Why are microservices growing in popularity for enterprise-level platforms? For many organizations, a microservice architecture provides a faster and more flexible way to leverage technology to meet evolving business needs. For some leaders, microservices better reflect how they want to structure their teams and processes.

But are microservices the best fit for you?

We’re hearing this question more and more from platform owners across multiple industries as software monoliths become increasingly impractical in today’s fast-paced competitive landscape. However, while microservices offer the agility and flexibility that many organizations are looking for, they’re not right for everyone.

In this article, we’ll cover key factors in deciding whether microservices architecture is the right choice for your platform.

What’s the Difference Between Microservices and Monoliths?

Microservices architecture emerged roughly a decade ago to address the primary limitations of monolithic applications: scale, flexibility, and speed.

Microservices are small, separately deployable, software units that together form a single, larger application. Specific functions are carried out by individual services. For example, if your platform allows users to log in to an account, search for products, and pay online, those functions could be delivered as separate microservices and served up through one user interface (UI).

In monolithic architecture, all of the functions and UI are interconnected in a single, self-contained application. All code is traditionally written in one language and housed in a single codebase, and all functions rely on shared data libraries.

A visualization of the Monolithic vs. Microservices architecture approach

Essentially, with most off-the-shelf monoliths, you get what you get. It may do everything, but not be particularly great at anything. With microservices, by contrast, you can build or cherry-pick optimal applications from the best a given industry has to offer.

Because of their modular nature, microservices make it easier to deploy new functions, scale individual services, and isolate and fix problems. On the other hand, with less complexity and fewer moving parts, monoliths can be cheaper and easier to develop and manage.

So which one is better? As with most things technological, it depends on many factors. Let’s take a look at the benefits and drawbacks of microservices.

Advantages of Microservices Architecture

Companies that embrace microservices see it as a cleaner, faster, and more efficient approach to meeting business needs, such as managing a growing user base, expanding feature sets, and deploying solutions quickly. In fact, there are a number of ways in which microservices beat out monoliths for speed, scale, and agility.

Shorter time to market

Large monolithic applications can take a long time to develop and deploy, anywhere from months to years. That could leave you lagging behind your competitors’ product releases or struggling to respond quickly to user feedback.

By leveraging third-party microservices rather than building your own applications from scratch, you can drastically reduce time to market. And, because the services are compartmentalized, they can be built and deployed independently by smaller, dedicated teams working simultaneously. You also have greater flexibility in finding the right tools for the job: you can choose the best of breed for each service, regardless of technology stack.

Lastly, microservices facilitate the minimum viable product approach. Instead of deploying everything on your wishlist at once, you can roll out core services first and then release subsequent services later.

Faster feature releases

Any changes or updates to monoliths require redeploying the entire application. The bigger a monolith gets, the more time and effort is required for things like updates and new releases.

By contrast, because microservices are independently managed, dedicated teams can iterate at their own pace without disrupting others or taking down the entire system. This means you can deploy new features rapidly and continuously, with little to no risk of impacting other areas of the platform.

This added agility also lets you prioritize and manage feature requests from a business perspective, not a technology perspective. Technology shouldn’t prevent you from making changes that increase user engagement or drive revenue—it should enable those changes.

Affordable scalability

If you need to scale just one service in a monolithic architecture, you’ll have to scale and redeploy the entire application. This can get expensive, and you may not be able to scale in time to satisfy rising demand.

Microservices architecture offers not only greater speed and flexibility, but also potential savings in hosting costs, because you can independently scale any individual service that’s under load. You can also configure a single service to add capability automatically until load need is met, and then scale back to normal capacity.

More support for growth

With microservices architecture, you’re not limited to a UI that’s tethered to your back end. For growing organizations that are continually thinking ahead, this is one of the greatest benefits of microservices architecture.

In the past, websites and mobile apps had completely separate codebases, and launching a mobile app meant developing a whole new application. Today, you just need to develop a mobile UI and connect it to the same service as your website UI. Make updates to the service, and it works across everything.

You have complete control over the UI — what it looks like, how it functions for the customer, etc… You can also test and deploy upgrades without disrupting other services. And, as new forms of data access and usage emerge, you have readily available services that you can use for whatever application suits your needs. Digital signage, voice commands for Alexa… and whatever comes next.

A visualization of how a web application can share services with a mobile application through an API gateway

Optimal programming options

Since monolithic applications are tightly coupled and developed with a single stack, all components typically share one programming language and framework. This means any future changes or additions are limited to the choices you make early on, which could cause delays or quality issues in future releases.

Because microservices are loosely coupled and independently deployed, it’s easier to manage diverse datasets and processing requirements. Developers can choose whatever language and storage solution is best suited for each service, without having to coordinate major development efforts with other teams.

Greater resilience

For complex platforms, fault tolerance and isolation are crucial advantages of microservices architecture. There’s less risk of system failure, and it’s easier and faster to fix problems.

In monolithic applications, even just one bug affecting one tiny part of a single feature can cause problems in an unrelated area—or crash the entire application. Any time you make a change to a monolithic application, it introduces risk. With monservices, if one service fails, it’s unlikely to bring others down with it. You’ll have reduced functionality in a specific capacity, not the whole system.

Microservices also make it easier to locate and isolate issues, because you can limit the search to a single software module. Whereas in monoliths, given the possible chain of faults, it’s hard to isolate the root cause of problems or predict the outcome of any changes to the codebase.

Monoliths thus make it difficult and time-consuming to recover from failures, especially since, once an issue has been isolated and resolved, you still have to rebuild and redeploy the entire application. Since microservices allow developers to fix problems or roll back buggy updates in just one service, you’ll see a shorter time to resolution.

