Orchestrating micro-frontends

How can we orchestrate our micro-frontends architecture?

Following the previous posts on micro-frontends (1 and 2), it’s time to talk about how to orchestrate micro-frontends.

First of all and foremost, there are 2 schools of thoughts about how a micro-frontend should look like, as explained in the previous article where I was explained different implementations of micro-frontends, there are implementations where a micro-frontend correspond to an area of the user interface, others where the micro-frontend is a SPA or a single page.

When we consider the micro-frontends implementation based on different logical areas of the application (like a header, a footer, a payment form and so on) we would face different challenges like:
Which team would assemble the aggregated view?
How can we avoid external dependencies in every team?
Which team is accountable for an issue in the aggregated view?
How do we ensure that a specific area of the application is not tightly coupled with the parent container?
How can we be sure there aren’t conflicts between dependencies?
Are we assembling at runtime or compile time?
If we decide to create the page at runtime time, is our application servers layer scalable?
Is the content cachable and for how long?
How do we ensure the development flow is not impacted by distributed teams?

And many other questions (technical and organisational) that could make our life way more complicated than how it could be.
Interestingly enough, this approach didn’t provide the expected benefits for Spotify working at scale and they reverted back to a more “classic” architecture based on SPA.

For the benefits of this post, let’s define our micro-frontends as SPA or single pages with a generation made at compile time in order to avoid any possible surprise happening at the composition layer.

Anyway, there are some challenges to face also with this approach, probably the main one is understanding how we want to orchestrate our micro-frontends and it is the focus of this post.
The orchestrator layer could be either on the client-side, server-side or edge-side; the solution depends on how “smart” the orchestrator layer should look like for our applications.

Server-side or edge-side orchestrator

A server-side or edge-side orchestrator would mean that for any deep-link or organic traffic hitting our domain has to be analysed by an application server or an edge solution (lambda@edge for instance), in both cases we need to maintain a map of URLs that correspond to static HTML files (aka micro-frontends).
For instance, if a user logs out from our application we should probably unload the authenticated micro-frontend and load the sign in/sign up micro-frontend, therefore the application server or the code running on the edge should know which HTML file to serve for every URL or group of URLs in the case we are going to work with SPAs.
This technique could work without any problem considering we can change quickly the micro-frontends map directly on the server without any impact on the client-side, but presents some potential challenges, like finding the best way to share data across micro-frontends considering there are some limits of storage inside the browser and doing too many roundtrips to the servers is not ideal in particular for slow connections.
Another challenge would be finding a solution for initialising the application, considering with micro-frontends we split the monolith into multiple subdomains, are we going to initialise the application every time a new micro-frontend is loaded? Are we going to use Server Side Rendering storing the configuration inside the HTML? How do we communicate between micro-frontends? How do we scale our application servers when there is bursty traffic?
Those are some of the challenges for implementing a server-side or edge-side orchestrator.

Client-side orchestrator

Another possible approach could be to create a client-side orchestrator responsible for:

— initialise the application
— sharing the application’s configurations to all the micro-frontends
— load/unload a micro-frontend based on the user’s state
— routing between micro-frontends
— exposing an API for interacting between a micro-frontend and the client-side orchestrator

One of the PROs of this solution is that you have more control over the application initialisation.
If well designed, the client-side orchestrator doesn’t need to change too often, therefore, will be fairly stable.
It provides additional functionality that could be used by various micro-frontends but it’s not domain specific, it’s also a great solution when our aim is to abstract our micro-frontends from the platform they are running on (browser instead of mobile devices or smart TVs).
The main CON is the initial investment in identifying which feature should be handled by this orchestrator because the risk of a big ball of mud is behind the corner, a bug on this layer could blow up the entire application and the implementation of new features, if not well co-ordinated, could slow down other teams creating a cross-team dependency.

In DAZN we opted for a client-side orchestrator that we called bootstrap.

Bootstrap has all the responsibilities listed above plus an additional one related to our use case, in fact, bootstrap is abstracting the I/O APIs of the platform where the application is running on, in this way each micro-frontend is completed unaware in which platform is loaded.
With this technique, we can re-use a micro-frontend across multiple smart TVs, consoles or set-top boxes without the need to rewrite specific device’s implementations, unless the implementation has memory leaks or performance issues.
Bootstrap is served every time a user types our domain in the browser or opens the application on a smart TV, it’s always present and never unloaded for the entire duration of the user session.

