LAS VEGAS — In a move fitting with the location, Marketo announced a major bet on a huge platform re-architecture project during its recent Marketing Nation Summit here. Code named Project Orion, it is intended to deliver big data scalability and transactional support for business-to-consumer (B2C) use cases.

San Mateo, Calif.-based Marketo dropped hints about Project Orion throughout the three-day event at MGM Grand last week, which also featured other reveals on account-based marketing, predictive content and analytics.

Intentionally or not, what Marketo CEO and Chairman Phil Fernandez calls the company’s biggest technology investment to date was downplayed in the opening keynote.

Piqued by the statement, CMSWire sat down with Marketo Chief Scientist Shankar Venkataraman, CMO Sanjay Dholakia and Chandar Pattabhiram, Group Vice President of Marketing, to dig into the project details.

Marketo’s New Enterprise Focus

One thing all parties made clear is that Marketo wants a bigger piece of the enterprise pie.

This is unsurprising — the company is, after all, out there on its own swinging against powerful marketing cloud vendors like Salesforce, Adobe and Oracle.

Without a convincing enterprise tale, it will be relegated to the small- and medium-size business (SMB) market, which itself is growing increasingly competitive and smacks of a boorish price war. Both customers and Wall Street are demanding evolution.

Yet Dholakia was careful to note the company is “expanding” rather than shifting to enterprise-level customers.

“We’re just expanding. It’s opening the aperture to more growth markets. We’re certainly not abandoning the mid-market.”

It’s a message reiterated in Marketo’s most recent quarterly report (10-Q) with the US Securities and Exchange Commission, which notes the company is committed to investment for future growth. Those strategies include a significant expansion of its sales organization; technology infrastructure, including systems architecture, management tools, scalability, availability, performance and security, as well as disaster recovery measure; and product development, including investments in the product development team and the development of new products and new features for existing products.

The Growth of Digital Customer Experience

As Fernandez stressed in his conference keynote — and as CMSWire readers know well — marketing and digital customer experience has broadened to touch sales, IT, customer service and the CEO’s core strategy. All these departments play a part in the broader customer experience. Marketers share the strategic planning with CEOs and CIOs, Fernandez said.

These are fine plans. But as any Marketo user knows, the platform in its present state has performance challenges — Smart Lists can take many minutes to load, email template changes can take 10 to 20 minutes to approve and complex campaign flows require that you build in delays so that activity data has time to synchronize across the platform before it can be leveraged for further personalization.

Additionally, things like operating simultaneously in multiple timezones and multiple languages can be a challenge for distributed and international teams.

In short, pleasing the large enterprise market requires evolution, and pleasing the B2C market with its billions of transactions and precious microseconds requires an architectural revolution. This is what Project Orion is about.

Project Orion is a Matter of Scale

One of the changes coming out of Project Orion will be its elastic nature and the ability to scale linearly.

“B2C and B2B are converging in terms of best practices,” said Pattabhiram.

“Lead nurturing best practices from B2B can be used by consumer marketers, and personalization strategies that consumer marketers use are leveraged by B2B marketers. And ultimately these create more engaging relationships … To do that, the difference between B2B and B2C is scale.”

Another point not to miss is that Orion fundamentally changes Marketo from a multi-instance “cloud” architecture to a true multi-tenant cloud architecture.

This news has tremendous implications for how Marketo operates. Much of the company’s internal maintenance, monitoring, health, patching and upgrade procedures will change as Orion is deployed for the full customer base. This is no small detail for those watching the company closely.

Venkataraman joined Marketo as chief scientist in April, coming most recently from IBM where his focus was IBM’s digital analytics offerings. Before joining IBM, he built a dashboard-based real-time streaming product which Cognos acquired in 2006. He held a leadership role in Epiphany and engineering roles at Informix, Yodlee, Remedy Corporation and Outride.

He is deeply involved in the Orion project, but given that the project is now about 18 months old, much of the work was done before his arrival.

