PRINCIPLE: Relationships must be governed by contracts that are monitored for performance.
In order to build a reliable system that is composed of many services, we need to have some guidelines for making the services reliable, both in the technical sense, and in the more psychological sense of people having confidence that things will work.
In a system of services, just like in a society, business relationships should be governed by contracts that are monitored for performance. Wherever a dependency exists between services, components, or teams, a contract needs to exist to govern that dependency. That contract comprises an agreement that defines the scope of responsibility of the service provider and the service consumer. Here’s a description of the contracts each service should provide to its customers.
Every service must guarantee that its interface will remain consistent. Assuming the service is delivered over HTTP, the interface includes:
- Names and meanings of query string parameters.
- Definitions of what HTTP headers are used or ignored.
- Format of any document body submitted in the request
- Format of the response body.
- Use of HTTP methods.
Note that in this context, “consistent” does not have to mean unchanging. It only means that no backwards incompatible changes can be made. If your service is designed on the same RESTful hypermedia principles of the web, your interface can remain consistent while growing over time.
The Interface Contract must be documented and available to both your customers and your delivery team. In fact, I would strongly recommend that the Interface Contract be created and delivered before you begin writing code for your service. It serves not only as documentation, but as the specification for developers to work from, and as the starting point for your test plan.
If changes require breaking compatibility, the best policy is to expose a new version of your service at a different endpoint. You must then establish a deprecation cycle to ensure clients have time to move to the new version. Only after all clients have migrated to the new version can you stop providing the old version. Such deprecation cycles can be very long, depending on the complexity of the service and the velocity of client development. Avoid backwards-incompatible changes in your interface if at all possible.
Service Level Agreement
Where your Interface Contract defines what your service will deliver, the Service Level Agreement (SLA) governs how it will be delivered (or how much). Things that need to be documented in your SLA include:
- Availability: Uptime guarantees, scheduled maintenance windows, and communication policies around downtime.
- Response time: What is the target for acceptable response times? What is the limit beyond which you will consider the service unavailable?
- Throughput: How many requests is the service expected to handle? How many is the client allowed to send in a given time window?
- Service classes: Are there certain kinds of requests that have non-standard response time or throughput requirements? Document them explicitly.
Your SLA should also describe how you monitor and report on conformance with the agreement. Measurements of these aspects of performance are usually called Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), and those measurements should be made available to your customers as well as your delivery team. These might be circulated in a regular email, or made available as a web-based dashboard.
If there is a financial arrangement involved in using the service, your SLA should also include remedies for non-conformance. However, even for services designed for internal consumption only, the SLA should be explicitly documented and agreed on by the service provider and the service consumer.
Internally, you should also monitor the error rate of your application and subtract it from your availability. A server that throws a 500 Internal Server Error was not available to the customer who received the error. If a high percentage of requests result in errors, you have an availability problem.
Communication and Escalation Policy
The key to any relationship is communication. When you provide a service, you must have a communication plan around delivering that service to customers. Some of that communication is discussed above. Issues to cover in your communication plan include:
- Notification of changes and new service features.
- Notification of deprecation cycles.
- Reporting on service level performance.
- Notification of incidents and how problems that affect customers are being managed.
In addition to these important communications from you to your consumers, it is also important to establish how your customers will communicate to you.
- How can your customers contact you with questions or concerns?
- How do they report problems?
- What are the business hours for normal communications, and what is the policy for after-hours emergencies?
Establishing these policies up front will help people remain calm when an emergency does occur. A clear communication plan can ensure that you can focus on solving problems rather than fielding complaints. It also ensures that the customer feels confident that you have things well in hand.
At any point where dependencies exist between systems (or teams), that relationship must be governed by a contract. That contract comprises an agreement that defines the scope of responsibility of the service provider, including the interface for the service, a Service Level Agreement that establishes Key Performance Indicators along with targets and limits, and a Communication and Escalation Policy to ensure good support for the running service.
With these parameters defined and clearly communicated, all parties should have confidence in the reliability of the service (or at least a clear path to getting there).