July 21, 2021
How MACH architecture transforms ecommerce
Ecommerce Technology Observer
Market conditions are constantly changing and so do consumer demands. That’s why enterprises should be constantly adapting and advancing technologically to remain competitive.
As always, the ecommerce industry is at the forefront of progress. Fierce competition, changes in consumer behavior, and the effect of COVID-19 are prompting digital brands to take new approaches to software development to be able to deliver a more seamless and personalized buying experience.
As a result, future-oriented organizations have already begun shifting to the headless software architecture instead of the legacy monolithic approach. Curiously, some brands haven’t just drifted toward headless; they chose an even more daring, integrated and innovative software architecture — MACH.
Let’s take a closer look at MACH, discuss its impact on digital commerce, and cover significant benefits and challenges it can bring.
The MACH architecture (the acronym stands for Microservices, API-first, Cloud-native, and Headless) was conceived and formulated in 2018 by the commercetools company; commercetools developed its own cloud-based platform using MACH, and that's how the concept was first put into practice. In 2020, the company founded the MACH Alliance, a non-profit partnership aimed at helping others implement this innovative architecture.
The main idea behind MACH implies that those companies that strive to adapt need a more open and future-proof architecture, enabling ecommerce developers to make rapid and frequent platform changes. MACH provides a set of complementary principles that allows companies to flexibly deploy, scale, and replace any components of their digital solutions according to their dynamic business requirements.
Using a microservices architecture, teams can build a product as a set of independent components (microservices), each operating on its own and interacting with others through API interfaces. Thus, teams can deploy, change, and improve separate software parts without disrupting the entire system.
API interfaces enable different software components to easily and quickly interact with other services or products, which simplifies software development and reduces effort and time investments.
Businesses can leverage public, private and hybrid clouds as part of the cloud migration strategy to develop solutions in dynamic environments and quickly scale the required computing resources when needed.
With headless architecture, companies don't have a default frontend system that would define how content is presented to end users. This allows brands to utilize APIs to send their messages and content to the target audience using any marketing channel.
Now, let's look at how MACH works and discuss how this concept differs from traditional architecture.
Typically, the traditional software architecture stands for the monolithic software development approach. The monolithic model implies developing a single-tier solution the components of which share the same platform and form a consolidated software system.
Let's consider an example to understand how this works in practice.
For instance, a brand has developed a corporate system that accepts and processes customer requests, checks the availability of necessary products, and sends orders to shippers. On the technical side, this system is divided into several parts: there are services for user authorization, invoicing, and tracking of the number of goods; simultaneously, it has a user interface that allows customers to interact with the system and make orders.
Even if the product consists of multiple modules and components, they all share one database. All these pieces of software are developed and managed within a single, unified system that operates simultaneously with all platforms and marketing channels. In contrast to this software model, the MACH architecture enables developers to divide modules and services into smaller and independent components (microservices), each of which has its individual database.
These components utilize APIs to communicate with each other and deploy content to a central cloud repository. Given that all of the above occurs within the headless commerce framework, content delivery networks can take this static content and use APIs to deliver it to customers via different channels, be it a mobile app, social media, or email.
Likewise, API interfaces link the rest of the brand's operating processes. For example, an API connects ecommerce CRM, inventory management, and invoicing modules, enabling all system components to have relevant data when a customer makes a purchase.
Now let's look at MACH from a business perspective and discuss why brands should consider implementing this innovative model.
Even now many brands rely on the traditional model of their ecommerce software development, and there is nothing wrong with that since it offers many time-proven advantages compared to more innovative approaches.
For example, developing a monolithic product is often more time-efficient and straightforward because engineers don't have to spend extra time on coding to mitigate risks of data disruptions; also, monolithic solutions are pretty easy to scale horizontally. Testing and debugging is also much easier compared to microservices since specialists only have to connect a product database and their testing tools to find (and then eliminate) bugs and vulnerabilities.
So why should companies consider moving to the MACH architecture, and is it worth all the efforts at all? The fact is that, by its very nature, traditional architecture is relatively rigid, which imposes a particular technological burden on brand managers and limits the potential for enterprise development and growth.
Any updates, whether adding a shopping cart, user accounts, or order delivery tracking, require regular platform reconfigurations. This, in turn, deprives big brands of flexibility and agility, which can be detrimental in an era when the speed of decision-making and adaptability are the essential characteristics in the struggle for customer attention and loyalty.
Unlike legacy approaches, MACH helps companies rapidly respond to changes in consumer demand and behavior, scale their service portfolio, and expand functionality (given that microservices can be written in different programming languages). Generally speaking, this gives brands the opportunity to reduce technical debt, establish omnichannel commerce, and be ready for new business opportunities, even those that can't yet be predicted.
