Demystifying MACH – understand the acronym that will flex up your IT architecture
23. May 2022
If you’re working in commerce, you’ll know that the speed of change is accelerating. That means businesses need to build and scale faster than ever before – which requires flexibility and agility, and lots of it.
“Unfortunately, some businesses are struggling to experiment, respond and adapt to new touchpoints quickly enough because they’re bogged down by monolithic commerce systems. These legacy systems can limit your ability to effectively scale and adapt to rapidly changing consumer needs,” says Mikkel Stærk, Technology Director at IMPACT.
MACH architecture, on the other hand, touted as the alternative architecture that businesses need to sit up and take note of, promises to better support composable commerce experiences.
In fact, a recent study from the MACH Alliance suggests that 81% of senior technology decision makers in the US, UK and Germany intend to increase MACH elements in their front-office architecture within a year.
But what is MACH really all about and does it actually stand up to these claims? If you’re looking to upgrade to a new platform architecture, are curious about the benefits of composable architecture or you’re simply interested in the latest and greatest in tech, you have probably come across the term ‘MACH’. Read on to demystify the acronym behind your next big tech decision, when you should consider opting for MACH over monolith and the business benefits of going MACH.
What does MACH stand for?
We’ll start by breaking down what MACH actually means.
MACH (originally coined by our friends and MACH pioneers over at commercetools) is an acronym that stands for microservices, API-first, cloud-based and headless.
If that’s still not much clearer, it’s a modular, composable architecture that you have full control over. Think technologies that can be slotted together to create a ‘best-of-breed’ technology ecosystem with all the features and capabilities you need. That way, you’re not tied to a single vendor but can pick and choose the technologies you want – even if they’re provided by different vendors.
Here’s what each of these four principles mean, along with an overview of what sets them apart from more traditional architecture systems.
- Microservices are small, stand-alone applications that can be built, deployed and maintained as independent modular components.
- Failure in one microservice doesn’t impact your whole solution, making it more resilient.
- Scaling and updating each component can be done independently, rather than needing to upgrade the entire system.
- APIs enable integration between different solutions, like ERP, WRM and CRM, in your tech stack.
- API-first is the opposite of code-first – where services are developed and then implemented as APIs. API-first is designed and built for interoperations, which reduces the chance of siloes.
- Using the cloud – a scalable hosting infrastructure – means solutions can be easily accessed from anywhere, on-demand.
- Removes the need to run and maintain your own data center.
- Provides added flexibility when it comes to scaling up and running updates.
- Ensures your front-end isn’t tied to – also known as ‘decoupled’ – the ‘back-end of your solutions, meaning content can be used across all the relevant channels.
- By decoupling your front-end, you enjoy maximised design freedom, more wriggle room for experimentation and more rapid prototyping.
The benefits of MACH for your customers
Now you know what MACH architecture is. The next question is probably: why should I switch to MACH?
“The main reasons to go with MACH are centered around the customer, not the technology,” – MACH Alliance.
Let’s start with one the most widely reported claims: That MACH supports composable commerce. That is to say, it allows a business to choose from individual best-in-class commerce components and combine them into a custom set-up that’s superior to a traditional, monolith system.
Why is this so important? Because it allows businesses to quickly adapt to changing customer requirements. Nowadays, 88% of online shoppers say they wouldn’t return to a website after a bad user experience (source: Amazon Web Services). That means your commerce platform needs to be digitally agile, high-performing and customer-centric.
Here’s how MACH principles can support better commerce.
Businesses are increasingly adopting agile technology, as well as following more agile business practices. Agile architecture makes it easier and faster to evolve your business strategy. If your architecture can’t instantaneously pivot to respond to changes in trends, touchpoints and technologies, it could get left behind.
A microservices-based tech landscape allows you to scale only the parts of your tech stack that you want to grow. It also reduces your risk of downtime and glitches as your commerce solution is built in the cloud, meaning it can auto-scale according to website traffic. Just one minute of downtime costs the average enterprise retailer seven figures.
Customer demands are changing and increasing. Going agile provides a competitive first-mover advantage as businesses can experiment and build new prototypes quickly, speed up their time-to-market and provide great, omnichannel customer services to capture that all-important brand loyalty.
MACH enables a flexible, best-of-breed approach. You’re not tied to any specific technology or programming language, meaning you can quickly and cheaply switch technologies as you go if they’re not delivering the optimal experience to customers.
