The rise of microservice architecture in the past several years has been nothing short of meteoric. According to a 2020 survey by O’Reilly, 77% of businesses report that they have now adopted a microservice architecture, and 92% of these say their adoption has been successful. Meanwhile, the IBM report “Microservices in the enterprise, 2021” found many benefits associated with moving to a microservice architecture, from better customer retention and data security to greater flexibility and employee productivity.
Regardless of why companies adopt a microservice architecture (also called “microservices architecture” or just “microservices”), it’s clear that this innovation is here to stay. For organizations new to this phenomenon, however, you might wonder, “What is microservices architecture?” or “How does microservice architecture work?”
If you want to understand the world of microservices and why it’s become so popular, this article is for you. Below, we’ll go over everything you need to know to start your journey to microservices. This includes the definition of microservice architecture, the benefits of a microservice-based architecture, the challenges and best practices of adopting microservices, and more.
What is microservice architecture?
Microservice architecture, or microservices, refers to a specific approach to software development in which the application is separated or decomposed into smaller, interconnected parts. Each of these parts, known as a “microservice,” has a unique function or role to play within this larger distributed system.
Consider the example of an eCommerce software application for a medium-sized online business. This application has a variety of responsibilities: delivering the storefront via web and mobile devices, managing user accounts, overseeing product inventories, handling order shipping and delivery, etc.
Rather than compiling all of these functions into a single application (known as a “monolithic application”), microservice architecture suggests a different method. Developers will write a lightweight, efficient, small-scale application (a “microservice”) to perform a specific task.
These microservices can operate largely independently, although they may need to exchange data from time to time. For instance, when customers look up their accounts, they should be able to view their history of previous orders. Under microservice architecture, multiple microservices can easily communicate via basic interfaces or protocols to obtain the information they need.
A microservices application generally follows the principles below:
- Multiple microservices or components: By definition, a microservices-based architecture can be disassembled into multiple interlocking components, each with its own designated purpose. This approach has several advantages. For example, software development teams can change a single microservice without touching the entire application’s code base.
- Business-focused: The different elements of a microservices application are generally separated according to their business function (e.g., order management, inventory, and customer service for an eCommerce website). This stands in contrast to traditional software development, in which an application is separated conceptually according to the technologies in each layer (e.g., user interface, front-end, database, etc.).
- Decentralized: Microservice architectures must be decentralized and autonomous, which makes them more complex than a single application. For example, multiple microservices may each have their own databases. However, decentralization has benefits as well: if one part of the system goes down, the others can continue to operate as long as they do not need to communicate with the failed microservice.
Monolithic vs microservice architecture
To truly understand the rise of microservices, we need to compare them with what came before: monolithic architecture.
As the name suggests, a monolithic application consists of a single unit, combining multiple components under one roof. In a monolithic application, the code that controls the appearance of the user interface is built and deployed together with the code that controls the underlying database logic. In other words, there is no separation of concerns as there is with microservices.
This technique has its advantages in terms of simplicity for a development team. Having only a single code base makes it easier to build, debug, test, and deploy monolithic applications.
However, monolithic applications have significant drawbacks as well. Without decomposing the application into smaller pieces, it becomes difficult or impossible to scale individual functions. What’s more, bugs or errors in a single component can affect the entire application’s performance, potentially causing a system-wide crash.
The disadvantages of monolithic architecture have led to the rise of an entirely different concept: microservices. For what it loses in terms of greater complexity during the development process, microservice architecture gains benefits such as agility, scalability, and faster release cycles through CI/CD (continuous integration/continuous delivery).
Headless vs microservice architecture
To further understand microservice architecture, we need to compare it with another common software design pattern: headless architecture. Headless architecture is most often used in industries such as eCommerce, which has led to the use of terms like “headless commerce.”
Headless architecture can be seen as a special form of microservices that seeks to decouple an application’s front end (the interface and visual appearance) from its back end (the business logic, database, and content management system). So what’s the difference between headless and microservices?
In headless architecture, the division between the front end and the back end is usually as far as the separation goes. Headless architecture can thus be seen as one of the simpler types of microservices.
The term “microservices,” on the other hand, includes both headless architecture and a variety of other decoupled, decentralized software architectures. Organizations that adopt microservice architecture may be content to adopt a headless approach, or they may wish to have an even more fine-grained separation of different systems. When it comes to headless vs. microservices, the right answer will depend on a company’s specific use case and business objectives.
4 benefits of microservice architecture
Despite the inherent advantages of microservice architecture, it’s no mean feat to convert a monolithic application to microservices. Given this fact, you might wonder: Why are so many businesses migrating to a microservice architecture?