DAZN loading flow 

Let’s try to expand further about the bootstrap in order to understand the main ideas behind it:

Initialise the application

Bootstrap should be responsible to set the application context, first of all understanding if the user is authenticated or not and based on the application initialisation we can load the correct micro-frontend.
Any other meaningful information your application needs for setting the context for the entire application should be managed at this stage.
It could be a static configuration (JSON) or dynamic one where an API needs to be consumed, either way, having an external configuration for our frontend allow us to change some behaviours of our system without the need of bootstrap releases.
For instance, a configuration could provide valuable information for the application lifecycle like features toggles, localised labels for the user interface and so on.

Micro-frontends routing

Bootstrap is definitely responsible for routing between micro-frontends, in our implementation, we have 2 routing spread between bootstrap and every micro-frontend.
Bootstrap doesn’t have the entire URLs map of our applications, instead, it loads in memory a map of which micro-frontend should be loaded based on the user status and the URL requested via user’s interactions or deep link.
Those two dimensions allow us to load the correct micro-frontend and leave to the micro-frontend code handling the URLs to manage inside different views that compose it.
A rule of thumb here is to assign a specific second level path for a micro-frontend so it would be easier to address the scope of a micro-frontend, for instance, the authentication micro-frontend should be loaded when the user types mydomain.com/account/*, instead, the micro-frontend for the help pages should be loaded when the user clicks on a link like mydomain.com/support/* and so on.
Inside every single micro-frontend, we can then decide to have additional paths like mydomain.com/support/help-page-A or mydomain.com/support/help-page-B, in this way the domain knowledge would be retained inside the micro-frontend without spreading it across multiple parts of the application.

The main takeaway here is that we have two types of routing in a micro-frontend application with a client-side orchestrator, a global one at bootstrap level and a local one inside the micro-frontend.

Micro-frontends lifecycle

As we mentioned before, each micro-frontends should be loaded via the boostrap, but how?
Single-spa, for instance, uses a javascript file as an entry point for mounting a new micro-frontend.
In DAZN, we took a different approach because using just a javascript file for loading a micro-fronted would have precluded the possibility to use server-side rendering at compile time that was an interesting option for us to provide faster feedback to our user meanwhile they were transitioning from a micro-frontend to another one.

Micro-frontend anatomy: HTML, JavaScript and CSS files

Considering an HTML file is basically an XML file with a specific schema, bootstrap can load and parse the file appending inside itself all the relevant nodes for loading a micro-frontend using DOMParser, a standard interface for parsing XML or HTML strings.
Anything inside the body or head tags could be appended inside bootstrap’s DOM tree.
Potentially, we can also decide to define specific attributes for all the tags we need to append in order to have a quick way of selecting them.
Anyway, the overall idea is parsing an HTML file and appending inside bootstrap what is needed for loading the micro-frontend, therefore any external dependency (like a JavaScript or CSS file) present in the micro-frontend HTML file will be appended and therefore loaded by the browser.

A huge benefit of this neat approach is that it’s not opinionated, anyone can start working on a new micro-frontend without learning the way we decided to deal with micro-frontends because at the end, as long the micro-frontend output results in the Frontend holy trinity: an HTML, a JavaScript and a CSS files.

I captured a video throttling the connection in order to show how the bootstrap appends the DOM elements inside itself, as you will see there are 4 phases:
— identifying the micro-frontend to load,
— load the HTML of the micro-frontend,
— parse it,
—append the relevant tags for displaying the micro-frontend in the page.
It’s a very simple but effective mechanism!

An additional feature added to each micro-frontend is the possibility to perform some actions after and before are mounted or unmounted, in this way the micro-frontend can do any logic for cleaning up any object appended to the window object or any other logic to run in one of the 4 lifecycle’s methods mentioned before.
Bootstrap is responsible to trigger the micro-frontend lifecycle methods and clean the memory before loading the next micro-frontend, this action ensures no conflicts are happening in different or the same versions of a library used by different micro-frontends.

Bootstrap memory and dependencies management

It’s time to deep dive into the micro-frontends memory management, considering bootstrap is loading one micro-frontend per time, as explained in the previous post, and each micro-frontend is not sharing any library or dependency with another micro-frontend, we could end up in a situation where a micro-frontend is loading React v.15 and the next one React v.16.
At the same time, we want to have the freedom to pick any technology and library version inside every micro-frontend because the development team that retain the business and technical knowledge should make the best implementation choice available instead of having constant trade-offs across the entire application as usually happens when we work with a Single Page Application.

At this stage, I believe is very easy to guess the challenge we are facing because any library or framework used by a micro-frontend will append objects on the global window one and in Javascript we cannot directly control the garbage collector but we can facilitate the disposal of an element removing all the references and instances of a given object.

