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The Digital Experience Platform (DXP) market saw significant investment movement in the early days of 2021.

Sitecore announced last month a $1.2 billion “private investment,” something it calls the “largest-ever capital investment in the martech space,” a questionable label whenever something comes in as “private.” But billion is billion, we suppose.

Also last month, Bloomreach, another DXP provider, acquired Customer Data Platform (CDP) and marketing automation provider Exponea and announced a $900 valuation after a $150 million investment by Sixth Street Growth. 

Piping-hot funding news out of this software market is setting an interesting tone for 2021. However, it’s the timeframe of March 2020 and one particular finding from a noted DXP analyst firm that tells another story for which practitioners should take note.

Related Article: Why Did Gartner Kill the Web Content Management Magic Quadrant?

Problems With Uptime?

Gartner, in its Magic Quadrant for Digital Experience Platforms released last month, reported practitioners in charge of digital experiences in the early days of COVID-19 in 2020 “found themselves struggling with the usability, scalability and uptime of their DXP systems, given the spikes in traffic and growing demand for the digital channel.”

Quick reminder: a DXP is “a well-integrated and cohesive set of technologies designed to enable the composition, management, delivery and optimization of contextualized digital experiences across multi experience customer journeys,” according to Gartner.

Irina Guseva, principal analyst at Gartner and one of the authors of the DXP report, told CMSWire that she heard about these struggles from customers from a “majority” of DXP vendors listed in her report.

The providers in the report include:

  • Adobe
  • OpenText
  • Episerver (now Optimizely)
  • Acquia
  • Sitecore
  • Liferay
  • Bloomreach
  • Salesforce
  • Oracle
  • HCL Software
  • Crownpeak
  • CoreMedia 
  • e-Spirit
  • Squiz
  • Magnolia
  • Kentico

Despite the constant promises of real-time digital experiences and scalability, did vendors like these fall short in the face of the digital onslaught rooted in COVID-19 lockdowns and quarantines last March?

CMSWire reached out to all 16 vendors. Of the 14 that responded, all acknowledged the digital challenges of COVID-19. But they also had the "no, not us" vibe when asked if their customers had issues with their own particular software in terms of usability, scalability and uptime. Rather, they used the opportunity to share case studies where customers successfully transformed digitally.

‘My Website Is Down’

And we're not denying the success. But the Gartner finding that found struggles is worth some exploration. The finding on scalability problems from Gartner is based on the number of calls in March 2020 analyst Guseva started getting with this theme: “My website is down," according to Guseva. “They couldn't handle the surge,” Guseva said, “because all of a sudden nobody was going anywhere physically and everybody was pushing into the digital channel, and it failed.”

At the same time, Guseva said she could not say definitively it was the DXP vendor’s fault in these cases. It may have been the infrastructure and the cloud capacity, and how well the product is configured to handle that.

“It's also the implementation challenge sometimes because if you don't do it with best practices and best experts, then it's going to fail,” Guseva added. “Sometimes there is also no automatic tooling. This idea of the cloud manager capability. I need to be able to go in and see my reporting and see how my instances are doing, whether they're up or down.”

However, the majority of vendors have disregarded that cloud management capability for a long time, according to Guseva. And many of them do not provide the auto-response to changes. “You'll have to go in and change it manually, and all of a sudden, you had two instances, but now you need to have 22 instances. And you didn't do it because you didn't know how to or where to do it. So, it's that good old triangle of people, process and technology.”

Organizations investing in DXPs who had trouble back in March 2020 with the digital rush likely thought their DXP technologies automatically came with digital optimization and digital transformation. “But then when the proverbial (problem) hit the fan,” Guseva said, “they realized that they're nowhere close to having that DX stability.”

No Problems Here, Drupal Creator/Acquia Co-Founder Says

What do some vendors say about uptime and scalability in light of Gartner’s findings? Dries Buytaert, creator of the Drupal content management system and co-founder and chief technology officer of DXP provider Acquia, told CMSWire Acquia did not have any of the challenges cited by Gartner.

