Service Mesh vs. Traditional Networking: What's the Difference and Why Does it Matter?

If you are involved with software development, chances are you have heard about service mesh. This new network architecture promises to simplify the complexities of modern microservices application development, deployment, and configuration. But what does "service mesh" mean? How does it differ from traditional networking architectures? And why does it matter? Let's explore.

What is a Service Mesh?

A service mesh is a dedicated layer of infrastructure that sits between application services and the underlying network. It allows developers and operators to manage traffic between microservices, control traffic routing, enforce access control policies, and gain better visibility into the communication between services. Service meshes can also provide features like fault tolerance, service discovery, and load balancing.

The concept of a service mesh is fairly new, and it was born out of a need to address the challenges that arise when managing complex microservices architectures. As organizations move towards building more agile and scalable applications, traditional networking architectures are falling short. Networking becomes more complicated when there are hundreds or thousands of microservices communicating with each other, often across multiple environments and clouds.

Traditional Networking Architectures

Traditionally, networking is handled by a set of routers, switches, and firewalls. These devices form a hierarchical structure, with the core routers at the center, and access switches at the edges. In a traditional network architecture, applications deployed on servers communicate directly with each other using IP addresses. Developers have to write networking code to handle communication between services, which can be a challenge when the application is constantly evolving.

As an application grows, traditional networking can become unwieldy. Adding more services means adding more networking components, which can lead to configuration drift and network congestion. Maintaining such a wiring mess can become an operational nightmare for DevOps teams.

Why Service Mesh Matters

Service mesh aims to improve on traditional networking by providing a dedicated infrastructure layer to handle service-to-service communication. With a service mesh, traffic routing, security, and monitoring can be centralized, enabling better visibility and control over the network.

There are many benefits to using a service mesh. One of the primary benefits is the ability to manage complex, distributed systems easily. Operators and developers can set network policies and traffic routing rules in a service mesh, which can then be automatically applied across all the services in the mesh.

Another advantage of using a service mesh is the improved security. With a service mesh, all traffic between services is encrypted by default. Service mesh policy enforcement can help protect against distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks and help prevent unauthorized access to sensitive data.

How Service Mesh Works

Service mesh works by injecting a sidecar proxy into each container in a microservices deployment. A sidecar is a separate container that runs alongside the application container, and it is responsible for handling all the network communication between services. The sidecar can intercept all network traffic, and apply policies and routing rules based on the service mesh configuration.

Service mesh proxy sidecars can perform several functions, including:

Each service mesh proxy sidecar communicates with the central control plane of the service mesh. The control plane is a central hub that coordinates all the resources in the service mesh. The control plane is responsible for setting policies, collecting telemetry data, and issuing commands to the sidecar proxies.

Service Mesh vs. API Gateway

If you are familiar with API gateways, you might wonder how a service mesh is different. Both technologies aim to handle the complexities of microservices networking, but there are significant differences.

API gateways sit at the edge of the network, acting as a gatekeeper for incoming traffic. An API gateway provides a single point of entry for traffic to the microservices, and it can perform functions such as authentication, response caching, and rate limiting.

Service mesh, on the other hand, is focused on handling traffic between microservices. It operates at the sidecars, which are co-located with the service instances. Service mesh can perform many of the same functions as an API gateway, such as traffic routing and load balancing, but it does so in a more nuanced way.

Benefits of Service Mesh

Service mesh architecture provides several benefits beyond simplifying complex microservices architectures. Here are some of the benefits:

Better observability

With a service mesh, developers can get better visibility into the communication between services. Service mesh proxies can collect telemetry data, such as latency, success rate, and error rate, and transmit it back to a central control plane. This telemetry data can be used to identify and resolve issues quickly.

Simplified security models

A service mesh provides a centralized point for enforcing security policies, such as access control and encryption. This makes it easier to maintain a consistent security model across all services in the mesh.

More control over traffic routing

In a service mesh, operators can define traffic routing rules and policies centrally. These policies can be applied in real-time across all services in the mesh, making it easier to manage complex network topologies.

Improved resiliency

Service mesh architectures can add resiliency to an application by automatically retrying failed requests or rerouting traffic to healthy instances.

What are some of the popular service meshes?

Several open-source and commercial service meshes are available today. Some of the popular options are:


Istio is an open-source service mesh platform that provides a rich set of features for securing, connecting, and monitoring microservices. It is based on the Envoy proxy, a high-performance proxy that can be deployed as a sidecar alongside each service instance. Istio provides a control plane for managing microservices traffic routing and enforcing policies.


Linkerd is an open-source service mesh platform that provides a lightweight and easy-to-use solution for microservices networking. It uses the Linkerd proxy, which is written in Rust and designed to be fast and efficient. Linkerd provides a control plane for managing traffic routing, service discovery, and policy enforcement.

Consul Connect

Consul Connect is a commercial service mesh platform from HashiCorp. It provides a complete solution for microservices networking, including service discovery, traffic routing, and security policy enforcement. Consul Connect uses a sidecar proxy, which can be deployed as a container alongside each service instance.

AWS App Mesh

AWS App Mesh is a commercial service mesh platform from Amazon Web Services. It allows developers to easily monitor and control microservices traffic across multiple environments and clouds. AWS App Mesh uses the Envoy proxy for sidecar injection, and it provides a control plane for managing traffic routing and security policies.


Service mesh architecture represents a significant shift in how we think about network infrastructure for microservices. By providing a dedicated layer for handling service-to-service communication, service mesh simplifies the complexities of modern microservices deployments. It also provides better observability, simplified security models, more control over traffic routing, and improved resiliency. The popularity of service mesh solutions is evident by the large number of open-source and commercial offerings available today. It is clear that service mesh is the future of microservices networking.

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