“One of the key benefits of MACH is you get a flexible technology ecosystem that allows you to swiftly replace and add systems – no matter where business or markets requirements are heading – without leaving your business with a long timeline,” says Stærk.
If you’re wondering if your industry or use case is too niche for MACH, it’s probably not. MACH architecture can be applied to a wide range of use cases: from commerce to promotions to loyalty schemes. It works across websites, apps, in-store or even in-car.
“The pressure to perform at peak operational efficiency while also keeping costs low has been a forcing function for IT leaders and the c-suite to consider the ways they can be doing things differently. That has led companies to explore MACH architecture and the ways it can help them innovate faster and perform better than monolithic suites allow for.” says Kelly, Chief Strategy Officer, commercetools.
What is a monolith?
Many businesses use monolithic systems. Also known as software suites, monoliths are systems that provide their functionality in one large, interdependent package. Whereas MACH is an uncoupled architecture, monoliths are considered to be tightly coupled.
The question on many business’s minds is: Do monoliths now represent more of a risk than a reward when it comes to commerce?
When should you choose MACH over monolith?
While there are some cases where monoliths are the better option (more on that below) for many businesses, a MACH system provides several distinct advantages over monolith.
“In my experience of clients looking into going MACH here at IMPACT, these are some of the most commonly reported reasons for saying goodbye to monoliths,” says Stærk:
You want to choose the best tech for the job.
Just because it’s an award-winning CMS doesn’t mean it’s also the best marketing automation system. Even if a technology is ground-breaking when you invest in it, two years later, it may no longer be fit for purpose. If you want to choose from best-of-breed, a monolith isn’t for you.
You don’t want to be locked into a vendor.
When using a monolith you are buying a full suite. Including the bits you may not really want or need. That means being locked in to one platform vendor without being able to pick and choose from the best CMS, commerce, OMS or front–end solutions on the market. You’re also legally signing up for regular, mandatory software updates, which can be disruptive to business operations.
You want to innovate, quickly.
With a monolith, innovating can be slow, or even upset your entire ecosystem. Rigid structures can restrict experimentation and slow down time-to-market. To change something on the frontend, introduce an app, add a pricing engine, or swap a marketing automation platform, can be impossible, or require complicated backend changes. It’s perhaps no surprise then that more than half of respondents in a recent study by DJS Research said they cannot deliver improvements to the customer/end user experience at speed with their current infrastructure.
You’ve outgrown your platform.
Want to expand across countries, storefronts and brands? If you’re using a monolith, it can be harder to scale, and even involve complex workarounds. This is because you could need to replicate the entire system – and that system must run in more instances. This can require additional licenses from the platform vendor too, increasing the total cost of ownership.
You’re fed up of upgrades.
The cost, resources and personnel effort of upgrading – along with the potential of disruption – shouldn’t be underestimated. Research from the MACH Alliance reveals that 25% of IT decision makers spend over half their budget on front-office upgrades. And the possibility of disruption increases when you’ve customised part of your set-up.
Five reasons you should switch to a MACH architecture
Here are the top five business benefits of going MACH.
Need to build a new solution or service, fast? MACH is the obvious answer. Implementing even minor changes to a legacy commerce platform can take days, stifling the innovation needed to keep up with changes in consumer needs and adapt to new touchpoints. We’re living in a speed-orientated economy, and MACH provides the agility required to deliver innovative retail experiences to market quickly.
A MACH solution will scale up with your business, without the barriers. Prefer to switch to a different vendor, integrate new technologies like voice search, or expand into a new country? That’s simpler without having to upgrade your licensing agreement with your monolith platform provider or switching to another vendor – with all the hassle that major re-platforming brings.
3. Business development
Being able to quickly adapt to changing circumstances and customer demands is vital. MACH makes it easier and less risky for businesses to capitalise on new opportunities, such as quickly entering emerging markets, adapting to new segments or to enable new touch points as it allows microservices to be deployed independently rather than in one go, resulting in updates and access to new features, fast.
4. Great omnichannel experiences
Consumers have high expectations of a seamless retail experience, regardless of which channel they’re using to shop your brand. MACH solutions provide the freedom to design great omnichannel experiences by using the same backend with differing user interfaces on top. It is especially relevant if you have a multi-brand setup with separate CVIs but want to build on the same platform.
