of course, there are things that can be optimized here, e.g. asynchronous processing instead of old-school blocking Servlet-style calls, invoking the external resources asynchronously by using e.g. Futures or other asynchronous/reactive mechanisms - but that is not really the point here!). For a given service, all logic can be mostly be reasoned about locally, within a single codebase.

In particular, state is not a problem - it is not even a thought - since that is handled by the fact that the process starts, runs, and finishes on the same JVM - typically within a single method. If you first need to get something from one service, then use that information to get something from another service, and finally collate the information you have gathered into a response, you simply just do that: The implicit state between the stages of the process is naturally handled by local variables in the method, along with any incoming parameters of the method which also just naturally sticks around until the service returns the response. (Unless you start with the mentioned asynchronous optimizations, which typically complicate such matters - but nevertheless: State is handled by the fact that this process is running within a single JVM).

However, the result is brittle: So, lets say your service invokes a second service. And then that second service again needs to invoke a third service. You now have three services that all have state on their respective stacks ( either blocking a thread, or at any rate, having an asynchronous representation of the state on all three services). And, there is multiple stateful TCP connections: From the initial requester, to the receiving service, then to the second service, and then to the third service. The process is not finished until all services have provided their response, and thus the initial requester finally gets its response. If one service intermittently becomes slow, you face the situation of resource starvation with subsequent cascading failures percolating backwards in your call chains, which now might resource-starve other services that otherwise wouldn’t be affected. If any of the service nodes fail, this will typically impact many ongoing processes, all of them failing, and the currently ongoing processes potentially being left in an intermediate state. Blindly doing retries in the face of such errors is dangerous too: You may not know whether the receiver actually processed your initial request or not: Did the error occur before the request was processed, while it was processed, or was it a problem with the network while the response was sent back? Even deploys of new versions can become a hazard, and you must at least carefully perform graceful shutdowns letting all pending requests finish while not accepting any new requests.

Message-Oriented Multi Service Architecture

With a Messaging-Oriented Architecture, each part of the total process would actually be a separate subprocess. Instead of the above described nested call based logic (which is easy on the brain!), you now get a bunch of message processing stages which will be invoked in sequence: The process initiator puts a message on a queue, and another processor picks that up (probably on a different service, on a different host, and in different code base) - does some processing, and puts its (intermediate) result on another queue. This action may need to happen multiple times, traversing multiple services. This is the “Pipes and Filters” architectural style as defined in the EIP book. This multiple “Consume message from inbound queue; Process the message; Post new message to outbound queue”-style processing flow is harder to reason about: State is now not implicit, but needs to be passed along with the messages. And these stages will typically be within separate code bases, as they reside in different services.

You gain much: Each of these stages are independent processes. There is no longer a distributed blocking state residing through multiple services, as the queues acts as intermediaries, each stage processor having fully performed its part of the total process before posting the (intermediate) result on a queue (and then goes back fetching a new message to process from its incoming queue). Each service can fire up a specific number of queue processors utilizing the available resources optimally. There cannot be a cascading failure scenario, at least not until the message queue broker is exhausted of space to store messages - which has a considerably higher ceiling than the thread and memory resources on individual processing nodes. The operations of consuming and posting messages are transactional operations, and if you don’t mess too much up, each stage is independently transactional: If a failure occurs on a node, all processing having occurred on that node which have not run to completion will be rolled back, and simply retried on another node: The total process flow does not fail.

However, you also loose much: The simple service method where you could reason locally and code in a straight down manner, with state implicitly being handled by the ordinary machinery of the thread stack and local variables, now becomes a distributed process spread over several code bases, and any state needed between the process stages must be handled explicitly. If you realize that you in the last stage need some extra information that was available in the initial stage, you must wade through multiple code bases to make sure this piece of information is forwarded through those intermediate stages. This also give a result that such processing stages aren’t generic - they are bespoke to a particular flow. And let’s just hope that you don’t want to refactor the entire total process.

Thus, the overall structure in a message oriented architecture typically ends up being hard to grasp, quickly becomes unwieldy, and is difficult to implement due to the necessary multiple code bases that needs to be touched to implement/improve/debug a flow. Most projects therefore choose to go for the much easier model of synchronous processing using some kind of blocking REST-like RPC: In this model one can code linearly, employing blocking calls out to other, often general services that are needed - a model which every programmer intuitively know due to it closely mimicking local method invocations. However, the familiarity is basically the only positive aspect of this code style.

What MATS brings to the table

The main idea of the Mats library is to let developers code message-based endpoints that themselves may “invoke” other such endpoints, in a manner that closely resembles the familiar synchronous “straight down” linear code style. In this familiar code style, all the state built up before the call out to the requested service is present after the service returns: Envision a plain Java method that invokes other methods, or more relevant, a REST service which invokes other REST services. With Mats, such an endpoint, while looking like a “straight down” synchronous method, is actually a multi-stage (each stage processed by consumers on a specific queue), asynchronous (the flow passes from queue to queue, never synchronously waiting for a reply), fully stateless (as state resides “on the wire”) message oriented distributed process. Effectively, the Mats library gives you a mental coding model which feels like home, and coding is really straightforward (both literally and figuratively!), while you reap all the benefits of a Message-Oriented Architecture.