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DX Architecture at MACH Speed
Jun 10, 2021 • 7 Minute Read • Elizabeth Spranzani, Chief Technology Officer
The last 14 months are difficult to describe: chaotic, scary, exciting, and without doubt, filled with seemingly constant change. To keep up has required individuals and businesses to remain relevant, competitive, and engaging to customers and prospects while dealing with an unpredictable pandemic. Literally overnight, the necessity to deliver digitally became table stakes to compete. The rapid change to digital saved a lot of businesses, but also exposed weakness in their platforms and processes. As a result, there is a growing gulf between the digital haves and the have-nots.
At Verndale, we’ve seen this first-hand. While some clients requested that we slow down, far more asked to speed up development and rapidly pivot to new business models. We pushed to make our processes more agile and rise to the need. Those that recently completed transformational projects with us leveraged well-architected DXP platforms, which allowed them to quickly add new content campaigns and functionality to their applications. But others were faced with roadblocks such as large upgrades or even rebuilds to get them into the proper position to unlock the power of their platforms.
How the Market Responded to the Rush to Digital
At the same time equity began to flow into the DXP space resulting in a whirlwind of acquisition activity. Sitecore kicked off their activity about a year or so before the pandemic with their acquisition of Content Hub from Stylelabs, a SaaS-based platform that includes DAM, CMP, and PCM. Episerver followed that up with the acquisition of Idio, a content recommendations engine, and then added Insite Commerce for B2B. Then Episerver acquired Optimizely, for Experimentation and Personalization, and decided to take the name of the well-known SaaS platform.
. . .and the changes continued…
Sitecore next announced their intent to buy Boxever, a SaaS platform that is a combo CDP and Experimentation/Personalization engine, and Four51, a B2B SaaS platform that has the chops to also service B2C. On the heels of that news, Optimizely announced the acquisition of Zaius, a SaaS CDP. As of this writing, Sitecore was the last to make a move, scooping up Moosend, a SaaS marketing automation and email platform.
Managing Change and Finding the Value for our Clients
As a Platinum partner to both Sitecore and Optimizely (and Insite Commerce before it was acquired), it’s our job at Verndale to decipher what all this activity means and guide our clients through it all. Essentially within a year, the strategic direction of these platforms took a sharp turn, accelerated by Covid, and the existential requirement for agile and nimble flexibility. The massive monolithic platforms of old, where all the features and functionality are combined tightly together into one system would never allow companies to move fast enough. This confluence of events ushered in the inevitability of the MACH architecture. The MACH concept was officially coined and named by the MACH Alliance in June of 2020, but the individual tenets are not new and have been developing in maturity over many years. What changed, so suddenly, is the realization by most of the digital world that MACH is not optional, but required, to survive this next evolution of delivering digital experiences.
MACH Architecture Explained
The core MACH principle is simple and clear: "Enterprise suites are no longer 'the safer choice.' The MACH ecosystem is. It is agile and nimble, always up to date. "
MACH is an acronym that stands for Microservices, API-first, Cloud Native SaaS, Headless.
- Microservices are small applications that do one thing well.
- APIs are the interfaces that talk to each other, exchange data, and surface functionality.
- Cloud, in this case, is specifically a SaaS (Software-as-a-Service) platform, where the vendor supplying the platform/software owns it, hosts it, and keeps the platform up to date (upgrades etc), providing access via the aforementioned APIs.
- Headless means that the administration of these platform is completely decoupled from the implementation and use of its data points. The Head (front-end) is a separate application and is the only part that clients/customers and their partners are responsible to update and upkeep. They evolve separately.
Each component in the composable architecture is focused on what it is great at, and it is pluggable, scalable, replaceable, and continuously improved and evolved. A single vendor may, or may not, offer all the components, but those components are loosely tied together via API regardless of who offers it, and can be updated and upgraded without adversely affecting the other components. The components can be switched out to always ensure best-of-breed solutions are in place.
