Microservices and monolithic architecture: What’s the difference?

Well-timed decisions are critical to future-proofing your business. Deciding whether to lean on microservices or monolithic architecture can be a big one. 

Microservices monolithic architecture are two different approaches to building software systems.

You’re probably familiar with the terms, but just in case: 

  • An application is known as monolithic if all of its functionalities exist in a single codebase. 
  • An application built on microservices architecture splits the functionalities into small, independent codebases. 

Both architectures have their own benefits and drawbacks. There’s a good chance you could name a few already. Let’s talk about them.

What is monolithic architecture? 

Ok, so, monolithic architecture is a type of software architecture that has been pretty popular for many years.In a nutshell, it’s the traditional way of developing and delivering applications based on the ‘bigger-is-better’ mentality. 

From an enterprise perspective, a monolith is one large application with all business logic, user interface, and data access components built into it. 

DevOps teams have traditionally used a monolithic approach to software delivery, as it provides them with complete control over the entire system’s design, structure, and development environment.

Monolithic architectures are characterized by tightly coupled modules within an application that share the same database and codebase. This means that changes made to one part of the system will affect other parts of it too. 

This leads to a lot of time-consuming modifications, since they require extensive testing before release into production environments. 

Pros of monolithic applications

  • Simpler development and deployment
  • Less specialization

Monoliths means simpler development and deployment

Monolithic architecture can be much simpler to develop and deploy than traditional microservice architectures. 

With a monolithic system, you only need to develop and test one codebase instead of multiple services with different APIs—which can significantly reduce the complexity of maintaining your system over time. 

On top of this, deploying a monolith is traditionally faster than deploying multiple microservices since they only require making changes in one place instead of many places at once. 

Monoliths don’t need as much specialization

Monoliths require less specialized skills than microservices. This makes it easier to find developers who can work on the codebase, and it reduces the need to learn multiple technologies or languages. 

Also, since all of the code is contained within one application, your developers don’t need to figure out how the different services interact with each other.

Cons of monolithic applications

  • More time, more complexity
  • Tech limitations
  • Single point of failure

More time, more complexity

Monolithic applications can become complex and difficult to manage over time.

As a monolithic application grows, it becomes increasingly difficult to identify where each component fits into the overall architecture. This makes it more challenging to update individual sections or components without risking damaging other parts of the codebase.

Also, since all components are tightly coupled together within a single unit, modifying one part of the system can lead to unexpected errors in another area. You can see how this could feed into a cycle of ever increasing checks and balances.

With large monolithic applications, there will be higher levels of technical debt due to all components being managed as one single unit, making future maintenance more expensive than with microservice architecture. 

Tech limitations of monoliths

A monolithic architecture comes with several drawbacks that could potentially limit the technology available to develop and run the application. 

The most obvious limitation is scalability. Monolithic applications often lack the ability to scale up as demand increases, which can lead to bottlenecks and poor performance when more users access it. 

Plus, if more resources are needed to run the application due to an increase in traffic,your DevOps team needs to add them manually. This can add significant time and cost associated with scaling up an application. 

Another limitation is flexibility. Monolithic applications tend to be rigidly structured and may not easily accommodate changes to requirements or regulations.

It can also be difficult for you to maintain a secure environment around monolithic apps, since all components are tightly grouped together. 

A monolith can act as a single point of failure

A single point of failure can make monolithic systems more difficult to scale or upgrade. Often, any changes or additions are done on system level instead of just on a singular component or feature. 

Monolithic applications also tend to be harder to debug and maintain than systems with microservice architectures due to their complexity. 

Your developers may find debugging monolithic systems challenging when there are multiple dependencies between components within the same application. 

What are microservices? 

Microservices architecture is relatively modern approach to application development, and an alternative to the traditional, monolithic model of software engineering.

Just like it sounds, a microservice application is made up of several small services that run independently and communicate with one another using APIs. Each service runs its own process and can be deployed, updated, and maintained without making changes to any other service. 

This makes it easier for teams to build applications quickly and scale them as needed in response to customer demand. The loosely coupled nature of microservices also allows developers to work on different components simultaneously without disrupting the entire system. 

In contrast with monolith architecture, where all components are bundled together into a single unit, microservice architecture enables organizations to break down complex applications into smaller parts that can be deployed separately or as part of a larger system. 

Pros of microservices 

  • Self-contained services
  • Easy to scale
  • More flexibility

Microservices are self-contained

Self-contained microservices can be written and developed independently from other parts of the application. This means that each service can be tested, modified and deployed separately without affecting other parts of the system. 

Bonus: Your team gains the freedom to use different languages, frameworks, and technologies that work best with each particular task or service. 

Microservices are easy to scale

The ability to scale up and down quickly means that you can respond more efficiently to changing customer needs or market requirements without disrupting existing systems and processes. 

With microservice applications, you don’t have to worry so much about replacing existing components in order for them to be compatible with new services. Scaling up won’t require hours (or days) of development work from your team. 

Microservices are flexible

A microservices application design allows your developers and engineers to develop different parts of an application independently from each other and deploy them separately. 

This can be especially useful for larger applications that contain multiple components. Many teams find that multiple teams are working on different projects have a reduced risk of code conflicts.

Because each component functions separately from others, changes can be made quickly and easily with minimal disruption to existing services. This helps ensure that new features are released faster and more efficiently than when using a monolithic architecture. 

Cons of microservices applications

  • Increased complexity
  • Specialized skills are required
  • Extra costs

More microservices can mean more complexity

Again, microservice architecture involves breaking down a single large application into multiple smaller services that are built independently and deployed separately. 

It’s true that these individual services may be simpler to build and maintain compared to monolithic applications. But that means they require more coordination between your teams, and sometimes more deployment infrastructure.

Microservices need more specialization

Developers need knowledge of multiple languages and technologies in order to correctly set up and maintain a microservice system. This can be a challenge if your team is less experienced in working with distributed systems or complex service-oriented architectures. 

Microservices can take up additional resources

The main cost to consider when developing with microservices is the overhead associated with managing multiple services separately. 

Keeping track of different components across different services can quickly become complex, requiring additional resources such as dedicated staff or third-party tools to manage them effectively. 

Plus, deploying new services requires integrating them into existing systems which leads to higher deployment costs due to increased complexity in testing and debugging each service individually.

Microservices vs Monolith Architecture – Conclusion

In the end, it’s your choice. Both microservices and monolithic architecture for different types of applications, so you really should spend time figuring out which one works best for what you need.

This article is part of our 2023 Top DevOps Trends series.

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