Why Are Monolithic Systems an Inhibitor to Digital Transformation?

Understanding how monolithic systems impact an organisation's digital transformation


What is Monolithic Architecture?

A software system is called "monolithic" if it has a monolithic architecture, in which functionally distinguishable aspects (for example data input and output, data processing, error handling, and the user interface) are all interwoven, rather than containing architecturally separate components. (Stephens, 2015)

Monolithic architecture is found in a lot of organisations where systems were implemented decades ago but remain in operation due to their significant size of core business function and therefore business dependency.

Monolithic systems are generally responsible for large parts of the business operations. In a monolithic application, all functions are served and managed in one place. The monolithic application does of course have its inner structure which would consist of a database, client-side interface and business logic, but it remains a single, inseparable unit. The components within a monolithic system do not require APIs to communicate since all the logic and data are in the same components.

What Are Examples of Monolithic Applications?

An example of a monolithic application is a traditional main frame system that have often have millions of lines of code. Other examples include ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) and CRM (Customer Relationship Management) systems.

What are the advantages of monolithic architecture?

  1. Because monolithic applications don’t involve API for communication between components, they can have higher performance than microservice applications. 
  2. Monolithic architecture is easier to implement. Microservices architecture is more complex and can require much more effort to implement.
  3. As a single unit, a monolithic application is easier to debug and test as you can do automated testing without considering different run-time environments (such as with microservices). 
  4. Deployment is simple. You use a script that loads your module and launches the application. 
  5. With one application in place, there are far fewer crossover concerns such as login, caching, memory management and so on.

What Are the Disadvantages of Monolithic Architecture?

  1. Monolithic applications have tight coupling processes, so they tend to have huge, convoluted code bases. As a result, it becomes harder to isolate services for independent scaling and code support.
  2. Monolithic applications can be less flexible. Because each element is dependent on the others, any change to one element affects the whole network. As a result, changes are time-consuming and need to be carefully coordinated.
  3. With monolithic applications, each small change or update to even a single function requires compiling, testing and redeployment of the entire system.
  4. Monolithic applications are limited when it comes to scaling. Scaling components individually is impossible. So, to scale, these applications must scale as a whole.

What is Digital Transformation?

Digital transformation is the integration of digital technology into all areas of an organisation, fundamentally changing how you operate and deliver value to customers. It should also come with a cultural change requiring businesses to continually rethink old operating models, experiment more, and become more agile.

Digital transformation is essential for all business - small to enterprise – in the modern world. Technology plays acritical role in a business’s ability to evolve with the market and deliver value to consumers.

So Why Are Monolithic Systems an Inhibitor to Digital Transformations?

Many legacy systems perform business-critical functions and are expensive to maintain. These systems must continue to function well and be able to accommodate change if they are to be useful to an organisation. “A legacy system, which is business critical, must remain operational, in some form, within its organisation... continued maintenance of the system is expensive and the scope for effectively implementing further change is heavily constrained.” (Warren)

We can see that cost is one factor inhibiting the digital transformation process. Enterprise monolithic systems are costly to maintain and develop. If an organisation is spending 70-80% of their IT budget operating, developing and maintaining a monolithic legacy system, there isn’t much left to spend on new systems. It’s probably also worth noting that over time, the costs associated with continuing to use a legacy system are only likely to increase.

Monolithic systems also lack flexibility and tend to owe technology debt because of older languages, databases and architectures. This in turn prevents many organisations from moving forward and being able to support analytics, real time transactions and a superior digital experience.

There is long term value for the business and its customers in leveraging newer, cloud architecture and applications.

Continuing to use monolithic systems whilst there are newer and arguably better technologies to experiment with goes against the very ideas that underpin digital transformation.

Today, digital change is so rapid that organisations need to be able to increase efficiency with technology. The pervasive adoption of agile practices in software development (Kurapati et al, 2012) provides evidence for the need of speed and flexibility (Fitzgerald & Stol, 2017). This can be challenging with legacy systems and far easier with newer technologies which generally adopt agile principles and automation technologies.

An important part of digital transformation is, of course, technology. But often, it's more about getting rid of outdated processes and legacy technology than it is about adopting new technology. And even then, simply adopting new technology for the sake of it isn’t the answer either. Rather, “The strength of digital technologies – social, mobile, analytics and cloud – doesn't lie in the technologies individually. Instead, it stems from how companies integrate them to transform their businesses and how they work” (Kane, Palmer, Phillips, Kiron & Buckley, 2015). In other words, digital transformation should also be about enabling innovation within an organisation.

Digital transformation is not a straightforward exercise and there are big costs and risks involved. Choosing the right time and approach can make all the difference in maximising a return on your investment.

To help you decide, take our assessment. We’ll ask you the questions you need to consider and help you to answer “Is my business ready for digital transformation?”

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