E-Commerce Monoliths Or Microservices? The Answer May Be In The Middle
A decade ago, when everyone was still wrapping their heads around the idea of cloud computing, one ongoing point of concern was the fear of vendor lock-in. The idea was that if you relied on a single company to provide all of your cloud services from top to bottom, you would be locked in and lack the flexibility to try new services from other vendors until your contract expired — even if another company offered a better product. If you wanted to add other services, you’d be on the hook for substantial expenses to migrate.
Eventually, the tech industry listened and learned that customers don’t want a one-size-fits-all approach; they want the ability to pick and choose different pieces and services depending on their specific needs. Unfortunately, some e-commerce platform vendors didn’t get the memo because they’re still operating as monoliths.
While some e-commerce platforms have learned the value of flexibility, for others, the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction in favor of microservices, an architecture composed of loosely coupled services connected through APIs to create a complete system. Think of microservices like Lego blocks without an instruction manual to piece them together to build that creation you had perfectly envisioned.
A microservices approach can be tempting for online retailers for several reasons. First, commerce is becoming increasingly focused on content and customer experience. By decoupling the front end (the part customers interact with) from the back end (the part that enables transactions and powers the store), developers can customize and manage the two sides separately.
Second, merchants can have multiple front-end experiences connected to one back end, creating opportunities to implement several new customer-facing touch points (e.g., a blog, a traditional website or even a unique app). Third, developers have more flexibility to adjust code on the back end without affecting the part customers interact with. They also have choices for different services to power the site instead of using only what the monolith vendor offers.
While microservices offer some significant advantages over monoliths, that approach has flaws of its own. If you’re an online retailer, you need to think hard about whether you want a monolith or a pure microservice system. The monoliths lock you in, making it difficult to customize your experience without a team of expert developers and a lot of costs.
Microservices, while providing choice and flexibility, put more responsibility for security and payment card industry (PCI) compliance in your hands, as well as leave you to manage uptime and support. Managing the various microservices requires cross-functional, vertical teams that must work together to maintain the site. It can be extremely difficult — and potentially expensive — to put all of those Lego pieces together in a way that creates a compelling and manageable customer experience.
One emerging way to build an open system that prioritizes the customer experience is headless commerce, which provides a safe, secure platform while also enabling simple, fast integrations with other applications to provide the service merchants need and customers want. For experience-focused brands (e.g., lifestyle products), direct-to-consumer brands and companies that rely heavily on influencers, native advertising or other content, headless commerce has its advantages.
Headless gives retailers the flexibility to mix a content-focused customer experience with a safe and secure commerce back end. Many brands today are using content to create unique, personalized and exciting experiences for customers. With headless, they can take advantage of the flexibility of content platforms like WordPress or Drupal without sacrificing security behind the scenes.
While microservices require various teams to manage the different pieces, headless doesn’t require specialized teams. That said, headless does bring together two separate tools and, therefore, requires owners to manage two tools instead of one. However, everything connects through the core e-commerce platform, making it easier to manage. Headless also provides flexibility for developers by allowing them to work in the system they are familiar with. Still, some businesses might not want to do that even with the benefit of creating a more experience-driven site.
Microservices can also require changes to the infrastructure and tools used to monitor them, and those changes will likely add to the total cost of the system. Headless, on the other hand, has the benefit of providing flexibility with fewer changes to existing infrastructure.
If you’ve been using a monolith, it might be intimidating to consider a full replatform, but another benefit of switching to headless is that it can be done incrementally. It doesn’t require big, instant change that would disrupt operations. You can decide which capabilities you want to decouple first, and then transition over time while building out other parts.
The biggest challenge to making the switch to headless is that it requires a shift from a product-first mindset to a content-first mindset. That can be tough for many merchants. In addition to managing inventory, production and all the pieces needed to get those products to customers, headless requires time to develop dynamic content and a commitment to keeping things fresh so it feels current for the audience.
Twenty years ago, monoliths or fully custom builds were the only options for e-commerce and other technology systems, but market demand for choice, flexibility and innovation has taken hold. For e-commerce brands, an open API-driven approach is a powerful way to provide positive customer experiences and distinguish themselves from the competition. And in today’s highly competitive online retail environment, everyone could use more ways to set themselves apart from the crowd.