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course: Designing Event-Driven Microservices

Point-to-Point vs Publish/Subscribe

7 min
Wade Waldron

Wade Waldron

Staff Software Practice Lead

Video coming soon.

Point-to-Point vs Publish/Subscribe


Communication between microservices can be broadly categorized as either point-to-point or publish/subscribe. Point-to-point is often used synchronously, while publish/subscribe tends to be asynchronous. Each of these techniques can have a place in a modern microservices platform, but it is important to understand the role each one plays so that they can be used effectively.


  • Communication in the Real World
  • Point-to-Point Communication
  • Point-to-Point Advantages
  • Point-to-Point Disadvantages
  • Publish/Subscribe Communication
  • Publish/Subscribe Advantages
  • Publish/Subscribe Disadvantages


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Point-to-Point vs Publish/Subscribe

Hi, I'm Wade from Confluent.

When microservices communicate, they can be direct using point-to-point communication, or they can be indirect and use publish/subscribe techniques.

Both options come with some concrete advantages, but they also have consequences.

Let's take a moment and understand what each one offers.

Let's start with a quick analogy of communication in the real world.

Digital communication has taken over our daily lives.


text messages

and social media posts dominate our day-to-day communication.

We can think of text messages and emails as a type of point-to-point communication.

Both have a designated sender and receiver.

The receiver is identified using a unique address or phone number.

Social media follows something closer to a publish/subscribe model of communication.

When we publish something to a social media page or channel, we don't have much control over who will see it.

Anyone who subscribes to that social channel will have access to what we post.

These subscriptions take the form of friend requests, following hashtags, or a variety of other mechanisms.

Most social channels will have many people subscribed to them.

And when we publish messages to these channels, we give up control over the conversation.

We might be having a conversation with a thousand people, or we might be shouting into an empty room.

Now, let's look at how this applies to microservices.

Point-to-point communication in microservices often takes the form of HTTP or gRPC calls.

One microservice sends a message to another using these protocols.

In order to send the message, we need the address of the recipient.

The receiver will process the message and often synchronously send a reply.

Point-to-point communication has advantages in software, just like it does in the real world.

It creates a concrete link between the sender and the receiver.

This allows for a two-way dialog where the sender can reasonably expect a response from the receiver.

If something goes wrong, the two-way link allows the sender to potentially take action to mitigate the issue.

It also makes it easier to understand what dependencies exist between different services.

We can look at what point-to-point calls are being made and immediately know who are the senders and receivers.

When the system is small, point-to-point communication shines.

But as it grows, it can experience pressure from all of the direct links.

Each link represents a type of coupling.

The sender is coupled to the receiver because it needs to know that the receiver exists and where it can be found.

Because these systems are often synchronous in nature, it creates temporal coupling.

Physical and temporal coupling can create issues in the system.

If a failure occurs in one microservice, it can propagate to others.

This can cause small problems to grow into larger problems.

It can also make it difficult for the system to evolve.

Each dependency creates rigidity in the system.

Changing a microservice becomes difficult because we have to think about the services that depend on it.

When the system is small, it might be relatively easy to manage these issues.

But as the system scales it becomes much more difficult.

A single failure can ripple across the web of services and determining the source can be extremely difficult.

Meanwhile, some services become nexus points in the web because so many of the other services depend on them.

These services are critical to keep operating because if they fail, so does everything else.

Point-to-point dependencies create bottlenecks and single points of failure, which we want to avoid when building a distributed system.

Now let's contrast that with publish/subscribe communication.

When an important event happens in the system, a microservice can package the details of the event into a message.

These can be published to a topic in tools like Apache Kafka.

Downstream microservices can subscribe to topics they are interested in.

Each subscribing microservice will receive every event in the topic, usually in the order they were sent.

However, these events are handled asynchronously from the action that triggered them.

Like with social media, we don't know how much time will pass between when we post a message and when it is seen by the subscribers.

Furthermore, we don't know who will be subscribing to it and the subscribers don't know who did the publishing.

There is no direct link in this model.

This reduces coupling and creates isolation between the services.

Services are coupled to the messaging platform and the message format, but not to each other.

This allows microservices to change and evolve.

As long as they hold to the message format, other implementation details are flexible.

This allows the system to be more scalable as well.

We can have multiple instances of a single service subscribing to any given topic.

This allows the microservice to be rapidly scaled up or down.

And scalability goes both ways.

We can have multiple instances of the publisher as well.

Because the publisher and subscriber are not directly connected, adding more instances of one doesn't have an immediate impact on the other.

Although the reduced coupling adds benefits, it can make it more difficult to understand dependencies in the system.

The layer of indirection between services means it can be tricky to track down all of the systems impacted by a change.

This isn't too bad going downstream where we can usually access a list of the subscribers.

It's a little worse looking upstream because the messaging platform may not keep track of where a message originates.

It can be a good idea to include metadata in the message indicating the origin to help mitigate this.

Just make sure downstream systems don't rely on that metadata, or you start to re-introduce coupling.

Furthermore, to create indirection, we usually rely on an external system such as Apache Kafka.

These systems come with their own learning curve and require expertise to deploy and manage.

This can be mitigated using cloud services, but we can't completely avoid the extra work.

When building microservices, scalability and resiliency are often high on the list of requirements.

Publish/subscribe is well suited to providing these features.

As such, for most microservice systems, publish/subscribe should form the backbone of communication.

However, there is room for point-to-point as well.

We just need to make sure that we rely on it only when necessary and ensure that it involves, at most, two microservices.

Creating long chains of point-to-point calls introduces a lot of coupling and can lead to cascading failures.

Do you use publish/subscribe in your system?

Is it based on Apache Kafka, or have you chosen something else?

And is it a cloud service or self-hosted?

Let me know in the comments below.

Meanwhile, have a look at our courses on Confluent Developer for more information on building event-driven microservices.

And don't forget to like, share, and subscribe.

Thanks for watching.