What’s the Difference Between an API Gateway and a Service Mesh?

In Kubernetes, both a service mesh and an API gateway serve as important components for managing and securing microservices-based applications, but they have different focuses and functionalities. Let's explore the difference between the two:

Service Mesh

A service mesh is a dedicated infrastructure layer that provides communication and observability capabilities between services within a distributed system. It is typically implemented as a sidecar proxy alongside each service instance in the Kubernetes cluster. Popular service mesh frameworks include Istio, Linkerd, and Consul Connect.

Key features and benefits of a service mesh include:

  1. Service-to-service communication: Service meshes handle the network communication between services, abstracting away the complexities of service discovery, load balancing, and routing.
  2. Traffic management: Service meshes enable fine-grained control over traffic routing and can implement advanced traffic management techniques such as A/B testing, canary releases, and circuit breaking.
  3. Observability and monitoring: Service meshes provide robust observability features like distributed tracing, metrics collection, and logging, allowing for better visibility into the interactions and performance of services.
  4. Security and policy enforcement: Service meshes can enforce security measures such as encryption, authentication, and authorization between services. They enable policy-based access control and implement mutual TLS (Transport Layer Security) to secure communication channels.

API Gateway

An API gateway acts as a centralized entry point for external clients to access the services in a microservices architecture. It provides a set of APIs that clients can interact with, handling request routing, transformation, and security. In Kubernetes, API gateways can be implemented using tools like Ambassador, Kong, or Traefik.

Key features and benefits of an API gateway include:

  1. External client interaction: API gateways serve as the primary interface for external clients to access the services within a Kubernetes cluster. They handle client requests and route them to the appropriate services.
  2. Request routing and aggregation: API gateways can route requests to different services based on predefined rules or policies. They can aggregate multiple backend service calls into a single API call to reduce network overhead.
  3. Protocol transformation: API gateways can translate requests and responses between different protocols or data formats. For example, they can convert RESTful requests to GraphQL or SOAP requests to JSON.
  4. Authentication and authorization: API gateways handle authentication and authorization of client requests, ensuring that only authorized clients can access specific services. They can enforce security policies, rate limiting, and API key management.

The K8s Gateway API

It’s worth discussing the K8s Gateway API which is standardizing the API Gateway and Service Mesh interfaces.

Gateway API is an open source project managed by the SIG-NETWORK community. It is a collection of resources that model service networking in Kubernetes. These resources - GatewayClass, Gateway, HTTPRoute, TCPRoute, Service, etc - aim to evolve Kubernetes service networking through expressive, extensible, and role-oriented interfaces that are implemented by many vendors and have broad industry support.

The GAMMA initiative allows you to use the same API resources to configure both ingress traffic routing and internal (i.e mesh) traffic.


A service mesh focuses on internal service-to-service communication, traffic management, and observability within a Kubernetes cluster. An API gateway, on the other hand, acts as the entry point for external clients, providing request routing, protocol transformation, and security enforcement. While they can complement each other, they serve distinct purposes in a microservices architecture.

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