What Is a Service Mesh?

Service mesh refers to a dedicated infrastructure layer built into an app for the purpose of managing how parts of the application share data.

A service mesh architecture creates a proxy that pairs services and manages functions, traffic, and tasks within clouds and across an entire cloud ecosystem, including cloud containers and Kubernetes pods.

The practical benefits of a service mesh architecture revolve around a few key areas — typically visibility, observability, traceability, and security. These factors help optimize communications and overall performance across the communications layer, including areas such as load balancing and security. By deploying this functionality at the platform layer rather than the application layer, an organization can connect apps and services directly to a dedicated infrastructure layer.

As organizations evolve toward cloud-native applications and more modular cloud-first frameworks, the benefits of a service mesh grow. Coordinating network services and incorporating critical functionality become mission critical. A service mesh architecture routes traffic and ensures that myriad events occur at the right time and in the right way. It also makes often complex processes more manageable for developers and IT teams.

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How Does a Service Mesh Architecture Work?

Unlike a web services architecture, a service mesh does not rely on APIs to connect components. It also doesn’t introduce any new functionality into a runtime environment. Instead, this form of distributed middleware separates all communication from the application logic and manages a cloud environment via a control plane along with a sidecar — a proxy within the infrastructure layer.

service mesh architecture

A sidecar proxy is an application design tool that abstracts critical features within cloud environments. Instead of operating independently in each service, sidecars run alongside various services. Depending on the purpose of the service mesh and the specific environment in which the sidecar operates, this might include monitoring capabilities, communication functions, policy enforcement, and security features.

Like a sidecar attached to a motorcycle, a service mesh sidecar is designed to add or enhance functionality. A sidecar attaches to the desired application container, virtual machine, or Kubernetes pod and adapts each instance to work with a desired service.

As network traffic passes through the sidecar, it is subjected to the rules and conditions built into the service mesh.

Because sidecars attach to cloud components, they’re able to abstract any task or process. This means that an enterprise can use different sidecars for different tasks — without making any changes to the underlying application or service.

Sidecars reside within a data plane. This is the segment of the network that carries user traffic. A data plane transfers data and conversations across clients through protocols. Various vendors and open-source communities offer different service mesh tools, which are designed for different, specific tasks. Most solutions rely on a control panel with a graphical user interface to manage the environment.

Ultimately, the flexibility and scalability of a service mesh architecture translates into a far more robust framework for handling complex cloud-related tasks and processes.

How Does a Service Mesh Optimize Performance?

As an enterprise adds containers and services, complexity increases, and the overhead required to manage a framework grows. This can affect everything from application performance and security frameworks to DevOps teams. Within a typical microservices architecture, diagnosing and fixing problems can become extraordinarily difficult.

By contrast, as an enterprise adds and removes components, a service mesh can maintain control over the environment because it runs outside of a given container. Simply put, it adds elements and capabilities on top of the microservices architecture. The service mesh captures every action, reaction, and interaction among all the services and containers. Consequently, it’s possible to view granular details and metrics surrounding communication within clouds.

Key Features of a Service Mesh

A service mesh can perform many functions related to reliability, observability, and security. It is a highly flexible framework that can adapt to the varying needs of an enterprise, including:

  • Providing latency-aware load balancing
  • Handling dynamic routing rules
  • Delivering strong network authentication
  • Offering distributed tracing
  • Automatically encrypting communications and data
  • Distributing service policies
  • Aggregating telemetry data to gauge the health and functionality of various components
  • Accommodating third-party tools, which can further enhance monitoring, visualizations, and security

The Value of a Service Mesh

A service mesh delivers the greatest value when an organization uses large-scale applications that rely on multi-cloud frameworks with numerous microservices. It is particularly useful for DevOps teams that have a continuous integration and continuous deployment (CI/CD) pipeline in place. As organizations strive to accelerate and improve development to ensure that customers and employees have the best possible experience, they need to automate processes.

With a service mesh in place, an organization can free developers to focus on activities that enhance value, such as adding new functionality and features to websites, apps, and various software and services. In some cases, it can deliver low-code or no-code capabilities along with AI functionality. Typically, organizations reduce downtime and improve performance when services and apps run in the cloud.

In addition, it’s possible to identify and diagnose various IT problems faster and build a more automated, resilient, and secure cloud framework. This includes the use of a circuit breaker within a service mesh. It protects microservices when specific conditions occur, such as when HTTP requests exceed a certain undesirable threshold.

Should Your Organization Adopt a Service Mesh Framework?

Like most technologies, there are both benefits and challenges to using a service mesh architecture. While it can simplify and improve cloud management, DevOps, and security, it requires new knowledge and skills. In addition, it introduces fundamental changes that require new processes and workflows. No less important is the fact that a service mesh architecture doesn’t eliminate network management issues. Instead, it abstracts and centralizes the complexity.

As a result, service mesh adoption is growing rapidly. A 2020 survey conducted by The Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF) found that 27% of respondents use a service mesh in production, a 50% increase over the previous year. While a service mesh architecture isn’t a panacea for all enterprise cloud network challenges, it is an increasingly valuable tool as organizations adopt cloud-native and cloud-first frameworks.

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