Hexagon, Schmexagon? – Part 2

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Exploring Variations of Implementing Domain Driven Design With The “Ports and Adapters” Pattern, Part 2

Hexagonal Architecture is a key design pattern to use when implementing Domain Driven Design. It enables evolutionary changes, helps to keep test suites fast and reliable, and protects the system against ripple effects caused by technology issues. This series of blog posts explores its origin and benefits, as well as five possible implementations, and their individual traits.

6. Implementation #2: Shared Kernel “Microservices”

In the previous part of this series, we built a first iteration of our web shop, as a modular monolith. It performed well, for the time being. But now that we see more and more traffic on our site, and we’ve reached the limits of adding more CPUs, we have to start thinking about a more distributed setup, with better possibilities for scaling.

Our first step on this journey (find the source code here) is to split our single container backend into separate services. This will enable us to deploy individual parts of the system to entirely separate host machines, and thus achieve significant horizontal scaling: The load balancer, both frontend apps, all three backend service, and even the corresponding database schemata could now each be deployed to a single host, instead of all on the same one — a major level-up in potential computing power.

To make this scenario work, each service must have the highest degree of cohesion (all the moving parts that belong together, from a business capability perspective, are also located closely together), to achieve the smallest degree of coupling (as little back- and forth communication with remote parts of the system, as possible).

We solve this by separating the modules along the outer edges of our previously identified bounded contexts: Our main context shoppingcart, and the supporting contexts product and order.

But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves: Splitting both the outer (service) and inner (domain-core) parts in one go is quite a long jump without a safety net… What if we only do the outer separation, for now? To keep the important business working as expected, we’ll just preserve the single domain-core for now, and simply import it as a shared library into all the new services.

It turns out, making that transition is not too difficult. We have already put in most of the work: Except for our domain services (those reach across context boundaries), all of our current components are neatly bundled in packages responding to said contexts. We can simply move them to newly added SpringBoot service modules!

Alas, if we just deploy them now, we’ll run into a huge problem: Because, for example, we won’t be able to directly access the OrdersApi actually being used to store and retrieve orders within shoppingcart1, we must first make sure all our domain services communicate through the network — but keeping the hexagon intact and free from dependencies, we can’t access the network in domain-core! Doing so would add a dependency, to Spring Boot’s RestTemplate, for example – and our business would no longer be isolated.

At this point, I’ve seen many teams abandon Hexagonal Architecture; if not in principle, then by allowing hacks and dirty workarounds. Understandable, but unfortunate — by tying our core into popular frameworks, their wiring and structure, we would make it a lot harder to change things and move them around as we please.2
Luckily, there is a better solution, and it is fairly simple. It requires only a minor change to domain-core: We must apply the same reasoning to the domain services that we did to the repositories — they should be ports, providing interfaces, which we can then implement as adapters in our SpringBoot modules.

A diagram of the logical structure of our solution could now look like this:

Several deployment units, with a shared library "kernel".
Several deployment units, with a shared library "kernel".

Using our IDE, we can easily extract these interfaces from our existing ProductValidationService, ShoppingCartCheckoutPolicyService and OrdersCheckoutPolicyService, and move them to the shoppingcart.api package. The original classes remain as InMemory implementation (in impl), to keep our test suite running and the business rules verified.

In our newly created SpringBoot shoppingcart module (we can copy the Application and Config classes, and remove the parts we don’t need), we can now implement ProductValidationServiceRest, and so forth, and connect to the respective endpoints of the other services.

Once we’ve adapted our load balancer rules and redeployed the system, it should now look like this:

The network topology for our shared kernel microservices
The network topology for our shared kernel microservices

Now, it should be mentioned again, since it might not be obvious: I don’t recommend pursuing this design as your target architecture. Although it is appealing to keep your domain core in one place, where it’s easy to test and reason about, it also causes the services to be fundamentally coupled – even a minor, localized change in the business will result in a redeployment of all the backend parts, instead of just one.
It is, however, an attractive in-between step, when you’re migrating from monolith to microservices, which you can also nicely combine with the Strangler Fig Pattern when it’s a legacy system.

7. Implementation #3: Microservices, “For Real”

To remove the dependency between our services, and make them fully-qualified microservices, we now need to apply the same separation logic — along bounded context lines — to our domain-core.

This is a slightly more tedious undertaking, because it turns out, there are some objects we used for serialization, which are now no longer available everywhere. All our simple value types: Amount, PackagingType, Weight, Fluid must be copied to the api package of all three core libraries, and the shoppingcart service requires a copy of Product, Order, and OrderPosition (for JSON in/output in our RESTful domain services).
There is also no longer a use for our InMemory services, since the remote Api classes became unavailable. We can replace them with spy objects, for which we import Mockito into our test scope.

The separation between core and service also now demands a trade-off: The mapping logic inside of our CheckoutPolicy services can’t be a part of the domain logic any more – it is specific to mapping to a JSON service, and thus belongs in the adapter.

One could argue that the information that, e.g., an order is created from a shopping cart’s items should be part of the domain. But at the same time, calling an external service is a technical detail, which certainly should not be.

We could move the Order class into domain-core-shoppingcart, map it there, and send the translated item to the service, instead of the cart items. But that would require introducing a new OrderMappingService, which to me feels quite arbitrary, since it is not motivated by the business itself, but by external forces.

This example illustrates a situation, which often arises in Domain Driven Design projects: There is a problem, that could be solved in several ways, all of which seem equally right and wrong, at least at first glance, and none are entirely convincing. We’ll have to decide for one, and maybe we will change our minds later — luckily, our Hexagonal Architecture allows us to try out different options without too much damage!

Once the core libraries are separated, we have created fully separate, true “share-nothing” microservices.

Interestingly enough, the topology looks exactly the same as in 2), but the logical diagram has changed:

True microservices share nothing.
True microservices share nothing.

Before we get to the more challenging next variations, let’s take a look back at 2) and 3): What if we had decided to do things in reverse order: split the core first, and then divide the services? Of course, that is a perfectly valid migration path! The implementation would have been quite similar, except for one crucial difference: Step 2 produced a new, more scalable deployment model. In a real life scenario, we might just as well have chosen to go the other way, and conservatively focused on the core, first. We chose the option which addressed the more pressing concern for our business – and that’s always a good rule of thumb.


To be continued in Part 3.

Special Thanks to Alexander Rose for helping to sort out both the language and content of this blog post. Again.


  1. This may be a bit confusing, because the dependency is certainly still available for import – but it won’t be hooked up to the database at runtime. If we want to access orders, we have to call the ordersservice. ↩︎
  2. Take, for example, a REST call: We would now have to know the endpoint URL in our core. To make sure we wouldn’t have to redeploy everything, whenever that URL changes, we now have to set up some for of environment variable. Which, in turn, directly ties our domain core to its environment. Now, this may not be an impossible problem – but it sure made our life a bit harder. My hard earned experience is: It won’t be just one little exception; not for long. As the concessions add up, a little quickly becomes a lot. And our design will become more and more rigid and immovable. ↩︎
Tobias Goeschel

Tobias spent the first 16 years of his career mainly as a freelancer in a variety of industries, roles and technologies, before joining codecentric in 2014.

Ever since surviving three major tech hype cycles (does anyone remember Model Driven Architecture, or Flash?), he has been fully dedicated to the exploration of sustainable, and mostly technology-agnostic, methods, processes and cognitive models for holistic software development – as a co-organizer of the SoCraTes conference, but also as a consultant and coach for Agile software development, project and product mangament, and as an architect of complex distributed systems.

His favorite toys of late are Neuland sharpies, post-its, and event-driven microservice architectures.

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