Technology wars: API Management Solution vs Service Mesh

Service Mesh vs. API Management Solution: is it the same? Are they compatible? Are they rivals?

Photo by Alvaro Reyes on Unsplash

When we talk about communication in a distributed cloud-native world and especially when we are talking about container-based architectures based on Kubernetes platform like AKS, EKS, Openshift, and so on, two technologies generate a lot of confusion because they seem to be covering the same capabilities: Those are Service Mesh and API Management Solutions.

It is has been a controversial topic where different bold statements have been made: People who think that those technologies to work together in a complementary mode, others who believe that they’re trying to solve the same problems in different ways and even people who think one is just the evolution of the other to the new cloud-native architecture.

API Management Solutions

API Management Solutions have been part of our architectures for so long. It is a crucial component of any architecture nowadays that is created following the principles of the API-Led Architecture, and they’re an evolution of the pre-existent API Gateway we’ve included as an evolution of the pure proxies in the late 90s and early 2000.

API Management Solutions is a critical component of your API Strategy because it enable your company to work on an API Led Approach. And that is much more than the technical aspect of it. We usually try to simplify the API Led Approach to the technical side with the API-based development and the microservices we’re creating and the collaborative spirit in mind we use today to make any piece of software that is deployed on the production environment.

But it is pretty much more than that. API Lead Architectures is about creating products from our API, providing all the artifacts (technical and non-technical) that we need to do that conversion. A quick list of those artifacts (but it is not an exhaustive list are the following ones)

  • API Documentation Support
  • Package Plans Definition
  • Subscription capabilities
  • Monetization capabilities
  • Self-Service API Discovery
  • Versioning capabilities

Traditionally, the API Management solution also comes with API Gateway capabilities embedded to cover even the technical aspect of it, and that also provide some other capabilities more in the technical level:

  • Exposition
  • Routing
  • Security
  • Throttling

Service Mesh

Service Mesh is more a buzz word these days and a technology that is now trending because it has been created to solve some of the challenges that are inherent to the microservice and container approach and everything under the cloud-native label.

In this case, it comes from the technical side so, it is much more a bottom-top approach because their existence is to be able to solve a technical problem and try to provide a better user experience to the new developers and system administrators in this new world much more complicated. And what are the challenges that have been created in this transition? Let’s take a look at them:

Service Registry & Discovery is one of the critical things that we need to cover because with the elastic paradigm of the cloud-native world makes that the services are switching its location from time to time being started in new machines when needed, remove of them when there is no enough load to require its presence, so it is essential to provide a way to easily manage that new reality that we didn’t need in the past when our services were bounded to a specific machine or set of devices.

Security is another important topic in any architecture we can create today, and with the polyglot approach we’ve incorporated in our architectures is another challenging thing because we need to provide a secure way to communicate our services that are supported by any technology we’re using and anyone we can use in the future. And we’re not talking just about pure Authentication but also Authorization because in a service-to-service communication we also need to provide a way to check if the microservice that is calling another one is allowed to do so and do that in an agile way not to stop all the new advantages that your cloud-native architecture provides because of its conception.

Routing requirements also have been changed in these new architectures. If you remember how we usually deploy in traditional architectures, we typically try to find a zero down-time approach (when possible) but a very standard procedure. Deploy a new version, validate its working, and open the traffic for anyone, but today the requirements claim for much more complex paradigms. The Service Mesh technologies support rollout strategies like A/B Testing, Weight-based routing, Canary deployments.

Rival or Companion?

So, after doing a quick view of the purpose of these technologies and the problem they tried to solve, are they rivals or companions? Should we choose one or the other or try to place both of them in our architecture?

Like always, the answer to those questions is the same: “It depends!”. It depends on what you’re trying to do, what your company is trying to achieve, what you’re building..

  • API Management solution is needed as long as you’re implementing an API Strategy in your organization. Service Mesh technology is not trying to fill that gap. They can provide technical capabilities to cover that traditional has been done the API Gateway component, but this is just one of the elements of the API Management Solution. The other parts that provide the management and the governance capabilities are not covered by any Service Mesh today.
  • Service Mesh is needed if you have a cloud-native architecture based on the container platform that is firmly based on HTTP communication for synchronous communication. It provides so many technical capabilities that will make your life much more manageable that as soon as you include it into your architecture, you cannot live without it.
  • Service Mesh is only going to provide its capabilities in a container platform approach. So, if you have a more heterogeneous landscape as much of the enterprise do today, (you have a container platform but also other platforms like SaaS application, some systems still on-prem and traditional architectures that all of them are providing capabilities that you’d like to leverage as part of the API products), you will need to include an API Management Solution.

So, these technologies can play together in a complete architecture to cover different kinds of requirements, especially when we’re talking about complex heterogeneous-architectures with a need to include an API Lead approach.

In upcoming articles, we will cover how we can integrate both technologies from the technical aspect and how the data flow among the different components of the architecture.

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Alexandre Vazquez: