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Monoliths vs. Microservices: New Technologies for Nimble Organizations

The article below is drawn from a presentation delivered in person at ConTech 2021.


Associations, societies, and publishers are mature businesses in mature markets. They can be among the oldest organizations you can encounter. From a technology perspective that can mean two things: legacy systems and process rigidity. Often those legacy systems are monoliths – large and creaky platforms that have multiple responsibilities or functions, much like the people who work for them. These monoliths are “the one platform for everything,” a platitude that can seem dangerously assuring, almost comforting.


These platforms are your association or customer relationship management system, your content management system, your advertising and marketing tools, and maybe even your financial and reporting systems all wrapped up into one. A decade ago, the Silverchair Platform could’ve been considered a monolith – we’ve worked hard to change that because, as the saying goes, if you do everything, you don’t do anything particularly well.


Advantages

  • Control

  • Easy to test

  • Easy deployment

  • No data silos

  • Low long-term costs


Disadvantages

  • Lock in

  • Rigid, slow to change

  • Integrations difficult

  • Constant functional tradeoffs

  • High upfront costs

I don’t want to give you the impression that all monoliths are old and creaky, however. Some monoliths may not have even started out wanting to become a monolith – they came into the world not knowing who they wanted to be, and look where they ended up. Saas companies like Adobe and Salesforce can become monoliths in their own right, often because of preference and certainly not because of ease, cost, or feature advantage.


MICROSERVICES – SINGLE FUNCTION


But there is an alternative in a relatively new class of technologies called microservices. Now, for those technologists who’ve been around the block, they’ll say microservices aren’t new, but this is relative to some of the organizations in our space that have been around since Newton (or even Thomas Edison).


Unlike the “one for everything” monolith, microservices are specialized applications, services, or tools that have a single responsibility or function. You probably use a microservice every day. But at the enterprise level, mircoservices are tools like PowerBI or Tableau, which are analytics and data visualization tools, your advertising management platforms (Google Ad Manager), customer data platforms, or even seemingly bigger systems, like CCC’s Rightslink Author.


With microservices, the notion is that you connect or layer a series of best-in-class solutions to do what you need. For a publishing company, that could be a core content submission system, a content production system, a content hosting system, and then a series of services wrapped around those things, such as an identity and entitlement service, a customer data platform, a whole marketing stack, including a CDP, advertising system and a commerce system (or series thereof).


Advantages

  • Flexible

  • Small in size and scope

  • Little lock in risk

  • Few tradeoffs

  • Action oriented

  • Cost effective


Disadvantages

  • Lack of cohesion, disjointed UX

  • Data silo

  • Many configurations and integrations

  • Environment complexity

  • Maintenance costs


What I’ve experienced, and what I now try to help work through publishers, is that legacy and monolithic systems can impair strategy. And it isn’t just because these systems are brittle, difficult to change, or old. Technology is built from and then reinforces decision making processes and culture.


If you have an all-in-one platform, it can be very hard to develop an actionable plan to capture more data about your authors. To replace your email marketing system to one that supports targeted advertising. To combine data from your editorial, commerce, and content hosting platform systems to give you the insights needed to make transformational open access deals.

How do you write an RFP to replace the all-in-one system? If there’s a provider in the market, how complicated and risky will a migration be?


Monolithic systems can leave your strategy and thinking in a fog, locked into structures and processes of the past. In thinking about how to change, do your business leaders know enough about underlying data structures or technology to frame discussions (let alone decisions)? Do your IT leaders know enough about your business to support change?


A HYBRID APPROACH


No one can afford to keep a legacy monolith. But very few can afford to shift entirely to new microservices. That means you’ll likely find yourself operating in a hybrid environment, bridging the old and new. Yes, you’ll be introducing more complexity and likely short-term costs, but that’s a tradeoff decision. You may need to upskill your team, bring in expert consultants or to find new vendors and partners. But it’s very hard to build new digital products with yesterday’s systems.


Tips for Going Hybrid

1. Constraints can be helpful

2. Identify critical gaps

3. Start small

4. Build capabilities and expertise


As I mentioned earlier, Silverchair Platform used to be something of a monolith. We’ve refactored the platform, introducing modularlity and a variety of services. We formalized a partner program (the Silverchair Universe), which eases the path for publishers to adopt microservices while allowing our team to focus on core platform functionality. We recently rolled out Silverchair Analytics, which is built upon Microsoft Azure services and uses PowerBI to give our publishers powerful data visualization and analysis tools to understand their platform data. The service allows publishers to pull in off-platform data too, combining editorial data alongside usage, valuable insights.


Many of our publishers also use Tableau, another great microservice example, within their larger enterprise environments and connect to our data service from that tool. Hum, sister company to Silverchair, is a specialized customer data platform that supports other microservices by integrating CRM, social media, and marketing data to give organizations meaningful, unified intelligence about users. And a few of Silverchair’s publishers are having success using Optinmonster, a bit of specialized marketing software, to convert. These types of technology are targeted, flexible, and best-in-class, allowing organizations to build the technology stack that serves their unique needs and goals.


Evolve with microservices


To get started, take stock of your current technology, do market research on other options, and identify the key goals your services need to help you achieve. From there, identify targeted use cases, work to unify your existing data to help inform your path forward, and deepen your understanding of existing data flows and technology. The iterative, incremental approach afforded by microservices then enables you to experiment as you evolve your tools, strategy, and growth.


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