For achieving this goal, an additional bootstrap responsibility is keeping track of any object that is appended to the window object by any micro-frontend and cleaning the window object after unloading the micro-frontend but before a new one is loaded (the joy of metaprogramming in JavaScript 🎉).
Bootstrap takes a snapshot of all the keys appended to the window object and removes them before loading a new micro-frontend, in this way we keep track of what should be removed without duplicating any objects in memory and with a simple iteration of this array we delete any objects used by the unloaded micro-frontends inside the window object.

APIs layer for communicating between bootstrap and a micro-frontend

The last bit worth mentioning is the APIs layer exposed by the bootstrap via the window object.
If you asked yourself how we share data and communicate between micro-frontends, bootstrap is the answer!

Remember that our implementation is based on the assumption we always load one micro-frontend per time and we slice a micro-frontend based on a subdomain of our application, you will soon realise that the data shared across micro-frontends are not happening too often if you work well in the initial session where you define all your subdomains.
Sharing data between micro-frontends is pretty easy, bootstrap shares some APIs for storing and retrieving information accessible by any micro-frontends, it’s up to you deciding which storage is more convenient for your implementation and what kind of limits you wanna add to the objects to store locally.
Considering the bootstrap is a tiny layer written in vanilla JavaScript in between a platform and a micro-frontends and it’s initialising the application, we need also to expose an API layer for abstracting the I/O layer for storing or retrieving information from and to a micro-frontend.
Working with multiple devices require to have different APIs for storing and retrieving files because web storage APIs are not always consistent across all those platforms.
Another important part to highlight is the configuration retrieved from a static JSON file or an API that usually is shared with all the micro-frontends to understand the context where they are running (for instance sharing particular configuration based on the country or languages).

The most important thing when we design the APIs exposed by the bootstrap is trying to be forward-thinking because the bootstrap should be a layer that doesn’t change at every release otherwise you could break some contracts with micro-frontends and coupling the micro-frontends to bootstrap functionalities could jeopardise all the great work done splitting up your business domain in multiple subdomains.

Summary

During this post, we have explored the possibilities for orchestrating micro-frontends, we deep dive into the client-side orchestrator that in DAZN is called bootstrap, in particular, we have seen the benefits and the challenges of this approach and how we have managed to solve them.
In particular, we saw the bootstrap has 3 main responsibilities:

— routing between micro-frontends (load, unload and lifecycle methods)
— initialise the application
— exposing an APIs layer for micro-frontends communication and web storage

One of the questions I received very often after sharing those posts is if and when the bootstrap will be open-sourced, the answer is that we are thinking about that but we cannot commit to a timeline at the moment (that’s also the reason why I didn’t share code in this post, sorry again 🙏).

I really hope you are getting a clearer idea of how to structure your next micro-frontends project if not feel free to reach out, so I can have food for thoughts for the next post! ✌️

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Adopting a Micro-frontends architecture

Screenshot 2019-04-06 at 18.19.26.png

Considering the great feedback of the first post on micro-frontends and the questions received about the approach we are taking in DAZN, I decided to share a bit more about this topic.
In this post, I am covering one of the many possible implementations of a micro-frontends architecture.

Despite micro-frontends are a new model for our frontend applications, many companies tried to embrace the principles behind them and they have created multiple implementations for solving their frontend and organisation challenges.

I think is worth mentioning some of them before jumping in how we have designed our implementation, this is not an exhaustive list but it’s interesting being aware of the different possibilities available:

— Spotify uses micro-frontends in their desktop application leveraging iframes for stitching together different part of the same view.
The communication between iframes is made via an event bus that decouples nicely the different part of the application allowing them to communicate without knowing who is going to listen for a message or event.
Also, this approach saves a lot of time on managing the application memory because every time we change the iframe location, automatically all the objects are ready to be garbage collected.

Spotify’s micro-frontends approach

— IKEA decided to implement micro-frontends with a different approach, they are using Edge Side Includes (ESI) mixed with Client Side Includes (CSI), I don’t wanna spend too many words on this technique because it’s extensively covered in Gustaf’s post but it’s definitely another opportunity for generating dynamically the content of our pages and cache the result on the CDN level or client side, depends the approach we wanna take.

