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Google Istio – What is it Exactly?
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Alan Leal
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The challenge with deploying microservices applications is that you’re moving to a large and complex architecture. To manage that system securely, you need to develop tools that enable the services to communicate with one another, manage the load, and other critical activities.

For example, let’s say you’re using your grocery chain’s app. You want to know if your favorite produce is in stock, so the app needs a service that speaks to the grocer’s database. You now want to buy that produce, so the app needs a service to communicate with your shopping cart.

To keep that communication stable and secure, developers will use a service mesh to not only enable the services to speak to each other but also load balance and other critical tasks.

Istio is one of many service mesh options available.

What is Service Mesh?

A service mesh is an infrastructure layer that enables services to communicate with one another securely. Its primary benefit is that it frees the developer from having to code the logic for communication into every service.

The service mesh basically ‘abstracts’ the communication code into an infrastructure layer. It does this through network proxies. Each service communicates through those proxies.

Each service has a proxy that operates like an external attachment, which is called a “sidecar.” The sidecar proxy also handles load balancing, security, data encryption, and other essential functionalities.

When managing hundreds of different services in a microservice architecture or cloud-native application, service meshes save lots of development time and resources.

What is Istio?

Istio is a service mesh. Google developed Istio in collaboration with IBM and Lyft. Istio is an open-source suite that lets organizations manage microservices in their cloud or on-premise deployments. Many organizations use Istio with Kubernetes as well.

In addition to serving as a sidecar proxy, Istio offers a number of features, including:

Service Discovery

For a service to issue a request from another service, it needs to know the IP address of the receiving service. In a traditional application, this is simple because the address is static. But in a cloud-native app, the IP address keeps changing, it’s dynamic.

With a service mesh, you assign each service a name. The service mesh will look up that name and, in turn, link back to the service’s IP address. How? You’re communicating with the service’s sidecar proxy, not the service directly.

Circuit Breakers

Istio stops cascading failures by preventing a problem in one service (or multiple services) from affecting the rest of the application.

Distributed Tracing

Istio provides distributed tracing, which allows you to track a request via the mesh that involves multiple services. It’s a high-level view or picture that helps you find errors for debugging while also giving you an overview of your application’s processes.

Canary Deployments

Though Kubernetes, Docker, Mesos (or Marathon) offer canary testing capabilities, Istio enables for instance scaling. And while it’s true that canary deployments solely focus on a subsection of your users, you can still come across resource management issues. In terms of measuring Istio vs. Kubernetes in terms of canary testing, Istio offers additional capability.


Istio also secures the communication between your services by employing TLS encryption, AAA (authentication, authorization, and audit), and other measures.

Overall, Istio enables developers to acquire a number of essential capabilities for managing their microservices applications without having to code them into each service. Most of Istio’s features are free, which lets developers cut costs as well.

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Google Istio’s Competitors

Istio is one of multiple service mesh options available on the market, such as:

Istio vs. Envoy

Envoy is an alternative for non-GCP environments, such as Azure and Amazon Web Services (AWS). Likewise, Envoy is also an option for organizations deploying the open-source build of Kubernetes. Like Istio, Envoy’s proxy is an open-source service mesh that uses sidecars.

Istio vs. LinkerD

LinkerD is another open-source service mesh for non-GCP and non-GKE deployments.

Consul vs. Istio

Consul began as a service discovery tool, but its founders have rebranded it as a complete service mesh. HashiCorp offers two Consul SKUs: Consul Enterprise and Consul Open-Source. Consul can work on any cloud and Kubernetes platform.

Starting with Kubernetes & Istio

You can install Istio out-of-the-box in Google Kubernetes Engine (GKE) and Google Cloud Platform (GCP). However, not every cloud deployment is able to use Istio.

For non-GCP/GKE deployments, you’ll need a different service mesh, such as Consul; but this will add to your development time and costs.

For More Help on Kubernetes, See:

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