Symbolic Logic

15. April 2016

What I Learned in a Two Week Microservice Bug Hunt

by Jeff Parrish

After a few years building platforms using (mostly) Node.js microservices, I thought I could troubleshoot problematic situations in minimal time, regardless of coding style, or lack thereof. It turns out - nope.

The two week bug hunt

There was this tiny bug where occasionally, a group-routed phone call displayed as if someone else answered. Should be easy to find. Except call logs touch several services:

  • service for doing the calls and mashing data from the call into call logs
  • internal service for CRUDding the call logs
  • external gateway api for pulling back calls that massages and transforms the data
  • native app display
  • 2 databases

Tripup One: complex local environment setup

We skipped setting things up with docker-compose or another tool that will spin up the whole environment locally, in one command. This is a must, these days. It would take 7 terminals to fire up the whole environment, plus a few databases and background services - and each service needs its own local config. There would still be phone service dependencies (this would be mocked in an ideal world) and external messaging dependencies (Respoke).

Not being able to spin up the whole environment means you better have excellent logging.

Tripup Two: not enough logging

Aggregated logs are the lifeblood of microservices, especially dockerized or load-balanced ones.

We use the ELK stack for log management. Elasticsearch, Logstash, and Kibana are wonderful tools when they have consumed all server resources and blocked the user interface processing data.

For these particular bugs, there was insufficient logging, and the problems only occurred when all of the microservices talked together. Because we have some special Asterisk hardware and phone number providers, it is a lot of work (if not impossible) to spin up the entire environment locally.

Thus, at first I started by adding a few logs here and there in the service. It was a round of Add Logs - PR - Deploy - Test - Add Logs - PR - Deploy - Test. Eventually I just added a ton of logging, everywhere.

I have this fear that I will add too much logging and it will cause things to go down, or get in the way. With few exceptions, you can’t have too much logging when things break. You can have bad log search. Also, at this point I have decided that the ELK stack will always consume all resources, so you might as well log everything anyways.

Tripup Three: forgotten internal supporting library

There was an internal library, written in the early days of the project, which had:

  • a unique coding style
  • no tests
  • poor commit messages
  • no comments
  • generic naming of variables and methods
  • several basic bugs in unused code paths

As it turned out, none of the bugs in this library were causing problems because those code paths were not in use. Nonetheless, I spent a full day understanding it.

Tripup Four: code generation in functional and unit tests

I am a firm believer, now, that DRY (don’t repeat yourself) has no place in unit tests, and probably not in functional tests either. Here are common things I ran into:

  • test setup has multiple layers of describe() and each has beforeEach()
  • beforeEach() blocks used factories which assigned many values to uuid.v4(), then further manipulated the output
  • layers of generated test values are impossible to debug

It’s best just to be explicit. Use string literals everywhere in unit tests. Minimize or eliminate nested describe()s.

Tripup Five: too much logic in one spot

In Node.js land, there’s no reason to have functions with complexity higher than 6 or 7 because adding a utility or library is cheap. It takes little effort to extract things into smaller and smaller functions, and use explicit and specific naming.

We had a ton of logic in Express routes/controllers. This is hard to unit test, because the realistic way to get at that logic is using supertest over mock HTTP. It’s better to make small functions and unit test input-output on those functions.


Eventually, I never found the bug - I found four, after careful refactoring of code and tests to the tune of several thousand SLOC.

The actual bug could have been only a one-line-fix, but finding it took weeks of coding.

Situations like this are often unavoidable. I am sure if I haven’t inflicted similar situations on colleagues in the past, I will in the future. It’s the nature of trade-offs you face when moving fast to test a business idea. The following things might help minimize that, though:

  • agree to a single .eslintrc file and never deviate
  • use a lot of small functions, and unit test them
  • don’t make a separate module without tests
  • be as explicit and repeat yourself in tests
  • be able to spin up a local dev environment with minimal commands, or run against a presetup testing environment