— OpenComponents is an interesting framework used by several companies like Skyscanner or OpenTable. OpenComponents is an opinionated framework that is levering the concepts of an end to end components (frontend + backend together) submitted to a register and used for composing an application.
Also, in this case, we can find a lot of information on OpenComponents project website

In between those 3 implementations, we can find similar flavours with some differences used by medium-large size organisations for creating independent and technology agnostic micro-frontends. It’s worth mentioning Zalando or BuzzFeed for instance as other contributors in this school of thoughts.
If we wanna summarise the implementations we discussed till now we can list the 3 different approaches:

. using iframes + event bus
. using ESI in conjunction (or not) of CSI
. using OpenComponents or similar runtime/compile time template systems

The “DAZN way”

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, there is another implementation to discuss: the approach taken in DAZN.
DAZN is an OTT service available in several countries that streams live and on-demand contents. Our application is available not only on web and mobile but also on smart TVs, set-top boxes and console, and that’s important to highlight because we often face unique challenges and we need to think out-of-the-box for solving them.

Usually, when we start a micro-frontends project, we should ask ourselves several questions and based on the answers facing the challenges related to our decisions, for example:

· do we want multiple micro-frontends in the same view?
· how do we route between pages?
· how do we share data between micro-frontends?
· how do we generate our micro-frontends? Runtime or Compile time?

Let’s try to answer all those questions for understanding the approach we embraced…

Do we want multiple micro-frontends in the same view?
No, we want to have 1 micro-frontend loaded per time in this way we don’t have share dependencies between micro-frontends, every micro-frontend is small enough but not too small, we have full control on the final outcome, it’s technology independent and well encapsulated.
We can potentially work with different versions of the same framework without impacting other micro-frontends or even with different technologies without any impact on the overall application.
We follow Domain Driven Design (DDD) practices for slicing our subdomains and make them really independent mapping the product teams structure and creating a vertical inside a large organisation composed by product people + frontend developers + backend developers + manual QAs + devs in test, and this is very powerful for moving fast, with different speed between teams when is needed in large companies.

Bear in mind that more often than you think, our applications are not entirely consumed by users, for instance, when the user is authenticated, all the code and the dependencies of the sign in/sign up micro-frontend won’t be loaded because we load only the micro-frontends of the authenticated area.
At the same time, when a user is not authenticated, it’s not 100% sure that she is going to finish the on-boarding journey and successfully access the authenticated area of your application, check your stats on how your users are interacting with your application and if you don’t have them invest the right amount of time on creating the right observability with tools like Google Analytics, Sentry, LogRocket and so on.
Remember, micro-frontends are helping a lot achieving the goal of loading only what the user needs and not more than that.

How do we route between pages and how do we share data between micro-frontends?
There are several ways we could achieve that, on the backend, on the edge or on the client side. We choose the client side creating an orchestrator called Bootstrap that has 4 main goals:
· route between micro-frontends
· load and unload a micro-frontend (1 per time, never multiple)
· initialize the application retrieving the configuration
· expose an APIs layer for sharing data between micro-frontends

How do we generate our micro-frontends? Runtime or Compile time?
We prefer to be very predictable with the outcome of our artefacts and we want them highly cachable like a SPA would be, therefore we didn’t take the path of creating anything at runtime, but we prefer generating micro-frontends at compile time, store them on AWS S3 and serve via Cloudfront CDN.
In this way, we don’t have to worry about scaling our infrastructure or unpredictable edge cases happening when we serve our application, we can run end to end tests and performance test before deploying in production having more confidence of what we deploy before being live.

The architecture

In our case, we decided to split the application into multiple subdomains studying upfront how our users were interacting with our web application. For green-field projects, I recommend to deeply understand how your users are going to interact with the application in conjunction with your UX and Product team and follow Domain Driven Design for defining the subdomains and their associated bounded-context.
For the DAZN application, almost every subdomain technically translates into a Single Page Application, but there are some exceptions, for instance, the video player is a component due to the broad scope of that subdomain, then those components are imported inside a micro-frontend as any other library.
Micro-frontends are loaded and orchestrated by the bootstrap, a simple vanilla javascript application embedded in the main HTML page that loads different micro-frontends based on deep-link requests, user status or any request coming from the loaded micro-frontend.

This is how our architecture looks like:

Bootstrap is always available during the application lifecycle

Bootstrap is always available during the lifecycle of our application, it’s responsible for loading our micro-frontends and exposing a tiny layer of abstraction between the device and the micro-frontend.
This detail becomes even more relevant when you target multiple devices and not only web browsers, we have our applications available on many smart TVs, set-top boxes and consoles, all of them have often different requirements and I/O APIs that defers and can be encapsulated at the boostrap level.
In this way, we can run a micro-frontend in multiple devices without the need to change a line of code because the bootstrap is abstracting the platform where the micro-frontend is running on.

If we wanna summarise how the application loads inside a browser we could say:

  1. users request our web application typing our domain in the browser
  2. bootstrap is served
  3. bootstrap initialize the application retrieving some configuration from the APIs layer
  4. based on the initial state and the user request (deep-link or default URL) load the correct micro-frontend
  5. the user enjoys our web application based on micro-frontends 🥳!