“It does not resonate with me,” Buytaert said when read the Gartner passage. Acquia was born out of the cloud with Drupal, Buytaert said, and was ahead of anyone else doing cloud computing. “We have so much experience in scalability, usability, all of these things,” Buytaert said. “We did see massive spikes last year around Black Friday and Cyber Monday and those kinds of events. But the auto scaling of our platform really handled those spikes. ... I think our systems have been built for scale from Day 1. And so we had no problems, no hiccups whatsoever throughout.”

Acquia, he said, holds an advantage in cloud computing, he said, adding other vendors have what "we would call managed hosting. ... Not everybody is running an auto scalable cloud infrastructure.”

Related Article: What Does the Future Hold for Digital Experience Platforms?

Modern Architectures the Only Solution

The types of DXPs that saw scalability and uptime problems are the DXPs that are currently approaching end-of-life, according to Rasmus Skoldjan, chief marketing officer of Magnolia, which made its first entrant this year into the Gartner DXP Magic Quadrant (as a "niche player"). Magnolia ran a systems analysis this year of 2020 performance and found customers were all able to handle spikes well.

“Some of them anticipated that they would get into problems and scaled up infrastructure — but in the end, didn’t need to use it,” Skoldjan said. “The common challenges in 2020 were not about infrastructure or performance issues due to the load. It was actually the big untold story about the pandemic in the DX market that almost everyone was in fact able to scale and that the internet held up.”

The real problem, he said, was cutting through the noise with rapid product innovation, improved digital experiences and changing internal processes fast enough. “The customers on modern architecture, overall, didn’t stumble on technology,” he added.

Solutions Are Fragmented, Scattered and Unwieldy

The issues with the poor usability, scalability, performance and especially integrability and extensibility of DXPs are a symptom of their brittleness from the DXP end-user perspective, according to Preston So, senior director of product strategy for Oracle Content and Experience. Oracle is a challenger in the Gartner DXP Magic Quadrant for 2021.

“Throughout the coronavirus, we’ve been forced to work together in decentralized ways using tools that ostensibly do much of the legwork for us,” So said. “Unfortunately, our newly distributed forms of collaboration have illuminated the frictions between distinct personas in the DXP: a multi- and inter-persona segment of software that involves just as much compromising and collaboration between editors, product managers and developers as it does single-persona workflows like digital asset lifecycles and content preview. When certain features are only usable by one set of users and not any other — like driving no-code preview of headless experiences — progress inevitably slows down across the team.”

Consumers, So added, are clearly seeing the limitations of a formerly multi-persona monolith being split into various products and services that bear little relation to one another. “The DXP of the pandemic is increasingly a fragmented, scattered, unwieldy milieu of solutions that runs roughshod over the utopian ideals of no-code democratization and distributed collaboration that rallied buyers to WCM in the first place,” he said. “Time will tell who will manage to ride the right mix of solutions to a bonafide DXP that never privileges one back-office team at the expense of another.”

Bandwidth Strain and Scalability

Corbin Murakami, director of product management of Liferay, a Gartner DXP leader, said March 2020 was really when reality hit home for many businesses in EMEA and the Americas. The sudden shift to work-from-home "created enormous bandwidth strain on existing systems, including DXP-based solutions, and a significant increase in the leveraging of digital channels and cloud infrastructure." However, most organizations were able to respond quickly and effectively.

Most other vendors responding to CMSWire indicated much of the same challenges and how certain customers responded positively in the face of the digital surge but fell short on sharing specific tales of those customers who struggled (we can't blame them, naturally).

Related Article: How the Move from Web CMS to DXP Is Fraying Key Social Contracts

Not About Good vs. Bad DXPs

For all the talk about digital and DXPs' ability to thrive in a digital surge, companies are not looking at their martech stack and thinking, “if only we had a DXP we could delight all our customers with exceptional experiences every time they connect with us,” according to Cathy McKnight, VP of strategy and consulting for The Content Advisory.

“Our clients don’t talk about DXPs,” McKnight said. “They talk about CMS and DAMs, and analytics tools. They are still allowing their internal silos to dictate how these systems work together, or don’t as the case may be, to build the ever-elusive 360-degree view of the customer that is needed to deliver and ‘delight’ at every stage of their journey.”

