Microservice Catalog

Microservices Catalog: Definition, Use Cases & Benefits

Discover how a microservices catalog could help your engineering team improve service discovery, increase efficiency, and improve developer experience.

Lauren Craigie
April 17, 2024

When speed to market can make or break a business, the move from monoliths to microservices has become an obvious choice for many engineering teams. This transformation promises agility, scalability, and the ability to more closely align with business functions. It is why we see organizations moving from the rigidity and restrictions of monoliths to the flexibility and control associated with microservices architectures. These modular architectures support scalability and allow for easier updates and adjustments. For more on making this transition, Hacker News has an excellent guide.

But what often goes unspoken is the inherent complexity microservices bring. Ownership becomes distributed across development teams, various data sources, and a multitude of dependencies. This is where a robust microservices catalog steps in, not just to manage complexity but to unlock the full potential of what microservices can offer. Taming complexity is a central part of running a microservices architecture effectively, and microservices catalogs are the primary solution to this.

This guide will define the modern microservices catalog, its pivotal role in your architecture, and the steps to optimize its deployment and management. Here's how you can harness the power of a modern catalog to streamline your microservices environment.

What is a microservices catalog?

A microservice catalog is as a repository containing detailed information about each microservice within an organization's software architecture. It acts as the primary source of truth, providing details on all services’ function, dependencies, endpoints, documentation, and relationships. By providing a structured, accessible, and up-to-date view of microservices, catalogs provide observability and allow you to identify and address complexity.

Catalogs provide a human-readable directory to act as a single pane of glass and support DevOps and SRE efforts. This differs from dynamic databases such as service registries that enable dynamic service discovery and communication between services. It is also distinct from API gateways that act as a single entry point for a group of microservices, handling the interactions between this ecosystem and the outside world.

They offer transparency, the first step towards creating order and simplicity in an environment that tends towards complexity and entropy. They are not simply a passive registry, but an active encyclopedia that serve the needs of development teams and operations alike.

By making it easier to locate and understand services, catalogs reduce cognitive load for developers. This improves the developer experience while giving software engineers context and perspective for how their work fits into the broader system, fostering collaboration. They also simplify service management for operations teams, providing crucial information that allows for efficient scaling and resource allocation. This can even improve incident response by quickly identifying affected services and associated dependencies, ultimately identifying vulnerabilities and reducing downtime more effectively.

Key features and characteristics of a microservices catalog

Microservices catalogs offer differing levels of centralization based on the needs of organizations. Centralized catalogs offer a single source of truth across the organization for smaller organizations or those who highly prioritize simplicity and consistency. Decentralized catalogs support greater flexibility and autonomy at the level of the team, while hybrid models aim to achieve the best of both worlds. But all have the same characteristics and features.

Searchable and Discoverable

Microservices catalogs are designed to be searchable and easily discoverable, allowing users to quickly find specific services based on criteria such as name, functionality, or service owner. They store crucial information about each microservice, including dependencies, endpoints, documentation, and more. This streamlines the process of locating the right microservices for development tasks or issue resolution, significantly reducing the associated toil and cognitive load for developers.

Standardized and Consistent

Tribal knowledge dissipates as an organization grows. This makes it harder to answer essential questions, like knowing what services exist, what they do, and who owns them. Catalogs enforce a uniform structure for documenting and listing information related to each microservices, ensuring that all entries follow the same format and contain the necessary details. This includes dependencies, endpoints, documentation, change history, ownership and related metrics. Standardization helps eliminate ambiguity, making it easier for team members to reference and query relevant information.

Version Controlled

Version control is an essential aspect of microservices catalogs, laying out changes made to each microservice over time. This includes updates to the service itself as well as modifications to its associated documentation within the catalog. Version control supports rollback capabilities and historical analysis, which are crucial for maintaining stability and understanding the evolution of the microservices architecture.

Integrates with Other Tools

Integration with other tools is a critical characteristic of microservices catalogs, allowing teams to integrate CI/CD pipelines and automate the deployment of services. It works with monitoring systems to enable real-time tracking of service health, and with API gateways to manage service exposure and access control. These integrations ensure that the catalog is not just a passive repository but an active part of the development and operational workflows, contributing to a smoother and more efficient software delivery process.

Benefits of a microservices catalog

Teams without a dedicated microservices catalog often experience fragmented development processes. This can cause a lack of service reusability, inconsistency in service management, and create difficulty in service discovery due to manual service discovery.

