The technology ecosystem had an epiphany a few years ago: it doesn’t make sense to keep content and presentation tied too closely together if you need to serve content to an explosive number of channels. The days of customers engaging with a brand via their website alone are long gone. Customers now interact with brands through a myriad of channels, including smart phones and watches, social platforms, conversational interfaces such as chatbots and immersive experiences via augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). The need to create multi-channel digital experiences while staying agnostic of the presentation layer gave birth to the headless CMS.
Headless content was a good start, but it was only a start. Experiences are composed of data, content and business logic that exists in a variety of different applications, including commerce platforms, CDPs, CRMs, personalization platforms, search engines, loyalty software and optimization platforms. The headless revolution eventually became about more than just content residing in headless CMSs. Companies like CommerceTools brought the idea into the commerce world, where it made every commerce function available via an API, agnostic of the presentation layer. This gave birth to an entirely new mindset, an architectural shift that pulls away from monolithic platforms and welcomes best-of-breed technologies with open arms: MACH Architecture.
The Emergence of MACH Architecture
The acronym MACH stands for microservices, APIs, cloud-native and headless. The technologies that conform to MACH architecture follow a pattern that is composable or pluggable. They act like lego-blocks that can be assembled together to provide a host of features and capabilities.
The microservices requirement ensures that capabilities are packaged together in a way that can be individually scaled and managed. With microservices, each component of the platform performs a very specific, well-documented function that has clear inputs and outputs.
The APIs allow for ease of integration with other technologies within the stack and avoids having to create custom connections that are brittle and complex in nature.
Cloud-Native ensures that the use of such technologies does not require an infrastructural lift or managed services of any sort. It also means people can access the technology from anywhere with standard authentication and authorization mechanisms.
Finally, headless is key in ensuring that the data and content that needs to be accessed is not tied to a specific presentation framework and can be consumed across all channels.
The MACH Alliance
Like any emerging technology principle, there is an authority on the topic: the MACH Alliance. A set of like-minded technology veterans — from Commercetools, Contentstack, EPAM Systems and Valtech — founded the alliance as a non-profit collaboration to bring forward an open, flexible, best-of-breed technology ecosystem. The goal of this organization is to ensure that member technologies understand and follow the defining architectural principles that make MACH architecture so beneficial to organizations. Its manifesto states:
“Future proof enterprise technology and propel current and future digital experiences”
It also provides reference architectures, guidance and experts that organizations can use to be successful in their journey to attaining a more open and flexible architecture.
Related Article: MACH Architecture: What It Is, Why You Should Know It
To Stack or Not to Stack, That Is the Question
Even though there is a big push for the use of best-of-breed technologies to address the many business needs while building a digital experience, there is no shortage of organizations who remain stuck in the legacy architectures powered by monolithic vendors. Technology executives enjoy these single vendor solutions because they don’t have to worry about dealing with multiple vendors to address their complex technology requirements.
On the surface, the fully integrated suites take away the need to do complex integrations. The business user interfaces are well designed and intuitive, giving business the illusion of being in control of the user experience they are creating. Finally, the key deciding factor between stacks and suites is how embedded these large vendors are in organizations’ procurement processes, top-level executive teams and the very core infrastructure of the company. It’s simply easier to do business with them.
Now, if you’re able to move beyond those glaring obstacles, you may actually be able to make a case for MACH in your organization.
Making the Business Case to IT Teams
1. Best-of-Breed — Innovation — Avoid Vendor Lock-in
One of the most damaging things about working with single-vendor solutions is the tendency to get locked in. The closed architectures of these monolithic solutions force you to use their modules from presentation framework to CDP to marketing automation to CMS, making it very difficult to integrate with. Although some vendors have repackaged their underlying data stores as "headless," the content is still very much tied to their presentation layers, making it difficult for you to build your own bespoke digital experiences on top of their platforms. If you have any doubt, try building a Next.js based front-end on top of Adobe Experience Manager as your content repository. The inability to integrate easily with other platforms and vendors prevents you from benefiting from the innovations that are emerging on a daily basis in the martech ecosystem and gets you stuck in a rut of managing, maintaining, upgrading and customizing legacy technologies and the never ending release cycle.
