Service Mesh Glossary

API Gateway

An API gateway sits in front of an application and is designed to solve business problems like authentication and authorization, rate limiting, and providing a common access point for external consumers. A service mesh, in contrast, is focused on providing operational (not business) logic between components of the application.

Cluster

In the cloud native context, a cluster is a group of machines, physical or virtual, that make up the pool of hardware on which a container orchestrator such as Kubernetes can run. Each machine in the cluster is commonly referred to as a node, and the nodes of a cluster are typically uniform, fungible, and interconnected.

Container

A container is a lightweight packaging of an application and its dependencies, designed to be run by a host operating system (OS) in an isolated fashion with strict limits on resource consumption and access to the OS. In this sense, a container is an atomic executable “unit” that can be run by the OS without application-specific setup or configuration.

In the service mesh context, containers were popularized by Docker as a lightweight alternative to virtual machines (VMs), which had similar characteristics but were considerably heavier weight. The rise of containers, in turn, gave rise to container orchestrators such as Kubernetes, which allowed applications, when packaged as containers, to be automatically scheduled across a pool of machines (called a “cluster”). The rise of Kubernetes gave rise to the sidecar model of deployment, which allowed service meshes like Linkerd to provide their functionality in a way that was decoupled from the application and did not impose a severe operational cost to the operator.

Control Plane

The control plane of a service mesh provides the command and control signals required for the data plane to operate. The control plane controls the data plane and provides the UI and API that operators use to configure, monitor, and operate the mesh.

Data Plane

The data plane of a service mesh comprises the deployment of its sidecar proxies that intercept in-mesh application traffic. The data plane is responsible for gathering metrics, observing traffic, and applying policy.

Distributed tracing

In a microservices-based system, an individual request from a client typically triggers a series of requests across a number of services. Distributed tracing is the practice of “tracing”, or following, these requests as they move through the distributed system for reasons of performance monitoring or debugging. It is typically achieved by modifying the services to emit tracing information, or “spans,” and aggregating them in a central store.

Golden Metrics

Golden metrics, or golden signals, are the core metrics of application health. The set of golden metrics is generally defined as latency, traffic volume, error rate, and saturation. Linkerd’s golden metrics omit saturation.

Ingress

An ingress is a specific application that runs in a Kubernetes cluster and handles traffic coming into the cluster from off-cluster sources. This traffic is referred to as ingress (or occasionally “north/south” traffic). In contrast to in-cluster traffic, which is typically mediated by the service mesh, ingress traffic has a specific set of concerns arising from the fact that it often comes from customer, third-party, or other non-application sources. API gateways are often used as ingresses.

Latency

Latency refers to the time it takes an application to do something (e.g., processing a request, populating data, etc.) In service mesh terms, this is measured at the response level, i.e. by timing how long the application takes to respond to a request. Latency is typically characterized by the percentiles of a distribution, commonly including the p50 (or median), the p95 (or 95th percentile), the p99 (or 99th percentile), and so on.

Linkerd

Linkerd was the first service mesh and the project that defined the term “service mesh” itself. First released 2016, Linkerd is designed to be the fastest, lightest-weight service mesh possible for Kubernetes. Linkerd is a Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF) incubating project.

Load balancing

Load balancing is the act of distributing work across a number of equivalent endpoints. Kubernetes, like many systems, provides load balancing at the connection level. A service mesh like Linkerd improves this by performing load balancing at the request level, which allows it to take into account factors such as the performance of individual endpoints.

Load balancing at the request level also allows Linkerd to effectively load balance requests for systems that use gRPC (and HTTP/2 more generally), which multiplex requests across a single connection—Kubernetes itself cannot effectively load balance these systems because there is typically only one connection ever made.

Load balancing algorithms decide which endpoint will serve a given request. The most common is “round-robin,” which simply iterates across all endpoints. More advanced balancing algorithms include “least loaded,” which distributes load based on the number of outstanding requests for each endpoint. Linkerd itself uses a sophisticated latency-aware load balancing algorithm called EWMA (exponentially-weighted moving average), to distribute load based on endpoint latency while being responsive to rapid changes in the latency profile of individual endpoints.

mTLS

Mutual TLS (mTLS) is a way to authenticate and encrypt a connection between two endpoints. Mutual TLS is simply the standard Transport Layer Security (TLS) protocol, with the additional restriction that identity on both sides of the connection must be validated. (The use of TLS in web browsers, for example, typically only validates the identity of the server, not the client.)

In the service mesh context, mTLS is the basic mechanism for validating the identity of services on either side of a connection and for keeping that communication confidential. This validation of identity is the basis for policy enforcement.

Multi-cluster

In the context of Kubernetes, multi-cluster usually refers to running an application “across” multiple Kubernetes clusters. Linkerd’s multi-cluster support provides seamless and secured communication across clusters, in a way that’s secure even across the public Internet, and is fully transparent to the application itself.

Observability

Observability is the ability to understand the health and performance of a system from the data it generates. In the context of service meshes, observability generally refers to the data about a system that the service mesh can report. This includes things like “golden metrics”, service topology graphs of dependencies, traffic sampling, and so on.

Reliability

Reliability is a system property that measures how well the system responds to failure. The more reliable a system is, the better it can handle individual components being down or degraded. For multi-service or microservice applications, a service mesh can be used to increase the reliability by applyingtechniques like retries and timeouts to cross-service calls, by load balancing in intelligent ways, by shifting traffic in the presence of errors, and so on.

Service mesh

A service mesh is a tool for adding observability, security, and reliability features to applications by inserting these features at the platform layer rather than the application layer. Service meshes are implemented by adding sidecar proxies that intercept all traffic between applications. The resulting set of proxies forms the service mesh data plane and is managed by the service mesh control plane. The proxies funnel all communication between services and are the vehicle through which service mesh features are introduced.

Sidecar Proxy

A sidecar proxy is a proxy that is deployed alongside the applications in the mesh. (In Kubernetes, as a container within the application’s pod.) The sidecar proxy intercepts network calls to and from the applications and is responsible for implementing any control plane’s logic or rules. Collectively, the sidecar proxies form the service mesh’s data plane. Linkerd uses a Rust-based “micro-proxy” called Linkerd2-proxy that is specifically designed for the service mesh use case. Linkerd2-proxy is significantly lighter and easier to operate than general-purpose proxies such as Envoy or NGINX. See Why Linkerd Doesn’t Use Envoy for more.

Success rate

Success rate refers to the percentage of requests that our application responds to successfully. For HTTP traffic, for example, this is measured as the proportion of 2xx or 4xx responses over total responses. (Note that, in this context, 4xx is considered a successful response—the application performed its jobs—whereas 5xx responses are considered unsuccessful—the application failed to respond to the request). A high success rate indicates that an application is behaving correctly.