“Escaping the monolithic hell”: towards new architectural styles

Exploring Architectural Styles

Microservices architecture has emerged as a leading approach in software development, finding widespread adoption in industries where scalability, flexibility, and rapid innovation are paramount.

The mid to late 2010s marked a significant turning point. Amazon had already started to migrate away from traditional architecture around 2002, and later, Netflix and Uber followed suit. These organizations and their success stories in implementing the new architectural style served as catalysts, driving wider recognition and adoption.

The Traditional Approach

Prior to microservices, applications were typically built using monolithic architecture. Which means tightly coupling all components into a single unit, resulting in complex and rigid systems.

With this approach it was impossible to take full advantage of the distributed nature of cloud infrastructure, as the entire monolith had to be scaled even if only a specific feature required additional resources.

Moreover, upgrading technologies across the application was cumbersome, and a failure in one part of the monolith could bring down the entire system. Large development teams working on the same codebase faced coordination issues and slower development cycles.

It was acceptable (and sometimes still is) for small projects with limited complexity and team size, as it made development and deployment simpler. But the traditional style seems mostly inadequate when dealing with large-scale projects.

Not surprisingly, the rise of microservices architecture coincided with the adoption of cloud infrastructure in the early to mid-2010s. Cloud’s scalability and distributed capabilities complemented the decentralized and independently deployable nature of microservices.

Breaking applications into smaller services enabled efficient resource allocation, fault tolerance, and improved performance through distributed deployments.

Architectural patterns

In order to “escape the monolithic hell” (as per Chris Richardson, in his very good book on the subject, 2019) software has to be designed or redesigned following a number of strong principles and patterns. Some of the most important ones include:

  1. Database per Service: Each microservice has its dedicated database, promoting independence and autonomy.
  2. Service Registry: A central directory that enables dynamic service discovery, facilitating loose coupling and fault tolerance.
  3. API Gateway: Provides a unified entry point for clients, handling authentication, routing, and shielding complexities.
  4. Strangler Fig: Gradually replaces monolithic systems by incrementally introducing microservices.
  5. Saga: Coordinates distributed transactions across multiple microservices to maintain data consistency.

The interplay between these patterns ensures consistent and coordinated transactions, and enables gradual modernization. It enhances flexibility, resilience, and efficiency, empowering businesses to adapt quickly to evolving market demands and drive sustained success in the digital age.

As of 2019, when Chris Richardson published his book Microservices Patterns he could still lament and say that “business-critical enterprise applications are typically large monoliths developed by large teams. Software releases occur infrequently and are often painful for everyone involved. IT often struggles to keep up with the needs of the business“.

“Business-critical enterprise applications are typically large monoliths developed by large teams. Software releases occur infrequently and are often painful for everyone involved. IT often struggles to keep up with the needs of the business.”

Chris Richardson

The business value of agility

Any digital transformation process will be (or should be) closely scrutinized in terms of its costs and business impact. This allows for drawing a loose analogy between the Maslow’s Pyramid and building software: if your focus is on complex architecture, you probably need to scale and have (or should have) funding to implement it.

Therefore, it should not be understated that this kind of architecture is mostly relevant for large-scale projects. In smaller ones, SOA or monolithic architectures that consider some degree of modularity will suffice.

That being said, the business impact of this type of architecture is immense. Businesses gain agility and innovation capabilities, responding quickly to market demands and customer needs. The independent scalability and fault isolation of microservices ensure efficient resource utilization, improved reliability, and resilience.

Streamlined development and deployment processes, commonly known as DevOps, empower teams to deliver value faster. Additionally, the flexibility to adopt diverse technologies future-proofs the architecture, allowing businesses to stay ahead of technological advancements.

Mark Schwartz, one of the strong voices on IT strategy and BizTech perspective, puts it this way:

“That older way of thinking led us to make large commitments rather than seeing the value of small, incremental changes to the IT estate (…) It took our attention off a very important source of business value—the agility of our infrastructure and its ability to meet emerging business needs in a fast-changing environment.”

Mark Schwartz

The importance of building agility into IT assets cannot be underestimated as it can be the make-or-break factor for the entire operation. Therefore, companies should carefully assess their business growth and the complexity of their services.

Will this transformation align with the long-term goals of the organization? Does the company have the technical expertise and resources to support this approach? Is there a temporary need for a mentor or a partner to facilitate the transition? Careful SWOT and competitor analysis will not be in vain.

As of today, the gap between technologists and business professionals is not as wide as it once was, and current trends indicate that the gap is continuously narrowing. Microservices architecture is one such trend. If scalability, flexibility, and incremental development and deployment align with your digital business model, you are already considering migrating your infrastructure to microservices.

Stay tuned for our upcoming blog posts on IT strategy and related subjects.

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