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Building systems in the cloud

 

Posted on Friday, January 5, 2018 9:04 AM

Tom Kerkhove by Tom Kerkhove

Things change, and so does the cloud. New services are being added and integration between services is being improved, but services also become deprecated. We need to embrace change and design for it.

Our industry has shifted quite a lot in the past recent years where we moved from spinning up our own servers on-premises to run our software by hosting more and more in the cloud.

This brings a lot of benefits where agility is one of them. By moving away from yearly releases to monthly or weekly releases product teams can get new features and services faster out of the door to receive feedback more easily. This is very good to quickly evolve your product and see how your consumers are using it allows you to adapt or release bug fixes more quickly.

This is exactly what Microsoft Azure and other cloud platforms are doing. Every blink of an eye they release new features! Keeping up with all latest and greatest is sometimes like drinking from a water hose, you can manage to do it but not for long! Some might say that things are even going too fast but that's a topic on its own.

The key learning of the journey I've seen so far is that things change, and you'd better be prepared.

Introduction of new services

Over time, ecosystems can expand by the addition of new services that can change the way you think about the systems that you are building or fill in the gaps that you now need to work around.

Azure Event Grid is one the newest services in Microsoft Azure that leverage unique capability - Support for sending notifications in event-driven architectures. This ties in with the recent "Serverless" trend where everything needs to be event-driven and only care about the logic that needs to run, not how it's running. Event Grid was the last piece of the puzzle to go fully event-driven which can make us question our current approach to existing systems.

Better integration between services

Another aspect of change is that services are easier to integrate with each other over time. This allows you to achieve certain aspects without having to do the heavy lifting yourself.

An example of this is Azure Logic Apps & Azure Table Storage. If you wanted to use these in the past, you had to build & deploy your own custom Table Storage API App for that because it was not there out-of-the-box. Later on, they added a connector to the connector portfolio that allows you have the same experience without having to do anything and allowed you to switch verify easily.

Azure AD Managed Service Identity (MSI) is another good example which makes authentication with Azure AD very easy, simplifying authentication with Azure Key Vault. No need to worry about storing authentication information on your compute nodes anymore, MSI will handle it for you! And while this makes it easier for you, it's also more secure since you don't have the additional risk of storing the information somewhere, it's now being handled by the ecosystem and not your problem anymore! It's not about completely removing security risks, it's about limiting them.

You've got to move it, move it.

But then comes the day that one of the services on which you depend is no longer being invested in any more or even worse, being deprecated. Next thing you know, you need to migrate to another (newer) service or, if you're very lucky, there is no migration path.

This is not a walk in the park because it comes with a lot of important questions:

  • Does it have the same feature set?
    • If not, do we need to migrate it to multiple services or look at using an offering from another vendor/community?
  • What is the new pricing story? Will it be more expensive?
  • What is the current status of the newer service? Is it stable enough (yet)?
  • How about the protocols that are being used for both the old services as for the new alternatives?
    • Does it support the same protocols or are they proprietary?
    • Can we benefit from using open standards instead?
    • Does it bring any (new) vendor lock-ins?
  • Do I have to revise my ALM story or does it follow a similar approach?
  • And many more

Unfortunately, 2017 was the year where Azure Access Control Service (ACS) was officially being deprecated and existing customers have until November 7, 2018, before the service is being shut down. This might sound like a long time before it goes away but it takes a certain amount of effort to migrate off of a service onto a new one because you need to evaluate alternatives, plan for the migration, implement changes, re-test everything and push it to the masses so it's fair to say that it takes a certain amount of time.

ACS, in particular, is an interesting case because they provide a decent migration guide and the blog post gives you guidance as well, but that does not mean that you're off the hook. While you can migrate to Azure AD or Azure AD B2C, these alternatives do not support all authentication protocols that ACS did. Luckily there are also communities that have (OSS) technology available such as IdentityServer but that's not a guarantee that it has the same capabilities than what you are migrating from.

Is ACS an exception? Certainly not. Remember Azure Remote App? Gone. Azure Power BI Embedded? Deprecated and you should migrate to Power BI.

