Understanding the Difference Between Monolithic and Cloud-Native Applications

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Amanda Hager January 25, 2023

Organizations have been empowered by cloud-native technologies to develop and operate scalable applications in modern, enterprise environments such as private, public, and hybrid clouds. Microservices, service meshes, declarative application programming interfaces (APIs), immutable infrastructures, and containers demonstrate this methodology. 

These methods allow loosely associated systems that are robust, observable, and manageable. Integrated with robust automation, engineers are allowed to frequently and predictably make high-impact modifications with minimal effort.

An organization with a legacy monolithic system wanting to utilize modern DevOps technologies such as Docker and Kubernetes must first migrate to a cloud-native architecture. However, architects should be aware of the challenges that come with creating an easily containerized 12-factor application. This holds especially true when deploying it on popular SaaS or PaaS offerings.

For this reason, IT ecosystems with comprehensive digital transformation strategies are exceedingly inclined towards multi-cloud and hybrid archetypes. In this context, applications deployed on microservices architectures generally provide more notable benefits compared to traditional monolithic software. An example of these benefits can be seen in terms of resilience and time-to-market acceleration.

Monolithic Architecture Defined

Monolithic architectures are regarded as the conventional approach to designing and developing applications. Monolithic applications are created as solitary, integral, and elemental units. Generally, monolithic solutions include a database, client-side user interfaces, and a server-side business logic layer.

Historically, monolithic application development was deemed the industry standard. Nonetheless, the adoption of monolithic architecture and application development has been on a steep decline since the introduction of cloud computing. This decline has been so steep that developing monolithic applications now presents numerous challenges. The fundamental disadvantages include the following:

  • Lacking adaptability when it comes to swiftly adopting the latest technologies.
  • Delivering and implementing new changes quickly and efficiently.
  • Flexibility in implementing new changes and scalability.

The monolithic approach, including altering or adding functionalities, introduces changes that impact the full application’s behavior. Furthermore, this increases the chance of having unexpected downstream adverse effects on the system’s operation if there are problems. Changes to the code, for example, can affect an entire computing system, requiring DevOps teams to judiciously coordinate and test the whole monolith when any code is introduced.

The monolithic standard slows down how fast updates and modifications can be released. This is because one must redeploy entire applications to make most changes. Thus, in relation to single pieces of functionality, it’s not feasible to measure the resources in terms of scalability. Rather, it’s essential to size the entire infrastructure, a vertical scaling operation that is a waste of money and resources when compared to horizontal or elastic scaling

Cloud-Native Applications Defined

A microservice architecture is a variation of service-oriented architecture (SOA), a form of application development that employs software components called “services” to develop enterprise applications. Microservice architecture is an architectural pattern that organizes applications as collections of loosely-integrated, fine-grained services that transmit data via lightweight protocols.

One of the objectives of microservice architecture is to allow DevOps teams to develop and deploy services separately. This is accomplished in several different ways:

  • Decreasing the number of dependencies within the base code.
  • Permitting DevOps teams to develop services with little to no restrictions required by users.
  • Obscuring additional complexity from end users.

As a result, enterprises are capable of developing fast-growing applications that can scale out as rapidly as needed. In addition to that, it should easily integrate with off-the-shelf services with little complication. With a microservice architecture, cloud-native applications become a cluster of small services that can be independently deployed. Microservices can also be maintained independently by separate DevOps teams or individual developers. This allows them to work autonomously to design, develop, update, and upgrade microservices.

These characteristics make microservices an essential component of cloud-native computing. Splitting applications into smaller, loosely correlated components simplifies the task of building agile and adaptable software. Furthermore, microservices decrease development cycles, leading to expeditious innovation and a more satisfactory user experience.

A Deeper Look at Microservices

While an industry consensus has evolved over the years as to what characterizes microservices, no single definition exists. A few of the most popular defining characteristics often cited include:

  • Generally, services running in microservice architectures are processes that communicate over networks to complete objectives utilizing technology-agnostic protocols such as Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP). 
  • Microservice architecture processes are systematized around enterprise capabilities
  • Depending on what fits best, microservice architecture processes can be implemented utilizing various hardware, software environments, programming languages, and databases. 
  • Microservice architecture processes are decentralized, autonomously developed, small in size, independently deployable, bounded by contexts, and messaging-enabled. Additionally, such processes are developed and released along with automated processes.

Microservices aren’t layers within monolithic applications, such as in backend-for-frontend (BFF) or web controllers, for example. Instead, microservices are self-contained segments of enterprise functionality with straightforward interfaces. Additionally, through their own internal components, microservices execute layered architectures. Microservice architecture effectively observes the Unix philosophy that states: “Do one thing, and do it well.”

