Today, customer requirements and behavior are changing so rapidly that any ecommerce business needs to continuously adapt to survive. From a technological perspective, retailers should be ready to rapidly innovate, quickly implement robust code, and tap into new content delivery channels. However, all those things are impossible without the right ecommerce architecture in place.
Whether you are turning to ecommerce development to get a web portal, an app, or a fully-featured retail infrastructure, you need to choose an ecommerce architecture to build the solution upon. This article will help you make a good choice by covering the main types of ecommerce architectures as well as their pros and cons and explaining how to determine the most suitable one for your specific business case.
What is an ecommerce architecture?
In short, ecommerce architecture stands for the concept of how you organize and structure a digital ecommerce system. There is no unified classification of ecommerce architectures but we are still able to distinguish some types proceeding from such technological characteristics as monolithicity and the number of layers.
For instance, there are two-tier, three-tier, and multi-tier architectures, and such architectures as monolithic, microservices, or MACH. The choice of a specific architecture is a fundamental decision for an ecommerce company since, after its implementation, any subsequent structural changes to the ecommerce solution may prove too expensive and disruptive.
The main types of eCommerce architectures
Monolithic vs. microservices
Designed in line with the monolithic architecture model, this ecommerce solution is a unified and one-piece mechanism, regardless of the number of in-built features. A monolithic ecommerce solution connects to an enterprise database and typically encompasses a user interface (for a mobile or a web app), a data access layer, and a business logic layer. Monolithic architecture is a traditional way of developing software that is considered slightly outdated today but still has some time-proven advantages as well as drawbacks.
On the one hand, the development of a monolithic solution typically doesn’t take much time, in part because of the straightforward and quick testing process. But on the other hand, the too-close connection between all system components and their integrity makes any functional updates quite risky, since by changing one component, you can unintentionally affect the entire system and jeopardize its integrity and stability.
Pros of a monolithic ecommerce architecture:
- A more straightforward and predictable development process
- Easier monitoring and debugging
- Controllable complexity and scale
Cons of a monolithic ecommerce architecture:
- Low reliability, with any change potentially affecting the whole system
- Complex upscaling
- Complex functionality updates
A microservices-based ecommerce architecture consists of a set of interconnected services called microservices that communicate with each other via multiple API interfaces. Each microservice operates as a subsystem with its own business logic and architecture, and this is the main advantage of microservices.
Opting for microservices, you can quickly and painlessly modify and replace any element of your solution and mitigate risks related to the integrity and performance of your entire software system. On the other hand, the abundance of independent components requires continuous coordination within the development team, which makes the building of a microservices architecture quite a complex process.
A headless architecture is one of the most popular versions of the microservices concept. Here, the digital system is divided into two separate layers, back-end, and front-end, connected via an API. This architecture is typically used by enterprises that want to tap into additional digital commerce channels and be able to distribute content across them quickly.
Pros of a microservices ecommerce architecture:
- Easy to scale
- The ability to implement various technology sets
- Quick and smooth updating
Cons of a microservices ecommerce architecture:
- Requires complex project management and communication
- Requires sophisticated development expertise
- Costly continuous maintenance and support
The bottom line
Several years ago, monolithic architectures could cover most of an online retailers’ needs, but today this technology may not provide the required degree of agility. While monolithic architecture is still a good choice for simple and lightweight apps, microservices is a better option when you need a more complex and scalable solution that you have enough resources and expertise to support.
It's also worth remembering that if you decide to transfer a monolithic on-premise solution to a microservices architecture, you most likely need to initiate the cloud migration process, which is typically complex and labor-consuming. In such a case, do not neglect following expert recommendations to ensure that the migration process goes smoothly and painlessly. For example, if you decide to move a monolithic app to microservices-based platform like Amazon Web Services, check AWS migration best practices, and so on.
Two- vs. three-tier architecture
Depending on how many subsystems your solution consists of (for example, client, logic, or database layers), it can also have a two-tier, three-tier, or multi-tier architecture. In other words, all solutions, including microservices-based digital systems and monolithic apps, can simultaneously be two-, three-, and multi-tier.
Typically, a two-tier architecture consists of a client-server and a database. Since you don't need to design and test many software elements, two-tiered apps are pretty easy to develop. But at the same time, since they can't handle many user requests and spikes in traffic, two-tiered solutions aren’t easily scaled.
Pros of a two-tier ecommerce architecture:
- Simple development and management
- Reduced network and traffic loads
Cons of a two-tier ecommerce architecture:
- Incapable of handling sudden load fluctuations
- Hard to scale due to limited capacity
Having, in turn, a three-tier architecture, ecommerce systems encompass three levels: the UI, the application layer, and the database, which stores and processes system data. Being logically separated, each level can be developed in parallel. This allows companies to scale their solutions quickly and allocate the right talent to the needs of a particular project. But on the other hand, given the large number of components a three-tier architecture entails, retailers have to scale up their development processes as well, potentially complicating project and personnel management.
Pros of a three-tier ecommerce architecture:
- More flexible
- Swiftly scaled and extended
Cons of a three-tier ecommerce architecture:
- Complex system management and administration
The bottom line
Given that both types of software architecture have their distinct pros and cons, choosing between a two-tier and three-tier architecture will likely depend on the requirements and scope of your project. The main thing to remember here is that the more levels your system includes, the more complex and challenging the development may become.
