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What is a Service Mesh? Benefits and Top Service Mesh Products

Jake Beck
March 12, 2024 | 14 min read

In today's cloud native landscape, microservices have become the go-to architectural approach for building scalable and resilient applications. However, managing the communication between these microservices can be complex. This is where a service mesh comes into play. Let’s delve into the concept of a service mesh, how it works, why it is essential, and highlight some of the top service mesh products available in the market.

Learn about the service mesh, how it works, why you need it, and the top 4 service mesh products.

What is service mesh?

A service mesh is a dedicated infrastructure layer that controls service-to-service communications over a network, thereby allowing microservices to communicate with and sometimes across each other.

The microservices architecture is structured in such a way that services can be independently deployed around a business logic. However, these services oftentimes work interdependently and communicate with each other to process larger business requests.

How does a service mesh work?

A service mesh is divided into two planes - the data plane and the control plane. The responsibility of a data plane is to aid the communication of services within the mesh. It can provide features such as service discoveryresilience, observability, and security for the microservices. On the other hand, the control plane defines policy and ensures the data plane follows that policy. A service mesh utilizes a proxy instance called a sidecar. This sidecar proxy is attached to the control plane, configuring and managing each sidecar concerning its designated service. Also, all network traffic from an individual service is filtered through the sidecar proxy.

API Gateway vs Service Mesh: What's the Difference?

Once user traffic has arrived at your Kubernetes cluster, there are two routing rules in which communication needs to be managed: into and out of the cluster (north/south) via an API Gateway like Edge Stack and between microservices within the cluster (east/west), managed by a service mesh. Watch this video by Richard Li to learn about the differences between an API gateway and a service mesh when working with microservices and Kubernetes.

API Gateway vs Service Mesh

An API Gateway and a Service Mesh are both essential components in managing communication and traffic within a microservices architecture, but they serve different purposes and operate at different levels of the infrastructure. Here's a breakdown of the key differences between an API Gateway and a Service Mesh:


  • API Gateway: An API Gateway, like Edge Stack, primarily focuses on managing communication between clients (external or internal) and services. It acts as a single entry point for all API requests, handling tasks such as request routing, authentication, rate limiting, and protocol translation. It operates at the application level and is responsible for managing north/south traffic (into and out of the cluster).
  • Service Mesh: A service mesh, on the other hand, focuses on managing communication between microservices within the cluster. It handles east/west traffic, which refers to communication between services within the cluster. Service Mesh provides features like service discovery, load balancing, circuit breaking, observability, and security. It operates at the infrastructure level and is responsible for managing service-to-service communication.


  • API Gateway: An API Gateway provides a centralized point of control for managing APIs. It offers features like request routing, protocol translation, authentication, authorization, rate limiting, caching, and response transformation. It often includes additional capabilities like API documentation, developer portal, and analytics.
  • Service Mesh: A Service Mesh provides features like service discovery, load balancing, circuit breaking, retries, timeouts, observability, and security. It focuses on enhancing the reliability, resilience, and observability of microservices-based applications.


  • API Gateway: An API Gateway is typically deployed at the edge of the network, acting as a gateway between clients and services. It can be deployed as a standalone component or as part of a larger API management platform.
  • Service Mesh: A Service Mesh is deployed as a sidecar proxy alongside each microservice within the cluster. It operates at the network level, intercepting and managing traffic between services. Service Mesh can be integrated with container orchestration platforms like Kubernetes.

While they serve different purposes, an API Gateway and a Service Mesh can be used together to provide end-to-end communication management. An API Gateway can handle external traffic and provide additional security and governance features, while a Service Mesh manages internal service-to-service communication, providing resilience and observability within the cluster. Both components play important roles in managing communication within a microservices architecture and can be used together to provide comprehensive communication management.

Can an API Gateway and a Service Mesh be used together?

People often wonder whether they can use an API gateway and a service mesh together or if there’s a need for it. While both technologies have several similarities and aid effective traffic management and communication in cloud native applications, their significant difference lies in how they operate.

For instance, the API gateway works at the application level, managing traffic from edge level client-to-service while the service mesh operates on the infrastructure level, dividing application functionality into microservices & managing internal service-to-service communication. When combined, you get a great end-to-end communication experience!

To minimize the effort developers spend on managing communications and maximize the agility of your application, it is recommended that you utilize a service mesh and an API gateway together on your application.

Why do you need a service mesh?

In Kubernetes, a service mesh can be customized and configured to handle a wide range of DevOps needs by DevOps teams. For instance, a service mesh offers the following:


The need for resilient communication in distributed systems is certainly not new. A service mesh helps increase the overall resiliency of microservices-based applications by providing features like circuit breaking, retries, and timeouts, which mitigate the impact of failures, delays, and network issues. The ultimate goal of resilience is to ensure that failures or degradations of particular microservice instances don’t cause cascading failures that cause downtime for the entire distributed system, and that’s exactly what a service mesh provides.


A service mesh supports collecting all of the four golden metrics, and other additional ways to access your metrics, like viewing them through graphical dashboards and exporting them through APIs for use in other tools. Another way that service meshes provide observability is through distributed tracing - every service mesh implements distributed tracing in different ways, but they have a few things in common.

Distributed tracing in service meshes needs code modification for unique trace headers and a distinct backend. It deepens insights when standard metrics fall short, enhancing understanding and troubleshooting.


A service mesh provides security by protecting the communications between pods by using Transport Layer Security (TLS) - which uses cryptography to ensure that the information being communicated can’t be monitored or altered by others. Service meshes also help with authentication and authorization by authorizing and authenticating requests made from both outside and within the app, sending only validated requests to instances. In addition to the aforementioned benefits, a service mesh enables organizations to easily adopt and establish the zero trust security model.

