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java updated Zeebe Work-Distribution example using Zeebe 0.12.0-alpha4 Sep 28, 2018
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Flowing Retail / Zeebe

This folder contains services that leverage the horizontally scalable workflow engine Zeebe for work distribution and as means of communication.

One important aspect on this design is that Zeebe is used as central middleware. By doing so you do not need any messaging system like Apache Kafka or RabbitMQ. This might feel unusal for you, but we do know of quite some projects going into this direction for various reasons. We discuss the differences of the alternatives below.

In order to use Zeebe as orchestrator a workflow model describing the orchestration is deployed from the order service onto the broker. The services then subscribe to work items of that workflow. Zeebe publishes the work and streams it to the corresponding clients:


Note that the workflow model is owned by the Order Service and deployed from there onto the broker automatically, e.g. during startup of the service. The broker then versions it and runs it.

Now Zeebe is the only common denominator. For every service you can decide for programming language.


You find the variations in the sub folders. Note that in the current tech preview state of Zeebe it only supports Java and GoLang, but more languages will follow.

  • Java
  • GoLang (TODO)

Does Zeebe complement or replace middleware?

In the above example I replaced Apache Kafka by Zeebe. The decision between both architecture alternatives is a very interessting one. The following picture visualizes the difference:


As always it depends on the circumstences which architecture might work in your scenario.

If your motivation is to use Zeebe as Saga Coordinator than it is very natural to run a central broker, as this can sort out all consistency behavior of your Sagas for you. See e.g. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0UTOLRTwOX0.

If you orchestrate your microservices you might want to follow the Smart Endpoints and Dumb pipes approach from Martin Fowler. This would mean to have e.g. Apache Kafka as dumb pipe and put all the smartness into the services, e.g. the worklow executed within Zeebe.

However, in reality a lot of projects struggle with operating messaging systems (like RabbitMQ) or Apache Kafka. Not only that I have seen overflowing dead letter queues (resulting in lost messages), but the bigger problem is typically the lack of good operational tooling, so it gets hard to answer questions like: Which messages couldn't get delivered? Why? What is the payload? How to fix payload problems? How to re-deliver a message? To where? Hence a lot of companies start to build home-grown message hospitals which require a lot of effort.

This is where workflow automation technology can jump in with good tooling supporting BizDevOps. This leads a lot of customers to use this architecture and accepting a bit of smartness in the pipe. From my perspective this is absolutely OK, as long as the ownership and development/deployment lifecycle of a workflow model is clearly defined and assigned to a service (compare to Architecture options to run a workflow engine).

So there are a couple of advantages of using Zeebe as middleware:

  • Less code involved (compare the code of this example to the Kafka/Zeebe example)
  • No need to operate an own messaging system or event bus
  • Operations tooling from the workflow engine can be used

Of course there are also downsides:

  • Dependency to Zeebe in a lot of components (the places where you had a Kafka dependency before)
  • Requires confidence on Zeebe to play that central role and take the load.

Depending on your choice the workflow model might look a bit different and e.g. the data flow and data mapping might be different (e.g. data mapping in the workflow model instead of the WorkItemHandler).