The impact of COVID on businesses’ ability to respond to increased pressure on their digital outlets, commerce and otherwise, had less to do with their tech stack than it did their internal ability to adapt, according to McKnight.

“It was the perfect storm where digital and analog had to be in sync to provide things like online ordering for curbside pick-up,” McKnight added. “Few organizations are using the data they have at hand to drive things like commerce or content strategy, or content and experience creation to any meaningful extent.”

Shoring Up Technical Debt

If 2020 has taught us anything in the DXP world, it is that now is the time to shore up technical debt and have a solid governance/readiness plan, according to Kelly Rusk, Sitecore architect for Rackspace and Sitecore MVP. (Sitecore is a leader in the 2021 Gartner DXP report).

Rusk advised practitioners to treat every day like you could be running an ad in the SuperBowl and how your DXP brand could sustain the resulting large influx of traffic to answer the questions of:

  • Are users going to follow the path to desired conversion or do we have too many “noisy features in the way”?
  • Do we have a plan/capability for scaling and disaster recovery?
  • Do we have qualified resources and proper DevOps to manage this platform?
  • Do we have a documented plan to reduce our technical debt?

A report out this month on the State of Salesforce DevOps found that although a large number of teams report using developer tools in their projects, they may not be used consistently or integrate end-to-end processes.

“Years of poor development, lacking DevOps, and having solid testing practices came back to haunt many organizations,” Rusk said. “When in the past, poor development could be masked by increasing power to the underlying platform, there is a breaking point where even power doesn’t help to mask these issues.”

Related Article: Is Your Organization Ready for a Digital Experience Platform?

Customer-Facing Touchpoints Makes the Difference

Vahe Kassardjian, director at Deloitte Digital who works with mostly with financial services firms and some retailers helping implement digital technologies and experiences, said most organizations he works with realized at the beginning of COVID-19 they had gaps in their digital ecosystems related to infrastructure, collaboration tools and customer-facing touchpoints.

“Oftentimes,” Kassardjian said, "they realized they didn't have a solid roadmap to act upon or gear up. Obviously, most of their focus and budget went toward fixing infrastructure and collaboration tools first, and customer-facing touchpoints became the real differentiator between winners and losers."

The general characteristics of the strugglers included:

  • Fragmented technologies/data
  • Low interoperability/adoption of interoperability standards
  • Fragmented teams ("Conway's law") further exacerbated by the leveraging of multiple agencies/integrators
  • On-prem or cloud-based with complex/unclear operating model
  • Outdated or unchallenged roadmap

Kassardjian said some clients of DXP vendors were in a good position to scale when the pandemic hit; others not so much. “They were at the limit of the system and investments would have better been on rip-and-replace than duct-taping,” he added. Kassardjian also cited two cases of major hacks as well, devastating multi-day down times.

Through 2020, Kassardjian also heard some clients realized that they did not operate on their target SLA. On-premise implementations from what he heard delivered the lowest SLA, some at 95%.

No Denying DXP Momentum

Of course, no SaaS platform is immune to uptime challenges. We’re reminded of the advantages of cloud computing all the time then smacked with reality checks of the fragility of such hosting when things go south. Digital breaks, too, even in the most crucial of times

We know there are many more layers outside of uptime and scalability to the DXP software market, such as the emergence of composable DXP (noted by Guseva) and even an exploration into the employee experience platform market (one vendor tipped us off to that as a 2021 addition).

And there’s no denying the DXP market is hot at the start of this year if you look at the recent investments from Sitecore and Bloomreach. Gartner essentially retired the Web Content Management Magic Quadrant in favor of DXPs. Investment doesn't seem to have slowed in DXPs, and it's continued evolution is something for which practitioners crafting digital customer experiences should take note.

“The market demand is definitely there,” Gartner’s Guseva said. “I'm seeing that on my side as well. I've had 20% uplift in the number of calls last year compared to 2019. So it's definitely a hot topic.”