Faster onboarding

With smaller, independent code bases, microservices make it faster and easier to onboard new team members. Unlike with monoliths, new developers don't have to understand how every service works or all the interdependencies at play in the system.

This means you won’t have to scour the internet looking for candidates who can code in the only language you’re using, or spend time training them in all the details of your codebase. Chances are, you’ll find new hires more easily and put them to work faster.

Easier updates

As consumer expectations for digital experiences evolve over time, applications need to be updated or upgraded to meet them. Large monolithic applications are generally difficult, and expensive, to upgrade from one version to the next.

Because third-party app owners build and pay for their own updates, with microservices there’s no need to maintain or enhance every tool in your system. For instance, you get to let Stripe perfect its payment processing service while you leverage the new features. You don’t have to pay for future improvements, and you don’t need anyone on staff to be an expert in payment processing and security.

Disadvantages of Microservices Architecture

Do microservices win in every circumstance? Absolutely not. Monoliths can be a more cost-effective, less complicated, and less risky solution for many applications. Below are a few potential downsides of microservices.

Extra complexity

With more moving parts than monolithic applications, microservices may require additional effort, planning, and automation to ensure smooth deployment. Individual services must cooperate to create a working application, but the inherent separation between teams could make it difficult to create a cohesive end product.

Development teams may have to handle multiple programming languages and frameworks. And, with each service having its own database and data storage system, data consistency could be a challenge.

Also, when you choose to leverage numerous 3rd party services, this creates more network connections as well as more opportunities for latency and connectivity issues in your architecture.

Difficulty in monitoring

Given the complexity of microservices architecture and the interdependencies that may exist among applications, it’s more challenging to test and monitor the entire system. Each microservice requires individualized testing and monitoring.

You could build automated testing scripts to ensure individual applications are always up and running, but this adds time and complexity to system maintenance.

Added external risks

There are always risks when using third-party applications, in terms of both performance and security. The more microservices you employ, the more possible points of failure exist that you don’t directly control.

In addition, with multiple independent containers, you're exposing more of your system to potential attackers. Those distributed services need to talk to one another, and a high number of inter-service network communications can create opportunities for outside entities to access your system.

On an upside, the containerized nature of microservices architecture prevents security threats in one service from compromising other system components. As we noted in the advantages section above, it’s also easier to track down the root cause of a security issue.

Potential culture changes

Microservices architecture usually works best in organizations that employ a DevOps-first approach, where independent clusters of development and operations teams work together across the lifecycle of an individual service. This structure can make teams more productive and agile in bringing solutions to market. But, at an organizational level, it requires a broader skill set for developing, deploying, and monitoring each individual application.

A DevOps-first culture also means decentralizing decision-making power, shifting it from project teams to a shared responsibility among teams and DevOps engineers. The goal is to ensure that a given microservice meets a solution’s technical requirements and can be supported in the architecture in terms of security, stability, auditing, etc…

3 Paths Toward Microservices Transformation

In general, there are three different approaches to developing a microservices architecture:

1. Deconstruct a monolith

This kind of approach is most common for large enterprise applications, and it can be a massive undertaking. Take Airbnb, for instance: several years ago, the company migrated from a monolith architecture to a service-oriented architecture incorporating microservices. Features such as search, reservations, messaging, and checkout were broken down into one or more individual services, enabling each service to be built, deployed, and scaled independently.

In most cases, it’s not just the monolith that becomes decentralized. Organizations will often break up their development group, creating smaller, independent teams that are responsible for developing, testing, and deploying individual applications.

2. Leverage PBCs

Packaged Business Capabilities, or PBCs, are essentially autonomous collections of microservices that deliver a specific business capability. This approach is often used to create best-of-breed solutions, where many services are third-party tools that talk to each other via APIs.

PBCs can stand alone or serve as the building blocks of larger app suites. Keep in mind, adding multiple microservices or packaged services can drive up costs as the complexity of integration increases.

3. Combine both types

Small monoliths can be a cost-effective solution for simple applications with limited feature sets. If that applies to your business, you may want to build a custom app with a monolithic architecture.

However, there are likely some services, such as payment processing, that you don’t want to have to build yourself. In that case, it often makes sense to build a monolith and incorporate a microservice for any features that would be too costly or complex to tackle in-house.

A Few Words of Caution

Even though they’re called “microservices”, be careful not to get too small. If you break services down into many tiny applications, you may end up creating an overly complex application with excessive overhead. Lots of micro-micro services can easily become too much to maintain over time, with too many teams and people managing different pieces of an application.

Given the added complexity and potential costs of microservices, for smaller platforms with only one UI it may be best to start with a monolithic application and slowly add microservices as you need them. Start at a high level and zoom in over time, looking for specific functions you can optimize to make you stand out.

Lastly, choose your third party services with care. It’s not just about the features; you also need to consider what the costs might look like if you need to scale a particular service.

Final Thoughts: Micro or Mono?

Still trying to decide which architecture is right for your platform? Here are some of the most common scenarios we encounter with clients:

  1. If time to market is the most important consideration, then leveraging 3rd party microservices is usually the fastest way to build out a platform or deliver new features.
  2. If some aspect of what you’re doing is custom, then consider starting with a monolith and either building custom services or using 3rd parties for areas that will help suit a particular need.
  3. If you don’t have a ton of money, and you need to get something up quick and dirty, then consider starting with a monolith and splitting it up later.

Here at Oomph, we understand that enterprise-level software is an enormous investment and a fundamental part of your business. Your choice of architecture can impact everything from overhead to operations. That’s why we take the time to understand your business goals, today and down the road, to help you choose the best fit for your needs.

We’d love to hear more about your vision for a digital platform. Contact us today to talk about how we can help.