Besides all of the above, enterprises that adopt MACH achieve several additional benefits:
Given that the capabilities to constantly innovate and change are at the heart of the MACH concept, the value of this architecture becomes exceptionally high when we talk about customer service. Regardless of the channels used by brands for interaction with their audience, enterprise managers can easily personalize content, run loyalty programs, and track key sales and marketing metrics. As a result, commerce professionals can boost the number of conversions and close more deals.
Any changes and updates made to a particular component of a monolithic solution may violate the entire system's integrity, which may result in bugs and security flaws. In a MACH architecture, this is not such an acute problem because engineers only work with microservices, and even if a technical issue occurs, it will be localized within its component.
That's why MACH-powered systems are not only less exposed to human factor and safety risks but also provide more room for experiments. Brands can implement any features and services (even prototypes) and watch how they work in practice without worrying about possible impact on the rest of their system.
As we’ve already mentioned, the MACH architecture allows brands to quickly introduce new features and capabilities while being confident of the entire system's stability. This way, members of an IT department can work with different parts of the product on a parallel track, which dramatically increases team productivity and accelerates software delivery. Coupled with a shorter time-to-market, this advantage allows brands to substantially reduce operating costs associated with software development and IT management.
Despite all the benefits described above, the implementation of MACH also comes with certain pitfalls and risks. Let's now go into detail.
Technological progress does come at a cost. While gaining flexibility, scalability, and the opportunity to use almost any preferred software development tools, brands also have to deal with the growing complexity of IT-related processes.
For example, if a system consists of many microservices, developers have to go out of their way to integrate all components via APIs. Although the MACH model aims to reduce time-to-market, the project development time may increase in this particular case. To avoid such risks, enterprises should estimate the scale of the work before starting development and have clearly written business requirements.
The constant support of microservices and monitoring of an environment that consists of dozens of components also cause stress for businesses. For instance, companies may have to establish an orchestrated infrastructure and replace their traditional hierarchy based on horizontal teams with a more cross-functional organizational structure.
Speaking of MACH, the difficulties that may arise from implementing a headless architecture also cannot go unmentioned. Implementing a solution without a "head," technically you get a product without an interface, which means you will have to build it on your own or delegate this task to contractors. Sometimes, the development of custom interfaces can be avoided — teams can integrate third-party interfaces, but this may also incur additional costs.
Is there some way to address and mitigate the challenges and risks associated with implementing the MACH architecture? While there is no one-size-fits-all advice (a thorough business analysis is still inevitable), there are some steps you can take to ease the transition process and increase your project's ROI.
To begin with, you should do a survey to determine how applicable the MACH architecture is regarding your unique business case and whether you have enough resources to develop a non-traditional solution. As an option, enterprise executives can conduct a series of meetings with internal technology, marketing and customer service professionals to forge a shared understanding of your business case. If your organization lacks the right talent and skills, you might consider hiring outside consultants to do this task.
Here are a few questions that are worth your consideration no matter the situation:
By its very nature, MACH is a very flexible architecture allowing frequent updates and revisions, so it works best with the agile methodology. Organizing development as a flexible cyclical process, you can start achieving value from the very beginning of your project.
To ensure that digital systems work correctly, customers are satisfied, and there are no security issues, enterprises should constantly monitor their environments from both technical and business perspectives. This means that your team should decide in advance which analytical tools the IT department may use to have a complete picture of the brand's infrastructure.
In general, it is critical to understand that a smooth MACH implementation requires long-term planning and careful thought over each step, which cannot be done without establishing a comprehensive long-term strategy. This is also essential since your solutions must be future-proof and capable of delivering value for years.
Besides planning the solution architecture, running the development itself, and choosing the right vendor, it is also essential to determine how your brand will interact with consumers within the new operating model. To do this, your company's specialists should take the time to map customer journeys and get familiar with the latest UX design practices.
The good news is that your solution doesn't have to be 100% MACH right away. As we mentioned above, MACH is a combination of approaches and frameworks, so the architecture can be introduced gradually and come in parts.
The future of digital commerce is already here, and big companies should prepare for big changes. Today's consumers use many different channels and expect a personal touch. At the same time, the pandemic has divided brands and their customers to some extent, and no one knows precisely what will happen next, so companies need to be more flexible than ever before.
Fortunately, progress does not stand still, which enables companies to meet the demand. Accessibility of cloud-based capabilities, the emergence of APIs and the headless architecture allow brands to orchestrate their marketing, sales and customer service activities and deliver their messages to audiences across multiple platforms and channels.
Software development based on the MACH architecture may greatly support a brand's journey towards retail digital transformation. Within a few years, the ecommerce market may change beyond recognition, and early adopters will have increased chances to gain customer loyalty and be ahead of their competitors.
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