According to Venkataraman, a basic customer instance of the new platform can handle 20 million activities — any event, behavior or interaction — per hour out of the box. That translates to processing some 600,000 events per second.

Beyond throughput, low latency was another primary objective of the Orion Project, with a goal of five seconds or less between event and the ability to make a subsequent offer based on the event. In a world where markets are made in microseconds, five seconds sounds like an epoch, but we assume this story will continue to evolve as the platform matures.

“The building blocks of this platform are exactly that. That’s the scale we’re actually hitting,” Venkataraman said.

Managing the Project Orion Deployment Process

As Marketo customers, we were naturally interested to understand how the deployment process would work and what immediate implications the change might bring to the user interface or application behavior.

To understand the details, you must understand that Marketo is today conceived and architected in distinct layers with data, platform, applications, etc.

Marketo has on the order of 10 to 12 applications that sit on top of the current platform. Marketing Activities, Lead Database, Calendar, Analytics, Ad Bridge, Personalization, Predictive Content, Revenue Cycle Analyzer, Account Based Marketing and the like are all “applications” on top of the core.

So when the Orion architecture goes live, it theoretically does so in a manner that is transparent to the end user. You should not notice any UI changes.

Further, Marketo has figured out a clever way to run both platforms in parallel for a given customer’s instance, and then perform post-transaction difference analysis.

Scott Nash, VP of product platform, said that every customer will run parallel systems for about two weeks, and then if the difference analysis yields no significant issues, the customer will be cut over to the new platform.

“We have actually ensured that behaviors that you see on the existing platform and what you see on the newer platform are consistent,” Venkataraman told CMSWire.

“For example, you are a customer of Marketo. You are actually seeing a certain behavior on the application. Underneath we are actually piping the same data for both the old and new platforms to ensure that everything is consistent. Data consistency is very, very important.”

Beyond Project Orion

Project Orion, named by Star Wars enthusiasts at Marketo, is only the foundation for a larger platform, which will be named over the summer, Pattabhiram said.

“It’s the biggest engineering project to date. It’s fundamentally strategic to where we’re going as a business,” said Dholakia.

This much is clear: Without a re-architecture Marketo was likely heading for a wall. The future with Orion is infinitely brighter for customers, stockholders and would be acquirers.

Lots of eyes are on Orion, and Forrester analyst Lori Wizdo found all product announcements at the summit were “badged as enablers of this vision.” But the most significant was news of this new architecture.

“It means something when a company announces a new architecture and still uses the word ‘project,’” Wizdo told CMSWire.

“Marketo announced that 30 Marketo customers are testing it at present, and while many of those customers are some of Marketo’s largest, they are still not going to be stress testing an architecture whose design objective is to manage and draw insights out of the billions of transactions that Internet of Things and mobile technologies will generate.

“Still I give Marketo high marks for raising the bar for today’s marketer to think beyond providing leads for the load-bearing sales force and take a role as steward of customer experience across the entire lifecycle.”

Additional bright spots to look forward to include the evolution of the Predictive Content engine to support email content, an Account Based Marketing (ABM) application that builds in some ways from the Revenue Cycle Analyzer, and Munchkin 2.0, the next generation of Marketo’s web-layer JavaScript integration library, which brings bi-directional data integration and other functionality sure to please the digital integration geeks.

A final salient point is the decidedly less technical re-architecture of Marketo’s partner strategy.

Marketo’s LaunchPoint Partner Ecosystem has historically had a low threshold of entry. Yet the company recognizes the importance of having a scalable, trustable partner ecosystem as part of the enterprise client appeal.

With that in mind, big changes are afoot in this area, the details of which we are not currently at liberty to share.

Suffice it to say that standards are being elevated, indicators of partner integration robustness and confidence are being developed and the relevant integration APIs are being stretched and developed so that Marketo is a more open, more integration-friendly platform for the partner and enterprise ecosystem.

Title image by Margot Pandor