According to British software developer Martin Fowler, microservice-based architectures possess the following characteristics:

  • Microservices cohere with business-driven development, such as domain-driven design and independently deployable services (fine-grained interfaces).
  • They cohere with the ongoing delivery of software development cycles. This results in modifications to small parts of applications, only requiring a quick rebuild and redeploying of no more than a few services.

The adoption of microservice architectures for serverless computing, applications using lightweight container deployment, and cloud-native applications has skyrocketed over the past decade or so. Due to the tremendous number of services, it’s necessary to have DevOps with holistic service monitoring and decentralized continuous delivery to successfully develop, operate, and maintain microservice-based applications.

The result of observing this strategy is that independent microservices can be scaled individually. In contrast, the monolithic method requires that applications supporting multiple functions need to be scaled in their totality, even if a resource constraint affects only a single function. Microservices provide better resource and cost optimization benefits because only those functions with resource constraints ought to be scaled out.

Additional Advantages of Microservices To Consider

Numerous advantages can be gained by adopting microservices-based architecture. Most of those advantages are well-known and well-documented. According to the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF), “84% of US companies already use microservices for application development and 89% of IT managers interviewed believe that the transition to this new architectural model gives them a competitive edge in the future.”

Today’s microservices pioneers include leading multinational organizations such as Amazon, Netflix, and Uber. But as stated in CNCF’s article, even small-sized businesses can benefit tremendously from adopting this modular architectural model.

One of the first benefits worthy of mention is the scalability and deployability of single pieces of functionality in myriad environments. This holds true regardless of the application and supplemental services. The most instantaneous effect one will notice is mitigated architectural intricacy, as the application degrades into a string of dissociated services that become easier, faster, and more efficient to develop. In addition to that, it will become easier to interpret, maintain, and support.

DevOps teams are capable of working simultaneously while being able to release independently. This is great news since DevOps and enterprise IT teams are kept small to maximize and accelerate returns. Further, they’re expected to be high performing and to specialize in specific parts of the application. Commitment and expertise are central to achieving expeditious outcomes. A quicker, more effective development process provided by microservices also accelerates how long it takes to get your application to market.

Another appreciable advantage of microservices is malleability. The application as a whole won’t be affected by corrupt or defective components. This includes other independent services as well. In other words, while DevOps or IT teams are trying to rectify the problem, the operational continuity of the system is preserved. The autonomous characteristic of microservices facilitates accelerated maintenance and debugging. This decreases the chance of any interventions and the need to simplify operations.

Last but not least, microservices strategies are especially suited for DevOps and enterprise IT adoption. It comprises practices that promote close cooperation between development teams while achieving continuous integration and delivery goals. A higher frequency of releases is guaranteed thanks to a framework where code is tested and released based on criteria of continuity and automation.

Can Monolithic Applications Run in the Cloud?

The simple answer is “yes.” Plenty of organizations run monolithic applications in the cloud. However, it’s important to remember that those monolithic applications still aren’t considered “cloud-native.” Of the many approaches, “lift-and-shift” is often used for migrating applications to the cloud. Essentially, it entails moving applications and their associated data to a chosen cloud platform. This is achieved without redesigning the application itself. Furthermore, no one-size-fits-all solution exists for “lifting” and “shifting” an app from an on-premises data center to a cloud environment. Nonetheless, experts in the field follow specific migration paths.

Also known as rehosting, lift-and-shift constitutes one of them. Rehosting protects an organization’s investments and assets in enterprise workflow, data logic, and business logic confined to on-premises hardware. By shifting to an unrestricted and more extensible cloud-based architecture, the lift-and-shift method unlocks options for IT modernization. Organizations choose lift-and-shift to reduce their costs, as well as to improve performance and resiliency.

For those who want a fully cloud-native solution, the components of modernization must be met. This includes breaking into containerization, service meshes, microservices, immutable infrastructure, and declarative APIs. Lastly, robust automation allows engineers to complete high-impact modifications repeatedly and predictably with minimal effort.

Selecting Your Application Development Approach

When considering your approach to application development, experience in DevOps or in using tools like Kubernetes is important. Besides that, to get the desired advantages, it’s essential to keep in mind that adopting and utilizing microservices requires experience and specialized knowledge. 

If your organization lacks that knowledge, experience, or capable resources, it’s best to work with a partner who has a solid track record designing microservices-based architectures and modernizing applications. To learn more about how vFunction can help you with your modernization path, contact us to get started.