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Time to decompose your enterprise suites, says the MACH Alliance

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright June 23, 2020
Time to phase out enterprise suites and go best-of-breed, say headless founders of the MACH Alliance

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A new industry group launches today with the mission of encouraging a switch from traditional enterprise application suites to a more composable, best-of-breed architecture that's in tune with the modern digital world. The MACH Alliance takes its name from the acronym for that architecture — Microservices based, API-first, Cloud-native SaaS and Headless — as well as evoking "the supersonic speed at which software ecosystems can better serve enterprises," says the group.

Its 14 inaugural members are well-known names in the digital experience technology sector, led by vendors Contentstack and commercetools and digital agencies EPAM and Valtech. They are joined by Algolia, Amplience, Cloudinary,, Contentful, E2X, Fluent commerce, Frontastic, Mobify and Vue Storefront — a membership that Kelly Goetsch, President of the MACH Alliance and CTO of commercetools, hails as "the present and future of enterprise software and services."

There's "a queue of other very known brands that are looking to join," according to Contentstack's Head of EMEA GTM & Alliances, Sonja Kotrotsos. The group aims to recruit members in CRM, support and other application areas too, she adds.

Definition of MACH

The term headless is frequently used to describe content management systems (CMSs) and commerce platforms that decouple the back-end, where the digital content is stored, from the front-end, or 'head', that presents the digital experience to the user. Contentstack and its partner commercetools are examples of headless platforms built on a modern serverless architecture, where 'serverless' is a shorthand term for microservices-based, API-first, cloud-based SaaS. The MACH Alliance website provides this definition of MACH:

MACH technologies support a composable enterprise in which every component is pluggable, scalable, replaceable, and can be continuously improved through agile development to meet evolving business requirements.

M: Individual pieces of business functionality that are independently developed, deployed, and managed.

A: All functionality is exposed through an API.

C: SaaS that leverages the cloud, beyond storage and hosting, including elastic scaling and automatically updating.

H: Front-end presentation is decoupled from back-end logic and channel, programming language, and is framework agnostic.

Although funded by vendors and integrators, the MACH Alliance aims to act as a vendor-neutral resource for organizations looking to make the move away from traditional suites to adopt the MACH approach, says Kotrotsos:

We do that with a curriculum across the organization — for enterprise architects, for developers, for business decision makers — to really understand what's the right fit for that business need and that use case that an organization has. [To] help them also to cut through that marketing noise of the suites that promises the world and then doesn't deliver ...

We're lucky that all of these vendors are bringing evangelist customers into it, who have made this shift, who have proven fantastic figures of return, and increase in innovation, agility.

Enterprise early adopters

In a white paper on MACH enterprise architecture, Contentstack cites the examples of a leading UK--based fashion brand and publisher The Spectator as early adopters of MACH technology. Tom Morgan, Director of Digital at The Spectator, underlines the need for market education when he says that being an early adopter has meant investing a lot in learning about the architecture:

There isn’t a nice Medium article that can tell you all about how it works, you’ve got to really work through it yourself.

But the agility and lack of vendor lock-in that the MACH architecture brings is worth the effort, believes the fashion brand's director of digital technology:

If a few years down the line, something emerges that is far and above what we have, we want to be able to adopt it without the barriers of the past.

For the last ten years, unstitching technologies has been too big an effort and cost. The new architectural approach represented by headless provides [us] more flexibility in evolving in the future.

Proven customer stories like these demonstrate that MACH technology is moving out of the early adopter phase and can now start to enter the mainstream, says Kotrotsos. The MACH Alliance aims to provide the guidance enterprises need to do so with confidence:

We see that those organizations that are finding it challenging to move off the old suite philosophy, that there is fear sometimes attached to it. Because it's change. It's not just buying some new tool, you also need to look at how do you set up your teams and how do you set up your processes internally.

[We're] addressing that as a group and giving the confidence in there's proven ways of doing this, there's change management methodologies that you can use to move your organization to a different digital maturity level.

So is MACH the future of enterprise software and services? Kotrotsos says the pressure for change is irresistible:

I would hope that in 10 years time, this new model is the de-facto standard. And I also do think that the [traditional] vendors feel the pressure for change and will need to change eventually to a new paradigm shift, to stay in business really.

My take

At first glance this looks like a group of vendors few people have heard of making a bit of a fuss in order to attract some attention. But I think there's more to it than that. You can connect this up to several other trends that are starting to become visible and are all heading in the same direction, and then it becomes part of a much bigger and powerful picture.

A couple of years ago I wrote about the emergence of a new connected digital enterprise architecture that combines a headless engagement layer with serverless functions and resources. Part of the reason I've stayed in touch with Contentstack is because I've always liked the API-first philosophy of its founders Neha Sampat and Matt Baier. But there are many others across the industry who are thinking along the same lines.

The MACH approach reminds me very much of the principles underlying Zendesk's Sunshine platform, which at the beginning of last year led me to write about the emergence of a new generation of enterprise applications, whose vendors reject the traditional approach of owning an entire technology stack:

The cloud-native tribe are having none of this. They build on whatever technology comes to hand — open source and cloud infrastructure, connected services. For them, competitive advantage doesn't come from owning the stack, it comes from being free to select the best available resources for the moment.

Later in the year, I was introduced to the new breed of business systems professionals who in digitally savvy organizations focus on stitching together best-of-breed SaaS applications to deliver better business outcomes. They are evolving many of the new practices of vendor management, such as quarterly vendor reviews, that I see MACH professionals speaking about.

Then just in the past few weeks, there's been Slack's intriguing partnership with AWS, which could pave the way to Slack acting as the user-friendly 'head' that not only connects across multiple SaaS applications but also all the serverless functionality of AWS. Or today, the serverless functions and other tooling that Salesforce just announced, which I'll be writing more about later today.

When I wrote earlier this month about lockdown bringing new ways of working that aren't going away, I had a whole unwritten section about the technology architecture that would power these emerging patterns of distributed work. What I had in mind is expressed very well in MACH, along with the other examples I've just discussed. But my warnings there that the pioneers of these new models will have to dig their heels in and persevere for the next few years hold true.

There's a huge evangelism that needs to take place, because most people are still too stuck in the old mindsets to get it. The other week, our article about HSBC's consolidation of its global database infrastructure onto a single instance of MongoDB kicked off a huge global debate among database developers who were scandalized by the notion of building adaptability into a database architecture. In their horror at doing things in a new way, they completely missed the point about MongoDB having a different architecture than a classic RDBMS.

There's this obsession in IT with building the entire stack and presenting it to the world that is still rooted in the old disconnected mentality of on-premise architectures. While there are some fringe use cases where it may make sense, it's mostly irrelevant and inappropriate in a networked environment.

In the Contentstack white paper, The Spectator's Tom Morgan explains how at one point in the transition to MACH, they saw that it took about a minute for content changes to be reflected in the content delivery network (CDN). With a headless CMS, where pages are typically static, that's not an issue for readers — the CDN effectively becomes the front-end of the site. But it meant that editors couldn't see the changes as soon as they published, which meant they thought the CMS was broken.

This reminded me of a similar issue we had at diginomica after a recent site migration. The fix is to allow editors to access the site without going through the CDN. In other words, the CMS wasn't broken, but the editing process needed changing to cater to editors having different needs than readers. Using these new architectures means having to go through a lot of relearning about how things are done — which is why they need a massive amount of evangelism to get going.

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