When you introduce a working catalog on the other hand, it unlocks a range of technical benefits:

Improved Discoverability and Reusability

Developers spend less time on the discovery and integration of existing services, reducing cognitive load. Reusing tried and tested services across the development lifecycle improves efficiency and reduces redundancy, giving back valuable capacity.

Enhanced Collaboration and Communication

A catalog centralizes shared knowledge, which acts as the basis for improved collaboration between teams. Centralizing this key information — like programming language, docs, dashboard links, and runbooks — makes collaboration easier, and smooths the transition for anyone who’s joining a new team. This collective understanding creates the baseline for communication and allows teams to work together on solving problems rather than clarifying technical facts.

Streamlined Development and Operations

An accessible catalog removes the silos and roadblocks that plague relations between development and operations. This shared source of truth empowers developers to get on with making informed decisions, and allows operations teams to focus on accurately planning and maintaining the infrastructure behind the services.

Increased Efficiency and Agility

Catalogs reduce development time and effort by enabling developers to make better use of existing work, improving efficiency. They also provide teams with the visibility and understanding needed to rapidly compose, update, and scale applications in response to changing business requirements, creating a more agile work environment.

Improved Governance and Compliance

By housing metadata and documentation, the catalog can become a tool to enforce standards, best practices, and compliance regulations. Because ownership is now clear, a catalog can also hold team members accountable for the services they own. This instills good governance at every level of your microservices ecosystem.

Improved Developer Experience

Developers want to spend their time working on challenging problems, not being dragged from GitHub to elderly PDFs in order to determine ownership and map dependencies. Stripping toil out from your developers’ day to day job creates a higher quality developer experience, attracting talent and improving retention.

Use Cases for a Microservices Catalog

The utility of a microservices catalog extend throughout the entire development lifecycle. Benefits to operations are the most obvious ones, as removing the need for low-level operational work allows stakeholders to operate from a higher level of shared knowledge and be more strategic. This has knock-on effects to planning and strategy across your enterprise, freeing up capacity and distributing knowledge, which translates to higher quality decision making.

This improved transparency also removes blind spots and helps to showcase when your software is not up to standard. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and so catalogs allow you to monitor and enforce security and compliance standards far more efficiently. Some use cases include:

Onboarding New Developers

When onboarding new team members, the microservices catalog provides a structured and accessible introduction to the system’s services and practices. Having all relevant information in one place empowers new hires to do their own research, and speeds up the time to value for each new team member.

Identifying Dependencies and Impact Analysis

By maintaining comprehensive documentation on services’ dependencies and interactions, a catalog helps teams identify which services depend on one another and how. This enables more accurate impact analysis when changes are proposed. Improving your model for how changes should work minimizes the risk of unintended consequences from modifications, by providing a clear view of how they will affect the broader system.

Monitoring and Troubleshooting

Improving the information available makes it easier to monitor software and respond when something goes wrong. The catalog serves as a map to quickly pinpoint the source and spatially understand services, creating a tighter OODA loop and driving higher standards.

API Documentation and Design Standardization

By housing complete API documentation and keeping it up to date, the catalog enables users to understand and adhere to design standards. This helps to maintain the integrity and function of your services, keeping everything to the same baseline of high standards.

Access Control and Authorization Management

One security benefit to a microservices catalog is the ability to quickly and efficiently assign and update access rights. This ensures that only authorized personnel or services can interact with sensitive or critical services, boosting security.

Tips and best practice for creating and managing microservices catalog

Microservices are value because of the decentralization they enable, but this comes with its own challenges. Services are developed by different teams, and if their work is too distributed they may each bring different preferences for tools, languages, and documentation standards. This diversity can create inconsistencies in how services are described and cataloged, making them harder to apply outside of their immediate team. Establishing and enforcing universal standards for documenting microservices requires central coordination and oversight, which doesn’t always emerge organically in fast-paced development environments focused on delivering features quickly.

A fast-paced environment also means that services evolve rapidly, and can quickly become outdated. Information on services needs to be up to date and must integrate seamlessly with development, deployment, and monitoring tools. Establishing the catalog as a source of truth requires that you keep it fully aligned with the broader CI/CD pipeline to automate updates and validate information.