This is far from a rant and building systems are not hard, it's maintaining them. And at a certain point in time, you need to make hard decisions which unfortunately sometimes impacts customers.

More information on Power BI Embedded can be found here as well.

Deprecated? No, but you'd better use our vNext

Next to deprecation, some services are being improved by launching a brand new major version of the service itself that has an improved version of its precursor, a service upgrade if you will. This means that the service is still around, but that it has changed so dramatically that you will need to migrate as well.

Azure Data Factory is a good example of this, which I've written about recently, where you can still use Azure Data Factory v1 but v2 has arrived and will be the way forward. This means that you can still use the service that you like but have to migrate since there are potentially a few breaking changes because the infrastructure supporting it has changed.

You can see a service upgrade a bit like a light version of a deprecated service - Your current version is going away, but you can still stick around and use the new version. If you're lucky, you don't need to migrate or use one of the provided migration tools to do this for you. However, you still need to make sure that everything still works and that you make the switch, but you get new features for doing that.

Embracing Change

There are a variety of ways that can impact the architecture of your application and we need to design for change because we will need it.

Another interesting aspect from the ACS lifecycle is that, if you've been around for a while, you might have noticed that the service didn't get any investments in the last couple of years, but neither did Azure Cloud Services. Do we need to panic? No. But it's safe to say that Cloud Services are going away in the future as well and it's always good to look around and see if there are any alternatives. Do we need to switch as soon as possible? No.

Are only old services going away? No. Thanks to Agile it is very easy to deliver an MVP and see what the feedback is, but if nobody likes it or no business need gets fulfilled it is probably going away. A good example for this is Azure BizTalk Services that was around for a year but was killed particularly fast because nobody really liked it and Azure Logic Apps is the successor of that, which people like more.

It is crucial to find a balance between cutting-edge technology & battle-tested services. Every service brings something to the table, but is it really what you need or do you just want to use a new shiny technology/service? Compare all candidates and see what benefits & trade-offs they have and use the right service for the job.

I'm proud to say that I'm still using Azure Cloud Services, despite the lack of investment by Microsoft. Why? Because it gives me what I need and there is no alternative that is similar to what Cloud Services gives for our scenario. However, this does not mean that we will use it forever and we keep an eye open for the development of other services.

When new technologies or services arise, it's always good to have a look and see what the power of it is via a small spike or POC but be cautious before you integrate it in your application. But is it worth to switch (already)? Here are a few questions you could ask yourself:

  • What does it bring over the current solution?
  • What is the performance of it?
  • What is the risk/impact of it?
  • What is the monitoring story around it?
  • What is the security story around it?
  • Can we do automated deployments?

Embrace change. Make sure that you can easily change things in your architecture without your customers knowing about them.

How? Well it always depends on your application. To give you one example - Make sure that your public API infrastructure is decoupled from your internal infrastructure and that you use DNS for everything. Azure API Management is a perfect fit for this because it decouples the consumers from the backend part giving you control over things like advanced routing, easy security, etc regardless of your physical backend. If you decide to decompose your API that is hosted on a Web App into multiple microservices running in Kubernetes or Azure Functions, you can very easily do that behind the scenes while your customers are still calling the same operations on your API Proxy.

Certainly, do this if you are working with webhooks that are being called by 3rd parties. You can ask consumers to call a new operation, which you should avoid, but with webhook registrations, you cannot. One year ago we decided that all webhooks should be routed through Azure API Management so that we benefit from the routing aspect, but also allow us to still secure our physical API since webhooks not always support security as it should.

Conclusion

This article is far from a rant, but more to create awareness that things are moving fast and we need to find a balance between cutting-edge technology & battle-tested services.

Use a change-aware mindset when designing your architecture, because you will need it. Think about the things that you depend on, but also be aware that you can only do this to a certain degree.

In my example above I talked about using Azure API Management as a customer-facing endpoint for your API infrastructure. Great! But what if that one goes away? Then you'll have to migrate everything because you can only be as cautious as you can to a certain degree because in the end, you'll need to depend on something.

Thanks for reading,

Tom.