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Created May 18, 2020
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State of Microfrontends

One of the more controversial topics in frontend web dev is microfrontends. Are they worth it? Should you really split up your application? Do you really need to use this now? Is this just another thing for consultants to earn money?

While there are many myths, we cannot deny that they are becoming more popular each day. Let's see who's using them, why they are used at all, and what solutions exist to get started easily. Finally, I also want to outline what's next here.

What are Microfrontends Anyway

Microfrontends try to bring some of the benefits acquired by splitting up larger backend systems into microservices to the frontend. The major problem here is that parts are always consumed or experienced as a whole. While a backend system is never consumed as a single thing, the frontend is directly responsible for the user experience (UX).

There are multiple ways to tackle this problem. The most simplistic way would be to replace the data transfer model of the existing APIs with an HTML output. Going from one service (view) to another would be just a hyperlink. The downside is that this approach, while valid will certainly not bring the desired UX for most use cases.

Obviously, more sophisticated ways of bringing smaller pieces of UI, which have been independently developed, together in one consistent frontend are required. This can be regarded as the next step in the evolution of distributed web apps.

Evolution of Distributed Web Apps

A good question is the relation from microfrontends to components and modules. It turns out, that all these concepts try to bring some reusability and responsibility in form of a unit of work. The only difference is the kind of level, which is adressed.

  • Components are building blocks of the underlying UI library
  • Modules are building blocks of the corresponding runtime
  • Packages are building blocks of the dependency resolver
  • Microfrontends are building blocks of the presented application

Microfrontends thus represent the organs in the body, while packages resolve to their cells, modules to molecules, and components correspond to atoms.

Why are Microfrontends Used

There are multiple reasons for using microfrontends. Quite often the main reason is technical in nature, however, ideally there are real business cases behind using microfrontends.

At its core a microfrontend solutions seek for the following properties:

  • individual pieces of the frontend can be developed, tested, and deployed independently
  • individual pieces of the frontend can be added, removed, or replaced without rebuilds
  • the different pieces of the frontend may be created using different technologies

Consequently, microfrontends are all about decoupling. They start to make sense when the application reaches a certain size. One of the benefits is that many more potential team splits are possible, incl. the creation of smaller full stack teams.

Allowing Full-Stack Teams

Microfrontends can be very relevant when one or more of the following checkmarks is set:

  • Multiple teams contribute to the frontend
  • Individual parts should be activated, deactivated, or rolled out on specific users or groups
  • External developers should be able to extend the UI
  • The feature set of the UI is growing on a daily or weekly basis - without impacting the rest of the system
  • Development speed should be a constant despite a growing application
  • Different teams should be able to use their own tooling

Who's Using Microfrontends

More and more companies are actively using microfrontends. A recent list includes organizations such as

  • DAZN
  • Elsevier
  • entando
  • Hello Fresh
  • IKEA
  • Microsoft
  • Open Table
  • OpenMRS
  • Otto
  • SAP
  • Sixt
  • Skyscanner
  • smapiot
  • Spotify
  • Starbucks
  • Thalia
  • Zalando
  • ZEISS
  • ... and many more!

The approaches taken by these companies are certainly different, however, their intentions are mostly the same.

Companies using Microfrontends

The list is growing every day. From consulting companies such as ThoughtWorks or HLC to SaaS providers such as SalesPad or Apptio. But also more classical companies are betting on it. One example here is German hidden champion Hoffmann Group.

The example of the Hoffmann Group is a great case to show that microfrontends do not require large teams, nor do they require inhouse resources. They have chosen microfrontends in particular due to their interactions with multiple service providers.

How to Build Microfrontends?

This is an interesting question with, unfortunately, a foggy answer: Like for microservices there is no single approach that works for everyone or is established as an industry standard. Unlike microservices, microfrontends do not only differ in implementation details, but already in very elementary things. As a result we need to distinguish between the main area of use. While some server-side frameworks also allow client-side composition, the same is true in the other direction.

Client-Side Frameworks

The largest variation of frameworks exist for client-side microfrontends. Some of these also allow server-side rendering.

Client-Side Composition

The following frameworks implement this (or a similar) pattern:

Server-Side Frameworks

On the server-side a variation of frameworks exist. Some of them are just libraries or frameworks for express, while others already come in form of services that need to be rolled out in your infrastructure.

Server-Side Composition

The following frameworks implement this (or a similar) pattern:

Helper Libraries

There are also some helper libraries that either provide some infrastructure for sharing dependencies, routing events, or just bringing together different microfrontends and their lifecycles.

One example is the handling of shared dependencies via mechanisms such as import maps or bundler specific chunks.

Sharing Dependencies using Import Maps

The following libraries help to reduce boilerplate code:

Take the Survey

I'd love to have another take on this using some community data. But I need your help to get the data.

I've prepared a simple survey using Google Forms. Please spread the link via the channels of your choice (e.g., Twitter). Much appreciated!

I'll let the survey run until end of August. The result will be published in the beginning of September.

What's Next for Microfrontends

While some people see things converging with helper libraries such as module federation, most will attach on to their solutions. The good news is that many frameworks make it easy to write code that does not result in a huge vendor lock in. Nevertheless, what's missing is a common standard that makes it easy to exchange solutions at least on a technical basis.

Another thing that is currently missing is acceptance and broader adaption in the community. While the pattern of microfrontends gains popularity, a large fraction of the community is still in doubt. One of the reasons is that microservices have not been regarded as another tool for specific scenarios, but as a kind of best practice and standard to follow when designing backends. This is obviously not as it should be and consequently microfrontends should not be regarded as a silver bullet either.

The available amount of existing solutions and their uses in many projects around the world send a strong signal: Microfrontends are ready to be used! I would recommend checking a variety of patterns and solutions before actually starting a larger/production-grade project.

I hope you enjoyed this article! I would love to hear in which camp you are - and why. Do you love, tolerate, or despise them?

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