Here are some best practice techniques to help you keep on top of this:

Define Clear Ownership and Responsibility

Ensure that each microservice listed in the catalog, has a specific team or individual responsible for its development, maintenance, and updates. This practice ensures accountability and makes it easier to address issues, request changes, or seek guidance.

Standardize Metadata

Catalogs are valuable for the consistency and clarity that they bring to your organization, but you need to take steps to enable this. Standardizing metadata such as service name, version, dependencies, and API documentation for every catalog entry guarantees this  consistency and facilitates easier understanding for your developers.

Automate Catalog Updates

Catalogs enable CI/CD and should be used in line with this philosophy. Automate the process of updating the microservices catalog as part of your CI/CD pipelines. This ensures that any changes to microservices, such as updates or new deployments, are automatically reflected in the catalog, keeping it current with minimal manual intervention.

Integrate with Existing Toolchains and Workflows

Microservices will interact with your existing tools and workflows your development team, and this should create minimal friction. Doing this will increase adoption by developers and enhances productivity by reducing the need for context switching and providing a unified view of microservices in the existing environment. Tools like Micros and Backstage become even more powerful when they’re used as the entry point for deeper insights into services, like on-call rotations, links to dashboards, and logging.

Promote and Incentivize Active Participation

Recognize the work done by your developers to encourage them to use the catalog and actively contribute. Be positive in your efforts to increase uptake, particularly by rewarding participation, highlighting the catalog’s benefits and fostering a shared sense of ownership and responsibility.

Regularly Review and Audit

Pair high standards of ownership and responsibility with periodical reviews to ensure catalogs benefit from bottom-up and top-down improvement. This helps to identify and rectify inconsistencies, inadequate operational processes and gaps in uptake.

Use an Internal Developer Portal

Implementing an Internal Developer Portal, such as Backstage or Cortex, can centralize access to the microservices catalog, tools, and documentation, enhancing discoverability and usability. For insights into choosing the right platform, consider this comparison between Spotify Backstage and Cortex, which can guide your decision-making process based on your specific needs.

Atlassian: A spec-first use case

Atlassian, the software development company behind Jira and Trello, found themselves building lots of APIs to keep up with the integrations produced by the Jira team. While their implementation-first approach minimized double handling and gave them the ability to evolve their APIs during testing, it would take days, if not weeks, to gain meaningful feedback.

Atlassian transitioned to a spec-first approach using Swagger and OpenAPI specification, and they were able to significantly tighten their feedback loops. Because feedback was focused on actual API design, rather than its implementation, feedback was also more actionable. Plus, by validating against the spec, they were able to this discover breaking changes to API implementation during testing.

The Atlassian developers created an internal PaaS, Micros, that acts as a thin wrapper around AWS. They chose this path, rather than providing direct access to AWS to all teams, because of the scalability afforded by “a platform that strongly encourages consistent technologies, tools, and processes,” which just wouldn’t be possible otherwise. Micros gives developers the ability to provision their desired resources, while augmenting the process with standardized monitoring and logging protocols.

How can Cortex help?

You don’t want to wait until you’re dealing with too many services, growing teams, high turnover, and remote developers before you build the tools you need to effectively manage your architecture.

Cortex solves these problems by providing a standard, opinionated way to organize the vital information about all of your services, along with additional functionality to provide you with greater visibility into your microservices:

  • Service Catalog. Our service catalog is powered by Cortex Query Language (CQL), a power-user feature that can query and combine disparate information contained in the catalog. This lets you treat your catalog as a true data store, providing access to queries on all data existing within the tools you have integrated with Cortex.
  • Scaffolder. The Scaffolder allows you to import and build templates, allowing developers to easily spin up new services that follow your organization’s best practices. This integrates fully with the service catalog to optimize the process of creating a microservice, pushing the code to a git repository before adding it to the catalog.
  • Plugins and Integrations. By embedding the Cortex platform, you're creating an extensible environment that maximizes the value of your existing tools and services. Cortex acts as a single pane of glass, tapping into open source infrastructure, feeding data to scorecards and pushing alerts through Slack notifications for a fully integrated offering.

At Cortex, our mission is to rid engineers of toil and reduce cognitive load by providing a platform that creates visibility and drives a culture of accountability among and across teams. Request a free demo today to see how we can help you start the transition to managing your microservices with a modern catalog.

Microservice Catalog
Lauren Craigie
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