Imagine that world, where your tech stack is future-proof, where there are no more complex platform instantiations and upgrades, where developers focus on the beautiful front-end experiences that deliver the functionality, data, and help to your marketing team with experiments and personalization (instead of debugging something in the platform), where there is little technical debt (and the little that there is, is not your problem), where a piece of the ecosystem can be switched out based on better features or price, where you only pay for the features that you know you are going to use today, not some day.
Imagine Never Having to Re-Platform your Website Ever Again
That is the dream and north star of the MACH ethos. And it's close, really close. The DXP platforms like Sitecore and Optimizely know this and that is where they are going. Some have fully embraced and vocalized their roadmap there, and others may not have said it outright, but actions speak louder than words.
There are some concessions and considerations when your organization embraces MACH compliant platforms. Anything as-a-service will result in less flexibility in customization and less control over when updates and upgrades may happen, but it is a worthwhile tradeoff in most cases, to attain the resulting speed, agility, and convenience. Additionally, it is worth considering that if the custom thing you want is not baked into the platform already, maybe it is time to question why you need that customization. Is it an old business rule that has been handed down over generations? Perhaps it is not needed anymore, and it is time to differentiate instead with great front-end features based on personalization and customer data. Make no mistake though, the organizational change required to let go of some of these old rules very well could be what keeps your business alive.
In a time when we all are life-long learners (as many of our higher education clients have come to embrace and enable), we see ongoing hands-on learning with this nimble architecture. This is a strategy of constant gradual improvement with small changes and updates, rather than “big bang” projects. Be prepared for a larger demand in your procurement process if you are evaluating new platforms and tools to plug in and replace other systems. And finally, it could also result in managing more partners if the platforms in your architecture are provided by different vendors.
Which brings us back to the benefits of going with a DXP platform suite such as Sitecore or Optimizely, who are clearly trying to find a way to embrace the MACH ethos while still providing a comprehensive offering.
These DXP platforms may be moving away from monolithic all-in-one, but they are still bringing together great options in the various DXP platform categories that comprehensively supply all those features. The products you need will be bundled together with better pricing and out-of-the-box integrations.
But a word of caution, just because a MACH platform has an open API doesn't mean it is pure plug and play. You may need to wire up those connections and there is still time required to do it well. However, by staying within the loosely coupled ecosystem of a set of platforms owned by the same vendor, your organization will have platforms with tried-and-true relationships via pre-built connectors. This, plus the bundled pricing, will be compelling points in the decision-making process.
For these reasons, those companies that are currently invested in DXP platforms such as Sitecore and Optimizely should view these recent acquisitions as very positive events, proving out the commitment by these platforms to future-proof your investment. If you haven't taken a moment to look at a new logical platform diagram of these DXP ecosystems, you should. It is fascinating to see how they are replacing what had been core baked-in parts of themselves with MACH elements. They have recognized this is the direction of the industry, and how they need to adapt to enable the speed and agility that everyone requires to survive and flourish.
So What is Verndale Doing About This for Our Clients?
The responsible thing to do is consider MACH architecture and platforms in each recommendation and decision we help you make. If you are currently planning for a full re-platform anyway, we recommend selecting a DXP that is very complete in its offering. It does not have to be all MACH (and likely with the best DXPs, it won't be just yet anyway, it is an ongoing effort of evolution). But the platform should show it is going in that direction and many of the components should be MACH-compliant. We can set up your ecosystem so that it is mostly there and make it easy to choose between new MACH components as they become available.
If you aren't planning to make any big moves, we can introduce MACH components individually, with low-hanging (high impact) fruit. Most enterprises will probably make these changes little by little. This is especially true if you are happy with your current ecosystem and MarTech stack. But you don't want to wait too long, because these changes are inevitable.
More so, you want to push these conversations internally sooner if you feel frustrated that you are paying for features you don't even use in your current DXP, overspend on DevOps, or cannot move fast enough to meet customer needs. A MACH architecture will address all these problems, and we at Verndale are here to help make it a reality for your organization. You can contact us any time for an assessment of your system architecture and help you make a business case for the change and create a roadmap of how to get there.