Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Are MicroServices the Death of BPM and Case Management?

When reading about MicroServices you could get the impression that orchestrated business processes or even case management applications will soon become legacy. I seriously doubt that, considering the challenges you will face with creating a landscape of MicroServices that will be able to support some of the characteristics that gave birth to BPM and Case Management in the first place. Also, Martin Fowler's primary guideline concerning MicroServices is "don't even consider MicroServices unless you have a system that's too complex to manage as a monolith". In the following I discuss the issues you might face with Business Process and Case Management in a pure MicroServices architecture. My conclusion being that MicroServices will not be the death of BPMN or Case Management. On the contrary, it probably is going to help delivering on some of their promises we so far seem not always be able to deliver upon.

Update 23-03-2017: you may also be interested to learn that Netflix (one of the examples you will always find when people point to a successful MicroService implementation) found the need for a Netflix Conductor: a microservices orchestrator.

Business Processes and Cases Are Not MicroServices

Let's face it, BPM is about (stateful) orchestration. MicroServices are supposed to be stateless, and its business capability should not depend on others to complete its work, which makes it like the opposite. In BPMN the order in which activities are executed is prescribed or 'orchestrated' as we say, by 'flows' that go from one point to another. The de facto standard language to express a BPM processes is BPMN, which visualizes this explicitly. With each step the state of the complete flow can be persisted. Service calls should be synchronous when successful completion of the process is dependent on the response, and then errors are handled by the process. In contrast the MicroServices 'design for failure' principle makes them more about 'choreography' and as loosely coupled as possible. Rather than making the working of a MicroService dependent on a synchronous call to another service, communication preferably is based on events. By definition there is no such thing as persisting the 'state of a process', and no over-arching process to handle errors.

Unlike BPMN, Case Management is about choreography, but - much more than a number of interacting MicroServices - still predictable in that you know up-front which type activities may be involved, and the rules that determine this. Similar to BPMN, with CMMN you can visualize this to some extent. And similar to BPM also the state of a case is persisted, supporting that you can see what has been done by whom, what the current running activities are, and - based on the model and the rules - you can predict what might happen next. A successful completion of a case depends upon the completion of the individual activities. So in spite of its characteristic of choreography also Case Management contrasts MicroServices in more than one way.

MicroService Challenges

When thinking about the highly flexible, however for the observer often unpredictable flow of events in case of a MicroServices architecture, where the completion of an instance of one MicroService can trigger any number of instances of other MicroServices, you start to realize some of the challenges you will face with business processes that are only supported by MicroServices including - but not limited to - the following.

Process/Case Introspection

As stated before, one thing a business process and case management support is that you can introspect the state of the process or case. Where is it, what has already happened, and what will/might happen next? To achieve the same with MicroServices you will have to realize some central, coordinating MicroService or Aggregator that somehow has to be fed with the state of MicroService executions, can correlate them in some way, and present them in a context that can be understood by the user. For example, in case of a complex order handling business process (that can span hours our days) this implies that it is able to correlate MicroService executions using some common business indicator like an order id. This implies a dependency of this central MicroService on the other ones to publish the states of their execution with a reference to the order id. That introduces some interesting challenges regarding how to define the bounded context of such a central MicroService and how to implement the anti-corruption layer to make the entities of the individual MicroServices non-intrusive to that of the central one.

But let's ignore that for now. For this central MicroService to be able to present this state to the user so that he/she understands what happened when, why, by whom or what, and what might happen next, it must have some notion of a 'business process' (or case). It might be my lack of imagination, but I cannot picture how this can work as there is no central coordinator to rule them all. A concrete example from my practice is a Move Natural Person process in a bank. Next to a bank account this person might also have a credit card, a mortgage, and several insurances. Some of these product can be moved by just changing the address, but you cannot do that with a mortgage for example. For a bank moving a person or organization is one of the more complex processes, and whenever a customer calls to inquire what the status is, it is imperative for the bank employee to have this overall view. How to know that all relevant MicroServices have been initiated? Of course, I can picture some solution where all MicroServices have to publish events to some central "hub" and from there support some navigation to dashboards of the individual MicroServices, But I also start to see some sort of a dependency that you would try to avoid in a MicroServices architecture.

Process/Case Operation

Operations will have a similar problem as the business has when they have to operate the process or case. If a process is stuck from a technical perspective, in which MicroService is that? Practically also this type of concern can only be addressed when to some extend there is a sort of common way to log errors, collect those and present them in a consolidated way. Also something that is in conflict with the principle of decentralization, as each MicroService is supposed to be operated independently.

Process/Case Modeling and Testing

And what about modeling and testing a process or case? Capturing how a case may evolve over time in CMMN is already more difficult for the reader to understand than a BPMN process design. But how a process would unfold in a pure MicroServices environment you can only understand if you would model that in some similar way. But in a pure MicroServices architecture that does not seem to make any sense. And if you don't model it you surely will have difficulties testing it.

Authorization & Authentication

Another challenge I would like to point out is authorization and authentication. In BPMN there are swimlanes that correspond to roles that you can assign people to. By using a central repository of these roles you can implement a consistent way of authentication and authorization. In Case Management there are similar concepts (e.g. knowledge workers). How to implement this for a process only consisting of MicroServices when this implies a centralized authentication and authorization model?

Granted, MicroServices is relatively new, still in the hype phase, and over time some of these challenges will be addressed. This will result in new patterns, and frameworks and tools to support that. But I seriously doubt this will ever address all the requirements that are naturally addressed by BPM or Case Management. So over time I believe both will survive the MicroServices hype, although I see Case Management gaining ground over BPM.

MicroServices Values for BPM and Case Management

However, all this does not mean there is no value in adapting at least some of the principles related to MicroServices to BPM and Case Management applications. I can see how it could address some of the issues I faced with processes that are almost too big to handle, and issues with reuse of services and the impact that had on agility. Since then I much more tend to:
  • Design and implement sub-processes as deployable units of their own.
  • Push more of the other logic to a deployable unit of its own than I already did.
  • Let data models be less intrusive to integrations (i.e. chose the Anti-Corruption pattern with small Bounded Contexts over the Conformist pattern), and address data mapping challenges in the (anti-corruption layer of the) individual services rather than in some integration layer (smart endpoints / dumb pipes).
  • Apply the Tolerant Reader pattern more that I already did
  • Copy and paste code if that prevents unnecessary impact of a change on some shared component.
And where useful and possible one can implement the services consumed by the business process or case as MicroServices and make the process and these services more loosely coupled. But that I already did. The mantra of 'do one thing and do it well' specifically appeals to me. I always try to prevent creating any service (or Java class for that matter) for which I have to use the word "and" to describe what it does.

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