How microservices play a role in delivering digital commerce innovation

Retailers looking to keep customer experiences up to speed with emerging digital touchpoints, consumer trends, competitors’ moves and technological innovation face a challenge — keeping their legacy commerce platforms up to date is painfully slow, expensive and risky.

The typical enterprise commerce platforms, whether packaged or home grown, is monolithic. With monolithic architecture, critical pieces of the commerce platform are tightly coupled and highly interdependent, share the same code base, and run as a single process. Updating one component like catalog, promotions or checkout can create unhappy surprises in other areas, so updates must be made conservatively, the system requires extensive regression testing after every change, and major releases typically occur only once per quarter.

To work around the pains of legacy commerce technology, business and IT leaders are increasingly looking to more flexible, API-driven solutions to deliver digital commerce innovation.

Why microservices?

Unlike tightly-coupled monolithic architecture, microservices are modular, decoupled applications that can be independently deployed, modified, scaled and integrated with other systems, devices, and experiences.

This means updates to microservices don’t interfere with other services, thus changes can be deployed much faster. Rather than weeks or months, updates can be delivered in hours or days. The entire platform won’t need to be fully regression tested, and the system doesn’t need a full reboot after every update. If any microservice needs maintenance, debugging or any downtime, it doesn’t take down the entire system.

Since microservices scale independently, they won’t slow down other parts of the system, nor do they require scaling the entire application to satisfy the demands of a particular service. For example, if rolling out in-store transactional capabilities connected to your digital platform dramatically increases load on cart and checkout, but not search, catalog, pricing or promotions, you don’t need to invest in more copies of your entire platform to stay performant.

For many organizations, innovative projects carry too much risk to a monolith’s stability, are too expensive to resource, and often don’t get a green light. Microservices support quick and efficient development as well as rollback without compromising core functionality, allowing organizations to deploy, test, modify and roll back innovation with minimal impact on core systems.

Microservices vs SOA

Microservices architecture is not to be confused with Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA). SOA architecture relies on a central Enterprise Service Bus (ESB) which shares the same challenges as a monolithic platform. It’s a “smart pipe” that contains all the business logic for all services across the system, thus services become tightly coupled within the ESB. Changes to any service (endpoint) requires an update to the ESB, which in turn can impact any or all other connected services. And over time, the ESB can become as bogged down with spaghetti code as any monolith.

As with monolithic architecture, if one service fails or slows down, the entire ESB can get hammered by requests for that service, which affects performance throughout the entire system (and negatively impacts customer experience).

In contrast, microservices are “smart endpoints.” Microservices contain their own code, rather than code living in the ESB. Development teams can work on projects independently of other teams and deploy code faster without impacting other services.

Microservices vs headless commerce

“Headless commerce” is a trend gaining popularity among enterprises that wish to drive their front end experiences with rich, best-of-breed Web Content Management (WCM) or Digital Experience platforms (DXP), rather than the storefront capabilities of their ecommerce platform.

While headless commerce decouples the presentation layer from the commerce platform so that another “head” can be swapped in and uses APIs to pull commerce services from the underlying platform into front end experiences (and to make content “shoppable”), the commerce platform is still a monolith, with all the “headaches” of tightly coupled services.

No Big Bang required

For the enterprise that wants to take advantage of modularity but isn’t ready to rip-and-replace their entire legacy platform, there’s great news. Microservices can be deployed alongside a monolith to gradually replace components of the platform. Critical pieces of the legacy platform can be replaced systematically until a new system has been built around the old. This allows an enterprise to stay innovative (replatforming implementations can take years) with minimal risk. The end result is a modern, flexible architecture that’s easier to maintain and grow with the business, instead of another inflexible monolithic system.

Why a modern enterprise needs microservices

Any lag in time-to-market, whether an update to a platform or full replatforming project, carries opportunity cost for satisfying the customer, driving revenue, and staying competitive.

Microservices technology offers the flexibility, efficiency and agility a modern enterprise needs to satisfy emerging customer demands and deliver best-of-breed experiences and bypass the pain of legacy architecture.

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