From Debt to Innovation: How Software Architecture Choices Impact Application Scalability, Resiliency and Engineering Velocity
May 30, 2024

Moti Rafalin

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Software technical debt has ballooned to ~$1.52 trillion. As software architects and engineers struggle to innovate under the weight of legacy and complex microservices architectures, organizations risk accumulating even more technical debt if IT modernization and ongoing development efforts are not managed carefully. A particular subset of this debt, architectural technical debt (ATD), is emerging as the top threat to application performance according to a new survey of over 1,000 architecture, development and engineering leaders, and practitioners at large enterprises and smaller digital-first companies.

Conducted by vFunction, the research study, Microservices, Monoliths, and the Battle Against $1.52 Trillion in Technical Debt, reveals that companies are struggling with the challenges posed by technical debt within their increasingly complex software architectures. As a result, nearly eight in ten (77%) organizations have implemented enterprise-wide initiatives to directly address technical debt, with over half (51%) dedicating more than a quarter of their annual IT and engineering budgets to remediation, including refactoring and re-architecting efforts.

More than just a financial burden, technical debt poses a threat to engineering velocity, application scalability, and resiliency, underscoring the critical role of software architecture in driving business success. At a time where high-performing applications are essential to increasing organizational efficiency, it's vital to address ATD to stay competitive and meet ever-changing business demands.

The Rising Tide of Architectural Complexity

Engineering teams are steadily inundated with architectural challenges as software becomes more complex and distributed. 44% of respondents cited increasing complexity in monolithic applications resulting in tangled dependencies and declining modularity as a key driver of technical debt accumulation. Another 39% pointed to the lack of visibility into architecture and dependencies across sprawling microservices landscapes as a primary obstacle. Architectural challenges and lack of visibility into architectures prevent businesses from reaching their full innovation potential.

The reality is that rapidly accumulating ATD hamstrings engineering teams, limiting their ability to quickly develop, deliver, and scale resilient applications. This amplifies risks such as application outages, delayed projects, and missed market opportunities.

Navigating the Monolith vs. Microservices Trade-Off

The survey revealed that grappling with ATD is a universal challenge impacting both monolithic architectures and microservices-based architectures. In fact, organizations with monolithic architectures are bearing the brunt of ATD impact, with 57% allocating over 25% of their total annual IT budget towards technical debt remediation, compared to 49% of companies with microservices.

Furthermore, enterprises with monolithic architectures are 2.1 times more likely to face detrimental impacts to engineering velocity, scalability, and resiliency compared to those leveraging microservices architectures. However, the latter are by no means immune to debilitating ATD. More than half (53%) cited delayed major platform upgrades and technology migrations due to ATD-driven productivity bottlenecks.

What Is the Software Architect's Role in Addressing ATD?

As organizations grapple with how to tackle ATD and balance the trade-offs between architectures, the pivotal role of software architects becomes evident. However, the survey reveals a disconnect between architects, who are responsible for the long-term integrity of system architecture, and the modern DevOps processes that drive iterative software delivery.

While C-suite leaders rank the enterprise architect as primarily responsible for addressing ATD within their organizations, engineering teams placed architects much lower on that list, below directors and engineering leadership. This fundamental lack of clarity around roles and responsibilities highlights the complexity of the issue within enterprises.

What's more, over a third (37%) reported that architect involvement is limited to just the initial upfront design phase of the CI/CD process. Reasons cited included a lack of processes, tools, and mechanisms to effectively integrate architects as well as concerns that their involvement could become a bottleneck.

However, the data speaks volumes about the indispensable role architects play in ensuring robust, resilient system architectures when properly integrated into the full software delivery lifecycle. When architects had limited involvement in CI/CD, only 44% of respondents reported confidence in their architecture's resiliency. In contrast, organizations that tightly coupled architects to CI/CD from the initial planning through deployment reported a 72% confidence level in their architecture's resiliency. Bridging this divide between architects and CI/CD processes to maintain healthy, scalable architectures for the long haul is crucial. Their expertise is valuable for ongoing releases and keeping ATD minimized.

Shifting Left with Architectural Observability and GenAI

To confront the mounting ATD crisis, organizations are turning to architectural observability. After being presented with a definition of architectural observability as "the ability to analyze applications statically and dynamically to understand their architecture, detect drift, and find/fix architectural debt", an overwhelming 80% of respondents acknowledged that having these capabilities would be extremely or very valuable within their organizations. Notably, 40% of respondents advocate for "shifting left,” leveraging architectural observability to proactively address resiliency issues earlier in the development lifecycle. This approach enhances resiliency and reduces the likelihood of outages, leading to more robust and reliable applications.

Similarly, generative AI is seen as a pivotal tool in addressing application health, with 41% of respondents planning to leverage its capabilities to improve application performance and scalability. The readiness to adopt generative AI increases with company size: While only 25% of companies in the $100M-$499M revenue range consider their applications fully ready to reap the benefits of generative AI, that number jumps to 44% for enterprises at the $10B+ level.

Traditional code quality and vulnerability scanning tools don't holistically address architectural debt accumulation. Software teams rely far too heavily on manual processes to identify high-risk patterns and prioritize remediation in a sustainable way. Architectural observability coupled with AI-powered automation holds immense promise as both a real-time diagnostic tool and a pathway for enterprises to systematically modernize their way to more resilient, scalable architectures.

As organizations strive to maintain their competitive edge and navigate the complexities of the digital arena, embracing intelligent, automated approaches to address architectural technical debt on an ongoing basis is imperative. By prioritizing architectural observability and leveraging generative AI, organizations can pave the way for resilient, scalable architectures that drive sustained business success.

Moti Rafalin is CEO and Co-Founder of vFunction
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