Bear in mind that every micro-frontend is independent, therefore we are not sharing components or logic across micro-frontends.
If you think it is a waste of time and effort you won’t believe how much independence every team has got thanks to this decision.

Code duplication is not always a bad practice as we have learnt in the past, often cross-team dependencies and code abstractions risk to be way more dangerous and tedious than creating 3 or 4 times the same component.
We have noticed that spending the right amount of time analysing the user flows and identifying the subdomains lead to way less duplication than expected.
Also, we noticed using micro-frontends, the dependencies across teams didn’t happen too often like in other projects thanks to the initial effort on analysing the project and create meaningful subdomains.
If in your case it’s an absolute must re-using components, there is a way to mitigate the duplication using web components for standardising the component code, with this technique, it could be reusable in combination with any framework, but this is a discussion for another post 😉.

When we started this journey into micro-frontends, for me was very clear that I had to think for the future of the development teams and not only solving the technical aspects.
With micro-frontends, we were able to provide the independence I was looking for without impacting the speed of delivery, each team is owning end to end a specific domain guaranteeing an easy way to add new functionality, fixing a bug or add an improvement without risking to have a knock out effect on the rest of the application or dependencies spread across our multiple dev centres.

Having shared those information several times with new developers joining the company as well as during my talks or online workshops I know you could have millions of questions around the bootstrap, how it loads a micro-frontends, how it shares data and so on.
I will answer all those questions in the next post that will be focused on bootstrap only so follow me for not missing this deep dive inside the micro-frontends world.

If you have any curiosity or question about micro-frontends feel free to get in touch, I’m always keen to help the community as much as I can 😁!

Micro-frontends, the future of Frontend architectures

Micro-frontends architecture

In the past 30 months, I had the opportunity to work on one of the most challenging architectures I’ve ever designed in my career.
The main requirements were based on the speed of delivery, scalability and code quality.
Frontend applications are becoming more challenging daily and achieving those requirements in a company with a massive growth like DAZN was far to be an easy task.

The first step for me was identifying how to achieve those requirements in a meaningful manner, therefore, I started thinking how I can reach those goals in an ideal world and then work retrospectively through the constraints we had inside our company.

The speed of delivery could have been achieved parallelising tasks in multiple teams the real challenge although is having teams independent enough to not be stopped by external dependencies in particular when the teams are distributed and not co-located.

Scalability on the Frontend ecosystem is not only represented by technical challenges but mainly by autonomous teams, too often I experienced the frustration of frontend developers from external dependencies and because they have to maintain and improve a codebase started for one purpose and evolved in a monster becoming unmanageable after some months or a few years of work, ideally we should be able to scale our teams organically and adapting them to the business needs without too much friction, more than being trapped inside codebases that do not really follow the “business rhythm”.

Code Quality is a non-functional requirement that is always aimed by any team and company out there but often, despite the goodwill of each team members, due to pressure from the business, we had to make some hard decisions cutting some corners so the tech debt increases and, without being addressed properly, having a knock-out effect on the entire organization and the teams morale.

On top of those key goals, a personal one I thought was key for the project I was about to redesign was innovation, in the JavaScript community there are plenty of talented teams and individuals that are contributing to open source projects with great libraries, frameworks but more in general solutions, that could make our life easier or even accelerate the time to market of specific feature, ignoring this fantastic ecosystem would have been a technical suicide considering I was working on an architecture for the future that should have remained in the company for the foreseeable future.

For achieving all of these goals I had to think outside the box, leveraging the past experiences and the learnings from successes as well as failures happened in my career.
It’s then that I thought about micro-frontends, following the microservices principles, I was able to extract a manifesto based on what I need to achieve:

DAZN micro-frontends manifesto

Usually, when we design new architecture we need to bear in mind that architecture and technical decisions are not affecting merely the code and our technical teams but also the entire organization we work for, therefore is essential understanding the impact of those choices across our company.

If you wanna learn more, I summarise this incredible journey in this talk with my colleague Max Gallo during the last edition of Frontend Developer Love Conference, the feedback at the conference was really positive, but I decided to use this platform for understanding what other people think and create a genuine discussion around a topic that is going to change the future of our Frontend applications: micro-frontends.

Enjoy the talk and feel free to comment or ask any questions, I’d really like to gather the experience and common questions/doubts of the community around micro-frontends doing my best to answer them all.

Last but not least, if you wanna learn more on micro-frontends I warmly recommend joining me the 26th April in the 3 hours online workshop organised in collaboration with O’Reilly Media