API Management and Microservices


Microservices need the advantages of API management just as much as externally facing APIs do.


At Crazy Friday (OIT's summer developer workshop) we were talking about using the OAuth client-credential flow to manage access to internal APIs. An important part of enabling this is to use standard API management tools (like WSO2) to manage the OAuth credentials as well as access.

We got down a rabbit hole with people trying to figure out ways to optimize that. "Surely we don't need to check each time?!?," "Can we cache the authorization??," and so on. We talked about not trying to optimize too soon, but that misses the bigger point.

The big idea here isn't using OAuth for internal APIs instead of some ad hoc solution. The big idea is to use API management for everything. We have to ensure that the only way to access service APIs is through the managed API endpoint. API management is about more than just authentication and authorization (the topic of our discussion on Friday).

API management handles, discovery, security, identity, orchestration, interface uniformity, versioning, traffic shaping, monitoring, and metering. Internal APIs—even those between microservices—need those just as badly as external APIs. No service should have anything exposed that isn’t managed. Otherwise we'll never succeed.

I can hear the hue and cry: "This is a performance nightmare!!" Of course, many of us said the same thing about object-relational mapping, transaction monitors, and dozens of other tools that we accept as best practices today. We were wrong then and we'd be wrong now to throw out all the advantages of API management for what are, at present, hypothetical performance problems. We'll solve the performance problems when they happen, not before.

But what about building frameworks to do the things we need without the overhead of the management platform? Two big problems: First, we want to use multiple languages and systems for microservices. This isn't a monolith and each team is free to choose their own. We can't build the framework for every language that comes along and we don't want to lose the flexibility of teams using the right tools for the job.

Second, and more importantly, if we use a standard API management tool any performance problems we experience will also be seen by other customers. There will be dozens, even hundreds of smart people trying to solve the problem. Using a standard tool gives us the advantage having all the smart people who don't work for us worried about it to.

If there's anything we should have learned from the last 15 years, it's that standard tooling gives us tremendous leverage to do things we'd never be able to do otherwise. Consequently, regardless of any potential performance problems, we need to use API management between microservices.