Learning Center
March 9, 2022
5 min read

What is Service Discovery in Microservices?


In a microservices-based application, the back-end environment changes dynamically. In order to keep pace, clients need a way to identify the available service instances. This is where service discovery comes in.

A key advantage of a microservices architecture is the ability to create new instances of each service to meet the current load, respond to failures and roll out upgrades. Unlike the traditional monolith approach to application design, with a microservices architecture you can scale individual services at different rates, rather than replicating the entire application each time a new instance is required. This process is made even more efficient with virtualization and containerization, which make it much quicker and easier to spin up multiple instances of a service without getting involved in the hardware infrastructure that supports it.

One side effect of this dynamic server-side environment is that the locations of your service instances (IP address and port) change constantly by the hour or even by the minute. In order to route an API request to a particular service, the client or API gateway needs to find out the address of the service instance it should use. Whereas in the past it might have been feasible to record these locations in a config file, in a dynamic environment where instances are added and removed on the fly, an automated solution is needed.

Working with multiple instances of a service also raises the issue of how traffic is distributed across them. A traditional load balancer, designed to work with servers with known network locations, just wont work in this situation. Service discovery provides a mechanism for keeping track of the available instances and distributing requests across available instances.

Microservices Service Registry

Let's start with how the list of available service instances is maintained. A service registry is a database used to keep track of the available instances of each microservice in an application. The service registry needs to be updated each time a new service comes online and whenever a service is taken offline or becomes unavailable. This can be achieved with either self-registration or third-party registration.


With self-registration, each microservice is responsible for adding itself to the service registry when it comes online. Typically, the service registry exposes a REST API for this purpose. Each instance registers itself with a POST request and can remove itself with a DELETE request. As a fail-safe, service instances can send a heartbeat to the service registry to indicate that they are still online and available. If the heartbeat stops, this indicates that the instance is either offline or not responding, and the instance can be de-registered.

While self-registration is a simple design, it does require you to implement the registration logic in every language or framework that you use for your microservices.

Third-Party Registration

Third-party registration offers a more loosely coupled solution: a service registrar (also known as a service manager) is responsible for registering each new instance as it comes online and de-registering it when it becomes unavailable. The service registrar does this by polling the deployment environment for updates or subscribing to event notifications. While this may sound like a lot of overhead, deployment environments such as Kubernetes and Amazon EC2 come with a built-in service registry and third-party service registrar, saving you the effort of implementing and maintaining another highly available component.

Discovering Services

In order to send an API request to a service, the client or API gateway must know the location of the service that its addressing. As the microservice architecture is designed to support multiple instances of each service, service discovery is closely linked to load balancing of requests to instances of each microservice. Note that load balancing requests across service instances is completely separate from load balancing incoming client traffic across multiple API gateway nodes.

There are two models of service discovery: client-side and server-side.

Client-Side Discovery

With client-side discovery, the client or API gateway making the request is responsible for identifying the location of the service instance and routing the request to it. The client begins by querying the service registry to identify the location of the available instances of the service and then determines which instance to use. The load balancing logic can be a simple round-robin approach or use a weighting system to determine the best instance to query at a given time.

With the Kong API gateway, client-side discovery is achieved using a ring balancer. Kong acts as the service registry, keeping a record of the available target instances for the upstream services. When a target comes online, it must register itself with Kong by sending a request to the Admin API. Each upstream service has its own ring balancer to distribute requests to the available targets. By default, the ring balancer uses a weighted round-robin scheme but can alternatively be configured to use a hash-based algorithm.

You can configure Kong to run both active and passive health checks on the targets in order to determine whether they are healthy or not. Active health checks involve periodic requests to each target, whereas passive health checks do not generate additional traffic and instead monitor requests proxied to each target, marking any that fail to respond as unhealthy. The ring balancer only distributes requests to healthy targets.

Server-Side Discovery

The alternative to client-side discovery decouples the service discovery and load balancing logic from the client. With server-side discovery, the client or API gateway simply passes the request, including the DNS name, to a router. The router queries the service registry (which may be a separate component or built-in to the router) to identify the available instances of the service and then applies load balancing logic to decide which one to use.

As with third party registration, some deployment environments include this functionality as part of their service offering, saving you the effort of setting up and maintaining the additional components. In this case, the client or API gateway just needs to know the location of the router.

You can implement server-side service discovery with the Kong API gateway by implementing a DNS server, such as Consul. The DNS server needs to handle registration of instances, either via self-registration or third-party registration. When a request is received, Kong passes it to the DNS server which identifies the upstream service and selects the target instance based on the load balancing logic, which can either be a simple round-robin (A records) or use weighting (SRV records).

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