2. The Millennial Software Development Ecosystem
New school software developers are not interested in working with legacy systems. They want choice and flexibility. They don’t want to be forced to use vendor-specific presentation frameworks that are still using JavaBeans and the Spring framework as their foundation! They value being part of a community, combining open-source technologies with commercial SaaS software where it makes sense. It’s a cultural shift you can’t ignore. If you choose to go with old school tech, you get old school developers. You either go with innovative technologies, or you can say goodbye to the chance of innovating and competing in today’s competitive landscape.
3. Future-Proofing Your Architecture
Future-proofing means that if your business requirements change, which they most certainly will, your tech stack can adapt to meet those needs. A monolithic vendor may meet your requirements today, but if you want to change anything, get ready to spend millions of dollars and months or even years writing custom, unsupported code that no one will understand two years from now or want to touch with a nine foot pole even if they sort of understand it.
4. Faster Execution
Most cloud-native technologies have a deployment time frame of weeks, as opposed to months. Getting up and running with a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) should be a matter of days. This is a radical shift from monolithic suites where you need $250-$400 USD per hour product specialists and many days or weeks to even install the platform.
5. Compasable, Swappable, Modular, Pluggable …
These buzzwords have become really popular over the last few years. The benefit of a technology being ‘composable’ is that you can assemble a tech stack that very closely matches the needs of your business instead of having to rely on a single vendor to cover everything. If you’re missing capabilities in your tech stack or if your requirements change, it is very easy to add another composable technology to your stack because of its open and flexible architecture. Lastly, if you need to swap out a technology, it’s easy because they all provide APIs. All you would need to do is swap out one set of APIs for another.
MACH Architecture Challenges
Bridging the Gaps Between Business and IT
The benefits of MACH are clear. When talking to developers and digital teams, they understand why this paradigm shift makes sense.
The grass is not as green on the business side though.
If you speak to business and marketing teams, they will express frustration about their lack of control over the end user customer experience in a headless architecture. Business and marketing teams want control over not just the content, but also the visual experience. They like the WYSIWYG capabilities of the legacy CMSs. All those benefits discussed above are useless to business if they are unable to visualize what they are building.
The shift to MACH requires a deeper collaboration between business and IT and a shared understanding of the user experience. IT and Business must work together to come up with a set of blueprints or templates for their front-end experience, which would allow business users to control the content that appears within the guard rails of the template. Digital teams can even go as far as giving control to the business to design static HTML components with dynamic tags that get their values from systems like the CDP such as $customer_name or $membership_status, but a shared understanding of how the front-end experience comes together is key. The idea of dynamic templates is not new, but it is ever more important now that data and content could come from a variety of content repositories and databases. There are emerging tools like Builder.io and StackBit that provide a visual layer for your MACHified tech stack, but they are still not as well known in the enterprise space and are still in their early days. This space is quickly maturing and more and more players are pushing the outer limits of what is achievable.
The other challenge is that of vendor management. When you’re dealing with a single vendor, there is one throat to choke if something goes wrong. When dealing with a multitude of vendors with point solutions along with single vendor suites, you now need to have a partner management strategy and a clear understanding of the boundaries of each solution. Without this, it would be impossible to hold each vendor accountable for their role in the overall architecture.
Related Article: Does Your MarTech Stack Inspire Joy?
Connecting the Dots
If you’re venturing into the world of MACH, you are essentially assembling your own DXP. An orchestrator can help coordinate all of the moving pieces. The orchestrator should have the ability to coordinate experiences across the technology stack and power an unlimited number of channels. Here is a checklist to consider:
- Connect to any data or content source via APIs.
- Map the source data model to the experience specific schema without writing custom code.
- Empower business users to manage the business logic and personalization rules that determine who sees what content and when.
- Deliver headless experiences via APIs to any channels or front-end frameworks.
- Provide a simple, zero-code way to connect to back-end systems and offer a view into the data and content residing in each of these backend systems, especially legacy and home grown systems.
Whether you choose to call it a MACH, composable or headless architecture, one thing we can agree on: there are over 8000 players in the martech ecosystem. Digital leaders should and do want to take advantage of the innovation that resides outside of the monolithic, single-vendor suites. Technology vendors, large or small, must build their Cloud/SaaS applications in an open and pluggable fashion or they will lose a massive opportunity to thrive in an ecosystem that is sure to grow in the coming years. The single-vendor suites will need to join the movement or will continue to frustrate the millennial architects, which will result in them getting left behind.