Commerce at MACH Speed - An Introduction

People think of different things when they hear the term "mach." Physicists will recognize the term as the boundary for the speed of sound, while aviation and military history buffs conjure up images of recently departed Chuck Yeager, the first person to fly at supersonic speeds. Muscle car enthusiasts may harken back to the 1969 Ford Mustang MACH 1, which incidentally, is being re-released for 2021 and looks pretty darn cool.

All of these are noteworthy examples of the term and all of them share a common reference to one thing: speed. But, to quote Mahatma Gandhi, there is more to life than simply increasing its speed. Accuracy, control, flexibility, and precision matter just as much.

There is another "mach" where these factors play a vital role: the MACH Alliance of enterprise software and service providers. In the commerce space MACH is focused on the emerging movement towards "composable commerce," e-commerce implementations built on top of a modern, best-of-breed architecture. In the enterprise content and digital experience management space the emphasis is also on “headless” solutions, where the back-end logic is decoupled from the frontend experience layer. In both use cases the concepts, technologies, approaches and goals are the same. In fact, the focus of the MACH Alliance extends beyond commerce and content, to include all enterprise web applications, though this exceeds the scope of this article. For a comprehensive overview of MACH’s stated goals for 2021 and beyond, check out this EOY update on their site.

In this article we explore the history of these enterprise systems, both content and commerce, and discuss how MACH aims to disrupt and revolutionize our current approach to enterprise web technology. We’ll focus more on commerce than content for sake of simplicity, but they are both closely related and largely follow the same trajectory.

A Bit of History

But before we dive heading into what’s new, let’s take a short look at the past. E-commerce traces its roots all the way back to 1971 or ‘72, when students at Stanford famously used Arpanet (a precursor to today’s Internet, developed by the US military) to buy marijuana from their counterparts at MIT in what many consider the seminal act of e-commerce. However, most of us would say the first dot-com boom in the mid to late ‘90s is where today’s online commerce began. Netscape launched the first web browser with encryption - critical for commerce transactions - in 1994, Jeff Bezos founded Amazon in 1995, and Alibaba Group was founded in China in 1999.

Around the same time the first e-commerce software solutions were coming to market, starting with Intershop in 1995, IBM’s Net.Commerce in 1996 (renamed Websphere Commerce in 2011 and now part of HCL), and Art Technology Group (better known as ATG, now a subsidiary of Oracle) and Microsoft’s CommerceServer (now Sitecore Commerce) in 1997.

A lot has changed in the ensuing 20+ years. Amazon and Alibaba now have a combined market capitalization that rivals the GDP of France, and e-commerce accounts for nearly 15% of all retail sales. Internet technology has disrupted just about every aspect of global business, from advertising to supply chains. Similarly, nearly every retail category has been radically transformed by online commerce, from books, clothing, and shoes, to fresh food.  Surprisingly, the one thing that has not changed all that much over this period are e-commerce platforms.

The majority of them still use the same monolithic backend and template-driven frontend architecture popularized in the late 90s. This includes the first wave mentioned above, which are all still in widespread productive use, but also many later entrants such as Magento, Shopify and WooCommerce. Think about that for a moment. In the last two decades, a period that has seen nearly every aspect of the digital economy fundamentally change and evolve through several cycles, our approach to e-commerce architecture has remained largely the same. But change is coming.

The Problem with Monoliths

Why change now, you might ask, given that these systems and their proven architecture have served us well for so many years? After all, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, the adage goes. Well, it might not be broken, but it’s inflexible, slow, and expensive to operate, difficult to integrate and maintain, and basically unable to meet the changing needs of the market.

While monolithic e-commerce platforms with templated front-end architectures are generally quick and relatively easy to implement, they can struggle to accommodate new channels and lead to vendor lock-in, forcing users into unwieldy upgrade cycles that often don’t align with business needs. Things as simple as adding a new payment option - say, a pay-over time service like Affirm or Klarna - can take many months, resulting in lost opportunity and reduced sales revenue. The same is true for back-end systems used for order management, promotions, product information (PIM) and digital asset management (DAM).

On the frontend, it’s a similar story. While the pre-built templates your e-commerce platform provided for shopping cart, upsell/cross-sell, and checkout were helpful in getting you up and running quickly, your team has now discovered that it’s very difficult to customize them, making it hard to create a differentiated experience.

Deus Ex MACH-ina

In response to the changing market demands and inherent shortcomings in legacy monolith platforms, a new concept has emerged over the past few years. You may have heard about “headless” platforms, which are solutions that provide only the backend functionality, exposed via standardized APIs. These provide maximum flexibility to design and implement whatever frontend experience you desire.

The MACH Alliance - a recently launched initiative backed by leading vendors in the headless e-commerce and content space - takes this approach a few steps further by combining the headless approach with a number of other innovative concepts. Unlike the examples referenced at the beginning of this article, in this instance MACH is an acronym that stands for:

Microservices - Individual bits of business functionality that are designed, developed, and managed by independent teams and made available to any part of a system that needs to leverage them.

API-First - All functionality is exposed through documented APIs, making it easy to integrate and leverage pre-built components.

Cloud-Native SAAS - All software is designed and built as independent services, able to make full use of all the benefits of cloud computing, including dynamic scaling, continuous update cycles, and agile DevOps with comprehensive testing.

Headless - the frontend user experience is completely decoupled from the backend business logic and functionality, giving the UX team complete freedom to design unique experiences.

Benefits of MACH

So, we’ve looked at the history of e-commerce system architectures, explored the inherent limitations of current legacy monolith platforms, and looked at some of the technical benefits that MACH delivers. These include more flexibility for developers, which leads to increased productivity and more scalable solutions, but also increased agility, continuous integration and deployment (CI/CD) in support of DevOps, and overall improved scalability and performance.

These technical advances result in a number of tangible business benefits, leading to more effective overall solutions and enabling improved user experiences, lower TCO, and overall increased agility, resilience, and performance. We’ll take a closer look at these in our next post.

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