Wednesday, March 29, 2017

What is a microservice? (from a linguistic point of view)

As we described here, with Jolie we are pioneering the linguistic approach for dealing with microservices. Our idea is that microservices are introducing a new programming paradigm which can be crystallized within a programming language. The focus of this post is about the definition of microservice starting from our point of view: a linguistic point of view.

A service is the single unit of programmable software
In the last years the concept of service has been investigated in the area of Service Oriented Computing and several definitions have been provided for defining service contracts, service providers, service discovery and so on. All these definitions are quite abstract because services have been conceived to be technology agnostic both in the case of SOA and microservices. Such a fact means that it is possible to develop a service in any given technology. They say that services are technology agnostic.

Technology agnosticism is a very important feature which allows us to engineer a software system independently from any technology lock-in. But our purpose here is to give the definition of a service as a single unit of programmable software which cannot be fragmented in sub-parts. For this reason, you will find that all the definitions I am going to provide here are strongly related to a specific technology: Jolie. If you like to see how we chose to model the service oriented programming paradigm in a single language you can continue to read, otherwise you can skip this post. If we are wrong, or we are missing some points, or you know other technologies which match the definitions please write us your feedbacks. We are very exited to share ideas on this open topic.

As a starting point, let me explain the first assumption we made in the linguistic paradigm: the service is the single unit of programmable software. Usually, a service is always obtained by programming a server (it is not important if it is simple or not) joint with some business logic which represent the functionalities to serve:

                             SERVER + BUSINESS LOGIC = SERVICE

In a linguistic paradigm such an equation is not more valid just because servers do not exist. Only services exist. It is not possible to program a server because you can program only services. So, forget servers (do not confuse with serverless, it is a different approach). So, if there are no servers but only services, what is a service? As it happens for Object Orientation where classes are logical definitions and objects are the instances of classes in a running environment, let me call the logical definition of services with the term service and its running instance with the term microservice.

                                     SERVICE --> MICROSERVICE

For each service there could be more than one microservices, but each microservice is just the running instance of a service. The service is the single unit of programmable software. In the following I am going to build the definition of a service by giving some qualities it has to provide. At the end of this post I'll give the definition of service.

Services exchange messages
The only way for exchanging data among services are messages. There are no other way. A message is just a limited portion of data transmitted in a limited portion of time. A service can both receive messages and send messages. In a SOA a service which receives and sends messages is usually called orchestrator. Such a difference in the linguistic paradigm does not exist, an orchestrator is just a service. In particular, in Jolie message exchange is enabled by means of ports. Messages are received by means of inputPorts and they are sent by means of outputPorts. Similar constructs are used in WS-BPEL, they are called partnerLinkTypes.

Services can have a behaviour
The behaviour defines the business logic to be executed when a message is received.  In the behaviour it is possible to compute the received data and/or send messages to other services. In Jolie the behaviour is expressed in scope main. A behaviour can define different operations. Different business logics can be joint to different operations. In Jolie multiple operations can be expressed in the same behaviour by using the non deterministic operator:

main {
[ op1( req1 )( res1 ) {

[ op2( req2 )( res2 ) {


[ opn( reqn )( resn ) {

An operation must always express a finite computation in time. In other words, when triggered an operation must always reach an end state. I say that an operation is divergent if its behaviour defines an infinite computation. Jolie allows for the definition of divergent operations by defining infinite loops:

divergentOperation( request )( response ) {
    while( true ) {

Divergent operations are deprecated in Jolie.

Services declare interfaces
The operations of the behaviour must be declared in a machine readable interface. The interface defines all the available operations of a given service. Interfaces are used as a concrete contract for interacting with a service. In Jolie interfaces are also equipped with message type declarations.

type MyRequestType: void {
    .msg: string

type MyResponseType: void {
    .resp_msg: string

interface myInterface {
     myOperation( MyRequestType )( MyResponseType )

Services execute sessions
Services execute sessions for serving requests. A session is a running instance of a service operation. Sessions are independently executed and their data are independently scoped. If we suppose to send three messages to a microservice which implements the following service we will receive three different messages for each request message.

main {
   test( request )( response ) {
      response = request

if we concurrently send three request messages with content "1", "2", "3", we will receive three related reply messages with the same content.

A definition of service

Here I try to summarize a definition of service starting from the basic concepts highlighted above. Jolie provides more linguistic elements w.r.t. those highlighted here. Maybe more basic concepts could be added to the definition and other should be removed. This is just a starting point for trying to investigate microservices from a linguistic point of view. All the contributions are encouraged!

A service is a unit of programmable software able to exchange messages with other services whose behaviour is triggered by incoming messages and it is defined by a set of finite computation logics called operations which are declared within a machine readable interface. A running instance of a service is called microservice whose inner instances of triggered operations are called sessions. Sessions are executed independently and their variables are independently scoped.