Monolithic vs. microservices: why decoupled and headless architectures are the future

Jul 23, 20206 min read

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Monolithic architecture has served us well. In the early days of the web, companies needed a system to empower users to manage and deliver content. A monolithic architecture provided an all-in-one, or “coupled,” system with a codebase that pulled in everything necessary for managing and publishing content to the web.

However, when mobile internet usage began to exceed that of desktop around 2014, the “all-in-one” element of monolithic architecture became more hindrance than a helper. Businesses now needed to serve consumer experiences on a variety of devices and channels.

That’s why, today, there’s a new content management system (CMS) contender that may very well bring microservices-based software to the forefront of the digital experience landscape.

The following takes a closer look at monolithic vs. microservices architectures, as well as tips for choosing which solution is right for your business needs.

Understanding the basics of monolithic vs. microservices software

diagram to show the basics of the Monolithic vs. Microservices Software interface

Despite its name, microservices architecture doesn’t mean it’s “small.” However, it is built to be lean. A microservices-based application consists of a suite of small services, each with its unique codebase. Microservices use lightweight mechanisms (such as an application program interface or API) to communicate between the various services. These services are focused on business goals you can deploy separately or together as needed through automation. There is very little centralized management of these services, making the system “decoupled” or headless because it does not function as one unified workflow.

What’s so appealing about a decoupled microservices architecture? For starters, some key advantages include:

Improved performance: With headless microservices, it’s easier to isolate specific services and grow them separately from the rest of the app as they’re performing well.

Less mess: The decoupling of services enables parallel development of the entire app with fewer breaks and overlaps between different services.

Enhanced configuration: It’s easier to reconfigure decoupled services to serve various functions, which allows for faster, independent delivery of specific portions within a larger whole.

Better organization: As each service has a precise role and its own codebase, microservices tend to have better overall organization among services.

When comparing monolithic vs. microservices solutions, microservices architecture can bring challenges. Challenges, such as cross-cutting concerns that span each service (which need individualized resolutions) to higher operational overhead. These concerns depend on how the systems are designed and leveraged, which varies significantly across situations.

Why your timing matters when deploying microservices architecture

Monolithic had its time to shine, but microservices architecture is in the spotlight now. Legions of software architects can’t resist the chance to break down monolithic software and build new delivery methods and pipelines full of small services with specific business purposes.

Due to the complexity of product chains and marketing content delivery, enterprise companies are adopting headless microservices. Even Amazon and Netflix have jumped on the bandwagon!

However popular microservices architecture gets, it’s notable that microservices aren’t always suitable for every situation.

Teams building new applications and looking to increase productivity while simplifying their workflow might be better served running traditional monolithic vs. microservices software. As product offerings and content become more complex, enabling a microservices architecture in place of a monolithic one becomes an essential future priority.

Timing does matter when deploying CMS solutions. Applications evolve. With greater size and scope, microservices start to make the most sense.

How headless architecture settles the monolithic vs. microservices debate

Let’s first make the term “headless” a bit less intimidating. Headless architecture (also called “decoupled”) is part of a broader trend in software and internet services toward linking specialized elements together through a unified network rather than a holistic software deployment. When it comes to monolithic vs. microservices software, the breakdown is:

  • Monolithic = a traditional, all-in-one-style CMS
  • Microservices = a headless, decoupled CMS

Diagram of how a traditional cms works

Headless architecture does the work of decoupling the frontend from the backend within a CMS. This separation allows users to store data in one place while sending it across many channels and services.

diagram of a headless cms

There are several excellent reasons for the growing shift towards headless architecture in the monolithic vs. microservices discussion. The biggest one is speed.

High-growth companies that are heavily internet-dependent and the widespread adoption of enterprise mobility have pushed companies to improve and update their applications constantly. Just think about how often your smartphone asks you to update the dozens of applications on it. Through decoupling, a company can separate the frontend, backend, and content to speed up new releases. In other words, constantly enhancing the user experience takes precedent with headless microservices architecture.

Another reason for the movement towards decoupled architecture is the push towards an omnichannel approach for content distribution. Omnichannel distribution calls for flexibility that doesn’t exist in traditional monolithic solutions because the frontend and backend are inextricably linked. Any changes on one end inevitably flow through the other. This approach costs resources and introduces risk.

When comparing monolithic and microservices software, a decoupled architecture reduces costs and risks while allowing for steady distribution across channels and an uninterrupted user experience. Together these reasons make a compelling case for the future of microservices architecture.

How to choose: monolithic vs. microservices content management systems

With a traditional, monolithic CMS, you know what you’re getting. That path has been well-traveled. You can expect fewer cross-cutting concerns (which happens in most applications) and likely less operational overheard as a monolith is in some cases less complex to deploy. Shared-memory access tends to be a bit faster than inter-process communication, so you’re not sacrificing speed and performance.

As the application evolves and gets more entangled, it can be challenging to isolate services and scale them independently — not to mention ongoing code maintenance challenges. Also, monolithic architecture can get quite complex, and the various side effects and dependencies are not always apparent.

Monolithic vs. microservices

Do you have existing content management solutions and are you looking to grow your ecommerce offerings?
More offering requires larger effort
Growth of offerings easier
Are you content heavy and/or have content that is media-rich, rapidly evolving, or experiencing rapid growth?

Less ability to evolve content rapidly

More ability to evolve and grow content

Do you have experience marketing and content management capacities with a desire for more control?
Less experience, less control needed
Better with more experience, offers more control
Do you wish to deliver highly-personalized, one-to-one experiences with a more narrow approach to targeting?
Harder to personalize, targeting is limited

Allows for personalization, narrow targeting

Are you operating a large conglomerate with many subsidiary companies or divisions that need agency over their content guidelines and workflows?
Ideal if only managing content workflows for one large company
Allows sub-entities to manage workflows

As we’ve shown below, there are pros and cons to each solution when comparing monolithic vs. microservices. How to decide which is better depends on your situation. With a deep understanding of your company’s unique use case, walking through the following questions should help you make the best choice between monolithic vs. microservices CMS.

As we hope we’ve demonstrated, there are many important considerations to discuss with your team when considering a monolithic vs. microservices software solution. We hope this article helps you navigate through all those key decision points.

If you are interested in learning even more about using a headless CMS to supercharge your content strategy, check out this

in-depth guide to all things headless CMS

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