Top Service Mesh Products 2024

Envoy Proxy service mesh is a popular choice for use as a data plane. Originally developed by Lyft, Envoy Proxy is now a Cloud Native Computing Foundation project, with hundreds of contributors from many companies such as AirBnb, Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Pinterest, and Salesforce. Different service mesh implementations have different feature sets - some promote simplicity, while others focus on capabilities. Here are the top service mesh platforms in the cloud native industry for your consideration:


The Istio service mesh is an open source project created by the engineering team at IBM, Google and Lyft. Istio uses Envoy as the sidecar proxy which enables it to simplify traffic management, security, connection, and observability in distributed systems.


Consul is a service mesh built by HashiCorp. It provides a networking layer that connects, secures, and configures service-to-service communication in distributed systems.


Linkerd is a simple, lightweight, and open source Kubernetes-native service mesh. It is a graduated project and unlike Istio which uses Envoy, Linkerd uses its own proxy called linked2-proxy.

AWS App Mesh

The AWS App Mesh is a service mesh built for EKS. It provides an out-of-the-box circuit breaking incorporated with tools like AWS X-Ray and Prometheus, thereby giving Kubernetes development teams more visibility.

What else should you know about service mesh?

A service mesh offers various resiliency strategies such as circuit breaking, retries, timeouts, and load balancing. The Service Mesh Interface (SMI) provides a standardized way to configure and manage service mesh features, including traffic policies, access control, and metrics. Additionally, service mesh capabilities like status checks, service proxy status checks, service route metrics, and dynamic service route configuration help in debugging and mitigating app failures.

How to utilize a service mesh in a Cloud native app

How to implement resiliency for distributed systems

  • Resilience strategies
  • Load balancing
  • Timeouts and automatic retries
  • Deadlines and circuit breakers

The service mesh interface (SMI) and how it works

How to use a service mesh to debug and mitigate app failures

By leveraging these features, developers can build more resilient and reliable distributed systems Here’s a breakdown of what else is relevant to the service mesh world:

How to implement resiliency for distributed systems

Resilience strategies including:

  • Circuit Breaking: Circuit breakers help prevent cascading failures by monitoring the health of downstream services. If a service becomes unresponsive or starts producing errors, the circuit breaker trips and temporarily stops sending requests to that service, allowing it to recover.
  • Retries: Retrying failed requests can help mitigate transient failures. A service mesh can automatically retry failed requests, reducing the impact of temporary network issues or service unavailability.
  • Timeouts: Setting timeouts for requests ensures that services do not wait indefinitely for a response. If a response is not received within the specified time, the request is considered failed, and appropriate actions can be taken.
  • Deadlines: Deadlines define the maximum time allowed for a request to be processed end-to-end. They help prevent requests from waiting indefinitely and enable better resource allocation and request prioritization.
  • Circuit Breakers: Circuit breakers monitor the health of services and can open or close the circuit based on predefined thresholds. When the circuit is open, requests are not sent to the unhealthy service, preventing further degradation of the system.

Load Balancing 101

Load balancing distributes incoming requests across multiple instances of a service, ensuring optimal utilization of resources and preventing any single instance from being overwhelmed. A service mesh can handle load balancing automatically, distributing traffic based on predefined algorithms or policies.

The Service Mesh Interface (SMI) and How It Works

The Service Mesh Interface (SMI) is a specification that defines a set of APIs for interoperability between different service mesh implementations. It provides a standardized way to configure and manage service mesh features. Some key SMI APIs include:

  • Traffic specs API: This API allows you to define traffic policies and rules for routing requests based on specific criteria such as headers, paths, or request methods.
  • Traffic Split API: The Traffic Split API enables you to split traffic between different versions of a service, facilitating canary deployments or A/B testing.
  • Traffic Access Control API: This API provides fine-grained control over access to services, allowing you to define policies for authentication, authorization, and rate limiting.
  • Traffic Metrics API: The Traffic Metrics API allows you to collect and monitor metrics related to service mesh traffic, such as request rates, latencies, and error rates.

How to use a service mesh to debug and mitigate app failures:

  1. Status Checks: Service mesh can perform health checks on services to ensure they are running and responding properly. Status checks can help identify unhealthy services and take appropriate actions, such as routing traffic away from them.
  2. Service Proxy Status Checks: Service mesh proxies can also perform health checks on themselves to ensure they are functioning correctly. If a proxy becomes unhealthy, the service mesh can automatically replace it or take other remedial actions.
  3. Service Route Metrics: Service mesh provides metrics and monitoring capabilities to track the performance and behavior of services. By analyzing service route metrics, you can identify bottlenecks, latency issues, or errors in specific service routes and take corrective measures.
  4. Service Route Configuration for Issue Mitigation: Service mesh allows you to dynamically configure service routes, enabling you to redirect traffic, apply traffic shaping, or implement canary deployments. By adjusting the service route configuration, you can mitigate issues and minimize the impact of failures.

Mesh it All Together, and it’s the best of both worlds!

In the end, a service mesh is a crucial component in modern cloud-native applications, enabling efficient and secure communication between microservices. By leveraging features like resilience, observability, and security, organizations can enhance the performance and reliability of their applications.

Consider exploring the top service mesh products mentioned in this blog to find the one that best suits your requirements, and recognize that when an API gateway and service mesh are used together, it’s the best of both worlds to elevate your API security and developer productivity. When in doubt, mesh it out!

Do you want to learn more about Edge Stack API Gateway or integrate it with your existing service mesh?

Edge Stack

Do you want to learn more about Edge Stack API Gateway or integrate it with your existing service mesh?