Circuit Breaking

In the world of microservices, services often make calls to other services. But what happens when a service is busy, or unable to respond to that call? How do you avoid a failure in one part of your infrastructure cascading into other parts of your infrastructure? One approach is to use circuit breaking.

Circuit breaking lets you configure failure thresholds that ensure safe maximums after which these requests stop. This allows for a more graceful failure, and time to respond to potential issues before they become larger. It’s possible to implement circuit breaking in a few parts of your infrastructure, but implementing these circuit breakers within services means they are vulnerable to the same overload and failure we’re hoping to prevent. Instead, we can configure circuit breaking at the network layer within Envoy, and combine it with other traffic shaping patterns to ensure healthy and stable infrastructure.

Configuring circuit breaking

Envoy provides simple configuration r of circuit breaking. Consider the specifics of your system as you set up circuit breaking.

Circuit breaking is specified as part of a Cluster (a group of similar upstream hosts) definition by adding a circuit_breakers field. Clusters are returned from the Cluster Discovery Service (CDS), either in the bootstrap config, or a remote CDS server .

Circuit Breaker Configuration

Here's what a simple circuit breaking configuration looks like:

    - priority: DEFAULT
      max_connections: 1000
      max_requests: 1000
    - priority: HIGH
      max_connections: 2000
      max_requests: 2000

In this example, there are a few fields that allow for a lot of service flexibility:

thresholds allows us to define priorities and limits for the type of traffic that our service responds to.

priority refers to how routes defined as DEFAULT or HIGH are treated by the circuit breaker. Using the settings above, we would want to set any requests that shouldn’t wait in a long queue to HIGH. For example: POST requests in a service where a user wants to make a purchase, or save their state.

max_connections are the maximum number of connections that Envoy will make to our service clusters. The default for these is 1024, but in real-world instances we may drastically lower them.

max_requests are the maximum number of parallel requests that Envoy makes to our service clusters. The default is also 1024.

Typical Circuit Breaker Policy

Essentially all clusters will benefit from a simple circuit breaker at the network level. Because HTTP/1.1 and HTTP/2 have different connection behaviors (one connection per request vs. many requests per connection), clusters with different protocols will each use a different option:

  • For HTTP/1.1 connections, use max_connections.
  • For HTTP/2 connections, use max_requests.

In both cases, these settings will ensure the circuit breaker is tripped when the majority of requests in the last 10 seconds have failed. A conservative starting point for a service that does 1,000 requests / second would be 8,000 max connections / requests (80% of 10,000 requests).

This will prevent catastrophic outages based on timeout failures, where a single service cascades everywhere. The most insidious failures happen not because a service is down, but because it’s hanging on to requests for tens of seconds. Generally, it’s better for one service to be completely down than for all services to be outside their SLO because they’re waiting for a timeout deep in the stack.

Advanced circuit breaking

Now that you’ve seen a basic configuration and policy for circuit breaking, we’ll discuss more advanced circuit breaking practices. These advanced practices will add more resiliency to your infrastructure at the network level.


As mentioned above, one of the most common use cases of circuit breakers is to prevent failures that are caused when a service is excessively slow, but not fully down. While Envoy doesn’t directly provide an option to trip the breaker on latency, you can combine it with Automatic Retries to emulate this behavior.

To break on an unexpected spike in slow requests, reduce the latency threshold for retries and enable circuit break on lots of retries using the max_retries option.

If you do this, monitor the results closely! Many practitioners report that setting too low a latency threshold is the only time they’ve created an outage by adding circuit breakers. When this latency threshold too low, you can DoS your services. Start higher than you think you need, and lower it over time.

Configure breaking based on a long queue of retries

Even if you’re only retrying requests on connection errors, it is valuable to set up circuit breaking. Because retries have the potential to increase the number of requests by 2x or more, circuit breaking using the max_retries parameter protects services from being overloaded by too many active retries. Set this value to a similar number as max_connections or max_requests—a fraction of the total number of requests the service typically handles in a 10-second window. If the service has as many retries outstanding as the typical number of requests, it’s broken and should be disabled.

Next Steps

With circuit breaking configured, your service is equipped to help selectively shed load when failure occurs, preventing it from cascading to multiple services. Combining this tool with automatic retries makes for robust services that are able to handle common issues at the network level.

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