For many companies, the time and effort required to migrate to microservices are well worth the payoff. In this section, we’ll explore 4 of the greatest benefits of microservice architecture.
1. Higher scalability
As mentioned above, one of the biggest advantages of microservices is the higher levels of scalability that they enable. Each microservice runs independently and autonomously of the others, which means it can also scale independently as necessary.
Developers can manually or automatically adjust how much compute and storage each microservice uses, acting in response to anticipated or unexpected changes in demand. The scalability of microservices also has downstream benefits, including lower IT costs due to more accurate resource consumption levels.
2. Greater fault isolation
One of the gravest problems with monolithic applications is their issue with reliability and availability. A single bug or error somewhere in the code base can make the entire system crash, bringing operations to a halt.
By decoupling different functions of the application, microservice architecture greatly improves software’s fault isolation. Even if one microservice suffers downtime, the rest of the application can often continue operating as normal.
3. Faster deployment
With monolithic applications, software development and deployment are simpler conceptually. They're also slower. Even if some functionality is complete, developers must wait for the entire application to be finished before it can be deployed.
By divorcing different components from each other, microservice architectures let developers test and deploy parts of the application more quickly once they are complete. These faster speeds lead to greater business agility and a spirit of experimentation.
4. More technology flexibility
Monolithic applications must be built using a single technology stack (i.e., a single set of programming languages, frameworks, libraries, database technologies, and other components). This has disadvantages in terms of the restrictions that it places on developers.
Microservice applications, by contrast, can use as many tech stacks as there are components in the application. While it’s usually best to stick to a limited set of technologies for efficiency and productivity reasons, microservices enable developers to make changes when desired or necessary.
Microservice architecture migrations: challenges and best practices
You’ve decided that microservice architecture is the right choice—so what do you need to know before you start your journey to microservices? Below, we’ll go over the challenges businesses should be aware of and the best practices they should follow when migrating to a microservice architecture.
Challenges of moving to microservice architecture
- Complexity: Microservices applications have more moving parts, making them more difficult to decompose and develop.
- Testing: Microservices applications must be thoroughly tested to ensure they are equivalent to their monolithic versions.
- Debugging: Microservices applications are more challenging to debug since it is harder to trace the root cause of problems in a distributed system.
Best practices when moving to microservice architecture
- Choose the right cloud provider: Microservices are a natural fit for cloud computing, which also offers the benefits of greater scalability and reliability. Before the migration, do your research to find the right public cloud provider: Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud Platform, etc.
- Adopt other technologies: In addition to the cloud, microservice architecture aligns well with other cutting-edge technologies and practices. These include the open-source Docker solution for containers and the DevOps methodology for software development. While moving to microservices, you might capitalize on the chance to explore other migration opportunities as well.
- Work with a partner: If you’ve never worked with microservice architectures, it’s an excellent idea to work with an IT managed services company that can help you along the way. These partners offer the technical skills, experience, and guidance you need to make the migration project a success.
When should (or shouldn’t) you migrate to a microservice architecture?
You might have already read about the benefits of microservices, but aren’t sure whether you want to take the plunge. The question is, when should a business consider migrating from monolithic to microservice architecture?
If you’re groaning under the weight of monolithic legacy technology, then microservices might be in your future. The biggest signs that it’s time to move to microservices are:
- You’re struggling to adequately scale your monolithic application in response to demand.
- You’re experiencing significant downtime issues with one or more parts of the application.
- Your organization is suffering from lack of innovation and business agility.
On the other hand, you might not need to move to microservices if:
- You’re completely happy with your existing monolithic application.
- You don’t anticipate needing to grow the application in the future.
- You’re not sure how to break down the application into different business domains.
- The application is small or not mission-critical, making benefits like scalability and reliability less important.
Microservices have soared in popularity as a software architecture option in recent years. Thus far, we’ve explored the reasons for this trend and the challenges and best practices of migrating to microservice architecture. There’s just one question left: how can you put what you’ve learned about microservices into practice?
For many businesses, joining forces with an experienced IT solutions partner like Codal is the right answer. Codal is an award-winning user experience design and full-stack web development company that helps businesses build the digital solutions they need. Our fields of expertise range from product design and development to eCommerce, data management, and microservice architectures.
Our microservice architecture offerings cover everything you need to get started converting your legacy monolithic applications to a modern microservices-based approach. We handle everything from strategic planning and roadmapping to software engineering and long-term maintenance.
Want to learn more about how Codal can help improve your IT environment with microservice architectures? Get in touch with our team of experts today to discuss your business needs and objectives.