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February 22, 2019

Advancing the promise of service mesh: Why I work at Aspen Mesh

Aspen Mesh Service Mesh
 

The themes and content expressed are mine alone, with helpful insight and thoughts from my colleagues, and are about software development in a business setting.

I’ve been working at Aspen Mesh for a little over a month and during that time numerous people have asked me why I chose to work here, given the opportunities in Boulder and the Front Range.

To answer that question, I need to talk a bit about my background. I’ve been a professional software developer for about 13 years now. During that time I’ve primarily worked on the back-end for distributed systems and have seen numerous approaches to the same problems with various pros and cons. When I take a step back, though, a lot of the major issues that I’ve seen are related to deployment and configuration around service communication:
How do I add a new service to an already existing system? How big, in scope, should these services be? Do I use a message broker? How do I handle discoverability, high availability and fault tolerance? How, and in what format, should data be exchanged between services? How do I audit the system when the system inevitably comes under scrutiny?

I’ve seen many different approaches to these problems. In fact, there are so many approaches, some orthogonal and some similar, that software developers can easily get lost. While the themes are constant, it is time consuming for developers to get up to speed with all of these technologies. There isn’t a single solution that solves every common problem seen in the backend; I’m sure the same applies to the front-end as well. It’s hard to truly understand the pros and cons of an approach until you have a working system; and when that happens and if you then realize that the cons outweigh the pros, it may be difficult and costly to get back to where you started (see sunk cost fallacy and opportunity cost). Conversely, analysis paralysis is also costly to an organization, both in terms of capital—software developers are not cheap—and an inability to quickly adapt to market pressures, be it customer needs and requirements or a competitor that is disrupting the market.

Yet the hype cycle continues. There is always a new shiny thing taking the software world by storm. You see it in discussions on languages, frameworks, databases, messaging protocols, architectures ad infinitum. Separating the wheat from the chaff is something developers must do to ensure they are able to meet their obligations. But with the signal to noise ratio being high at times and with looming deadlines not all possibilities can be explored.  

So as software developers, we have an obligation of due diligence and to be able to deliver software that provides customer value; that helps customers get their work done and doesn’t impede them, but enables them. Most customers don’t care about which languages you use or which databases you use or how you build your software or what software process methodology you adhere to, if any. They just want the software you provide to enable them to do their work. In fact, that sentiment is so strong that slogans have been made around it.

So what do customers care about, generally speaking? They care about access to their data, how they can view it and modify it and draw value from it. It should look and feel modern, but even that isn’t a strict requirement. It should be simple to use for a novice, but yet provide enough advanced capability to help your most advanced users make you learn something new about the tool you’ve created. This is information technology after all. Technology for technology’s sake is not a useful outcome.

Any work that detracts from adding customer value needs to be deprioritized, as there is always more work to do than hours in the day. As developers, it’s our job to be knee deep in the weeds so it’s easy to lose sight of that; unit testing, automation, language choice, cloud provider, software process methodology, etc… absolutely matter, but that they are a means to an end.

With that in mind, let’s create a goal: application developers should be application developers.

Not DevOps engineers, or SREs or CSRs, or any other myriad of roles they are often asked to take on. I’ve seen my peers happiest when they are solving difficult problems and challenging themselves. Not when they are figuring out what magic configuration setting is breaking the platform. Command over their domain and the ability and permission to “fix it” is important to almost every appdev.

If developers are expensive to hire, train, replace and keep then they need to be enabled to do their job to the best of their ability. If a distributed, microservices platform has led your team to solving issues in the fashion of Sherlock Holmes solving his latest mystery, then perhaps you need a different approach.

Enter Istio and Aspen Mesh

It’s hard to know where the industry is with respect to the Hype Cycle for technologies like microservices, container orchestration, service mesh and a myriad of other choices; this isn’t an exact science where we can empirically take measurements. Most companies have older, but proven, systems built on LAMP or Java application servers or monoliths or applications that run on a big iron system. Those aren’t going away anytime soon, and developers will need to continue to support and add new features and capabilities to these applications.

Any new technology must provide a path for people to migrate their existing systems to something new.

If you have decided to or are moving towards a microservice architecture, even if you have a monolith, implementing a service mesh should be among the possibilities explored. If you already have a microservice architecture that leverages gRPC or HTTP, and you’re using Kubernetes then the benefits of a service mesh can be quickly realized. It’s easy to sign up for our beta and install Aspen Mesh and the sample bookinfo application to see things in action. Once I did is when I became a true believer. Not being coupled with a particular cloud provider, but being flexible and able to choose where and how things are deployed empowers developers and companies to make their own choices.

Over the past month I’ve been able to quickly write application code and get it delivered faster than ever before; that is in large part due to the platform my colleagues have built on top of Kubernetes and Istio. I’ve been impressed by how easy a well built cloud-native architecture can make things, and learning more about where Aspen Mesh, Istio and Kubernetes are heading gives me confidence that community and adoption will continue to grow.

As someone that has dealt with distributed systems issues continuously throughout his career, I know managing and troubleshooting a distributed system can be exhausting. I just want to enable others, even Aspen Mesh as we dogfood our own software, to do their jobs. To enable developers to add value and solve difficult problems. To enable a company to monitor their systems, whether it be mission critical or a simple CRUD application, to help ensure high uptime and responsiveness. To enable systems to be easily auditable when the compliance personnel has GRDP, PCI DSS or HIPAA concerns. To enable developers to quickly diagnose issues within their own system, fix them and monitor the change. To enable developers to understand how their services are communicating with each other–if it’s an n-tier system or a spider’s web–and how requests propagate through their system.

The value of Istio and the benefits of Aspen Mesh in solving these challenges is what drew me here. The opportunities are abundant and fruitful. I get to program in go, in a SaaS environment and on a small team with a solid architecture. I am looking forward to becoming a part of the larger CNCF community. With microservices and cloud computing no longer being niche–which I’d argue hasn’t been the case for years–and with businesses adopting these new technology patterns quickly, I feel as if I made the right long-term career choice.

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