The MACH architecture
This innovative concept emerged only in 2018 and is gaining popularity among enterprises striving to establish a future-proof and flexible ecommerce architecture. The term MACH stands for Microservices, API-first, Cloud-native, and Headless, and this architecture enables the adopters to make quick software upgrades, thereby providing enterprises with the maximum possible technological flexibility and adaptability. However, such technological advancements come at a price, because once you adopt the MACH architecture, you will significantly complicate most of your IT-management processes.
So, if you have the resources and expertise to carry out a development project that involves several technologies (such as cloud and microservices), implementing MACH can prove truly transformative for your business agility and customer engagement. In the first place, given that the architecture can consist of many micro-services, each written in its own language, companies can quickly add the necessary functionality, for example, establish multi-channel commerce or expand their range of services. At the same time, due to the cloud-based deployment model, you can easily scale the computing capabilities of your ecommerce solution and support the growth and development of your business.
Pros of a MACH architecture
- Enables omnichannel commerce
- Provides the best-of-breed technology toolset
- Extremely scalable and agile
Cons of a MACH architecture
- Implies serious organizational and management change
- Requires highly skilled and experienced developers
Our consultants can help you select the right ecommerce architecture
How to choose and adopt the best-suited ecommerce architecture
Ideally, to choose the right type of architecture, you should do some serious groundwork. We offer you a five-step algorithm that will help you gradually transform your vision into a working strategy and define the ecommerce architecture that would best suit your business needs.
1. Consider the required capabilities
At this stage, you should examine your existing technical capabilities and tech stack to gain a clear understanding of what you already have and what you need to achieve your business goals. To simplify this process, first, you can ask yourself these and other questions:
- Do we want to increase our digital presence and brand awareness?
- Are we interested in building new sales channels?
- Is improving customer service our top priority?
- Do we aim at all of the above?
Based on the answers, it will be easier for you to determine which technical capabilities are already in place and what additional ones you need in order to implement your project. For example, you may already have the tools for customer communication but lack the features for its real-time analysis. In this case, you can add certain functionality to your checklist and later use this information throughout the development process.
2. Conduct a customer interaction research
Considering that your ecommerce tools are aimed at customers, you should also conduct a study of the ways you currently engage with them and plan to in the future. This way, you will determine what customer experience capabilities you would need your architecture to provide. For example, you can look at several aspects of customer interaction, such as marketing, sales, and so on, and then consider what type of solution or platform would best fit your enterprise workflows.
3. Define the architectural goals
Having a clear understanding of your requirements and capabilities, you can already start to single out the architecture for your future solution.
For example, at this stage you can decide:
- Where and how you want to store customer data.
- Whether the elements of your future solution should be connected via API.
- If you need the ability to quickly replace and upgrade individual parts of the solution without affecting the entire software system.
- Whether the architecture should be able to manage the constant addition of new technologies and how viable it should be in the long run.
4. Choose specific tools and technologies
Having decided on the type of your future ecommerce architecture, you can now consider what tools and technologies you will use to develop your solution. For example, here you can decide which programming languages to use when developing microservices, what tools would help you deliver seamless user experience, or which third-party integrations would be most relevant to your digital system.
5. Establish the relevant operating and team structure
Considering that you are developing and implementing a new system, especially if you chose technologies and an architecture that you have never worked with before, you should make sure your team is ready. In particular, you should have a series of consultations with the leaders of your IT departments to know if their team members can launch and maintain the intended architecture, as well as maintain the development and growth of your future digital ecosystem.
You may even have to reorganize your teams to achieve better results. For example, you can build an agile team made up of employees from different departments if they have the relevant backgrounds and skill sets or find a technology partner to take responsibility for certain aspects of the development process.
So, as you can see, choosing the most suitable ecommerce architecture and turning it into a working solution is no easy job, and it certainly entails much more than just choosing a programming language or selecting a third-party development partner. You must be ready to take a deep dive into your business and transform it so that the technologies you opt for can bring the expected benefits. Whether you choose a monolithic, MACH, or three-tier architecture as the foundation for your digital commerce, our five-step algorithm can help you define the most relevant development approach.
If you need help choosing the right architecture or want an outside opinion, you also can seek advice from third-party eCommerce consultants such as Itransition. Our experts will study your business case, provide their professional recommendations, and help you carry out the technological transformation in the fastest and most cost-effective way.
The right ecommerce architecture is more important than ever
Today's consumer is very demanding and changeable. He or she is not ready to wait for your company to provide outstanding customer experiences and high-level customer service and will simply go to the competitors. Therefore, when you start developing a technological commercial solution, you must base it on an architecture that not only allows you to provide a high-quality customer experience and service but also supports your business throughout its development and growth.
This in turn means that you not only need to understand the main types of architectures (such as monolithic, microservices, MACH, two-tier, or multi-tier) but also be aware of your customers as well as the needs and capabilities of your business. Only this way you can build a future-proof and viable digital commerce ecosystem that is ready for the retail digital transformation of today.