5. Lower total cost of ownership
Think MACH always has a higher TCO? Think again. While most legacy systems operate according to core-based licenses, which can easily stretch into six-figures, licensing for MACH systems can be approached in a usage-based manner, meaning you no longer have to pay for services you neither need nor want. The day-to-day costs of running and maintaining a monolith across multiple applications and databases can also add up. Legacy platforms also tend to require yearly, mandatory updates that can require time-consuming changes to APIs.
“MACH offers a more transparent TCO because the model is based on licenses which includes SLA, hosting, maintenance and upgrades,” explains Stærk. “Whereas platform upgrades often come as a surprise or unplanned task on self or cloud–hosted platforms. Whether switching to MACH will lower the TCO depends on every count depends on multiple factors, but this can be calculated when deciding on the right platform for your business’s needs.”
Stacks v suites: When should you not use MACH architecture?
We’re not saying monoliths are bad. They’re just different. Whether a monolith or MACH architecture is better for you is highly dependent on your individual circumstances.
“Monoliths come with a lot of great and well-integrated functionality, and if your business is able to fit into the box without tweaking it too far, then monoliths can bring a lot of value,” says Stærk.
If you prefer to deal with a single vendor to handle your technology needs, or you have a suite that is firmly and deeply embedded in your business processes and infrastructures, then a monolithic system might remain the better option.
Here are some key questions you should consider when deciding between MACH and monolith:
What are your requirements?
If your requirements fit into the standard systems out there, then there may be no need to shake up your architecture. On the other hand, if your current set-up doesn’t support your current and future business objectives, it’s a good idea to evaluate the alternatives. It’s also more complex to keep track of a large number of microservices, compared to one out-of-the-box monolith.
How mature is your IT department?
A platform migration is always a big deal. Going MACH isn’t a ‘one and done’ step. Is your IT department equipped to plan and execute a migration roadmap? Get it wrong, and you could jeopardise your operations.
What’s your budget?
While going MACH can have a lower long-term cost than a monolith, it still requires a substantial initial investment cost.
How mature is your partner ecosystem?
Switching to a MACH approach requires that your partners also know about and can operate MACH.
What is your organisational set-up?
It’s important to ascertain whether your team structure can meet the demands of a microservices-based approach. Can they work vertically and cross-functionally, with groups focusing on business areas, for example, like checkout and pricing, rather than horizontally, in tech-focused areas like backend, infrastructure and frontend.
Moving from a monolith to MACH: Challenges
Still interested in going MACH? It’s important to know it will likely be a big change from your current way of working. Let’s consider what challenges may come up when transitioning to MACH, and how you can resolve them.
I’d need to change everything, all at once.
If you are in the process of changing out your existing monolith, naturally it’s an ideal time to introduce a microservices-based approach, allowing you to replace a big chunk of legacy architecture in one fell swoop.
But it’s entirely possible to start smaller, with a phased migration, perhaps with a few decoupled services around your core systems. This is less likely to cause disruption to your operations.
Here’s an example. If you need to introduce a price service, build a new search, or restructure the frontend part of your system, we have good news. It’s perfectly possible to achieve this without ripping out your entire system and starting from scratch. Migrating towards a headless approach as a start enables a lot of opportunities, like utilising decoupled services and becoming less dependent on your monolith. Many monoliths can be extended with APIs that the headless frontend can get their content from. And some systems even have APIs, or packages that can be installed.
It’s too expensive.
Many businesses are concerned about the costs of switching to MACH, but it can actually have a more transparent and even lower TCO. It also allows you to select which services and pricing fits your needs best, as you can choose from a number of vendors.
Additionally, you’ll not be required to pay for unused services that are part of a monolith commerce suite. Hosting your infrastructure in the cloud can also save on data center costs.
It’ll take too long to experience the benefits.
According to the MACH Alliance, one in three businesses say they haven’t yet made the switch to MACH because they’re concerned about the length of time between the initial investment and seeing long-term benefits. However, with 94% of c-suite respondents in the same survey saying they’re looking to up their investment in MACH architecture in the future, holding back could see your business put at a competitive disadvantage in the longer term.
Ready to go MACH? Get your free MACH assessment
There’s no cookie-cutter approach to going MACH. We know that every business has unique requirements. Get in touch for a free MACH assessment of your architectural set–up, whether you’re ready for a major transition, or are just considering an update of a single system.