The trouble with pursuing a composable IT architecture is that this market is still in the early adopter phase. This means that an organization needs specialist expertise to bring together multiple best-of-breed applications and content sources to deliver what the business needs. It was notable therefore that this week's MACH TWO conference in Amsterdam saw the launch of two separate offerings designed to shortcut that effort — because the emergence of standardized frameworks is an important signal that we're moving into a new phase of adoption by the broader majority.
Valtech's commerce accelerator embodies that transition, as it's based on the multi-brand commerce model the systems integrator developed for confectionery-to-pet-food giant Mars, based on the composable commerce platform Commercetools. It is designed to help retailers and other FMCG brands follow in the footsteps of this early adopter.
The new Netlify data orchestration layer has a broader goal. It provides a ready-made mechanism for bringing content and data from existing backend sources into a composable environment for delivery to a range of front-end clients via Netlify's global edge network. The aim is to remove one of the obstacles holding established enterprises back from moving to a more composable web content architecture, by removing some of the complexity of connecting across multiple technology stacks. Dorian Kendal, CMO of Netlify, explains:
What we see when we talk to enterprise companies, especially ones that have been around for quite a while, their biggest objection for going composable is, 'I can't just get rid of my monolithic architecture.' One I talked to yesterday has 42 different tech stacks ... This actually gives you that runway to say, 'Okay, I can do this within the constraints of the business that I have today,' versus adding additional complexity that's unnecessary.
Growing enterprise adoption
This week's MACH TWO was the second annual conference of the MACH Alliance, founded three years ago to promote composable architectures that conform to the four principles embodied in the MACH acronym — Microservices, API-first, Cloud-based SaaS and Headless. Its founding members are digital experience vendors and integrators specializing in composable commerce and web content solutions, but its ambitions expand well beyond these customer-facing product categories into back-end operational systems including ERP, as we'll discuss in a later article. Other articles will look at enterprise adoption, which is currently strongest among B2C brands and retailers, although we did see some impressive B2B commerce use cases too.
You want to do gradual migrations, you want to have interoperability, so you don't replace your entire stack at once ... If you can take that architecture workflow, and you can extend it to the old, if we may call it legacy, software solutions, and bring them into a mesh together with the new composable components, it makes migrations easier, it gives you a tremendous amount of benefits, including much more fast results, such as website stores and apps, because they're now headless. It gives you that possibility of treating everything as a content source ...
We're trying to abstract things away, certainly operations and infrastructure, into code. Because that really frees up your teams. That makes it automated and viable and much more flexible.
Netlify data orchestration
The new offering is a data orchestration layer that connects to multiple back-end content sources using a GraphQL API. It then continuously mirrors and federates the data into a cached data lake on the Netlify global edge network, from which front-end developers can call content and data and send responses using a single API. The orchestration layer insulates the front-end from having to handle issues around integrating with and connecting to the back-end systems. Kendal explains:
The front-end developer never has to worry about what system they're writing back to, it's completely agnostic to that individual. They can do their work, they can get it, we write to this cache layer, so you don't have to worry about any performance problems on the back end ...
[This] is huge, because most big enterprises have bespoke data sources. They have systems, they have APIs that were built 20 years ago, we hear this all the time. They have intermittent outages, they have performance problems sometimes. But again, after this, we truly allow the developer to keep that front-end running. It's an insurance policy against any outages in the back. The customer never experiences any of those pains from what's happening.
From an architecture standpoint, the architecture allows you to build the best platform for the business in a way that makes most sense for the business. So in that sense, it's a huge win for all parts of the developer cycle.
The quid-pro-quo for having Netlify becoming the intermediary between the front-end clients and the back-end data sources is that the organization is locked in to the Netlify orchestration layer and edge network. But Bach argues that this is a small price to pay in exchange for the ease of swapping in and out the various components it connects to. He says:
At some point, you're going to have to make some sort of bet. Otherwise, everything becomes your own spaghetti of infrastructure providers, and you're going to spend an unviable amount of time on it, and you'll never get it to where you need to, and it won't scale.
So I think no matter how you look at it, I think if there's a place that is a little sticky, make it the orchestration. Matt and I have always said, we're betting on serving over HTTP, essentially. It's a very wide standard, and we don't have the components — we don't have commerce components, we don't have databases or build tools or frameworks — on purpose. The orchestration, the umbrella, that you can make more of a bet on it. Whereas the components is where it changes per use case. But if the orchestration is built on principles that will scale from mobile landing pages and still appeal to big brand sites in the US, then that's okay, at the end of the day.
Valtech commerce accelerator
The Valtech commerce accelerator, known as LEAP, is aimed at multi-brand consumer goods companies and multi-banner retailers that operate across multiple global markets, incorporating lessons learned implementing the Commercetools ecommerce platform at Mars. Balki Subramanian, VP Digital Demand at Mars, comments:
We have built a 'commerce launcher' that provides reliability across the stack at scale. It aims to have 60% of the usual D2C capabilities which everyone has come to expect, allowing our brands to focus on thinking and building differentiation. We can now also use the commerce launcher to accelerate the customer journey and go-to-market for all brands at Mars.
Casper Aagaard Rasmussen, Group SVP of Technology at Valtech, says the accelerator provides a ready-made framework that takes care of the basics so that brands can focus on differentiating features. He elaborates:
If you look at the LEAP proposition, we call it fast time-to-differentiation. It's about leapfrogging through the steps that are complete commodities, that are foundational, where if you do it right, you can reapply. So we can get faster into differentiation, innovation, actually making business impact, making the experiences that truly matter, so we don't spend the majority or a big part of the actual time and budget and investment in building out some of those underpinnings.
Mars is an active participant, he adds, because the company wants to be seen as a leading-edge adopter of MACH technology that talented engineers will be keen to work for.
This new wave of highly composable computing — which I've described as Tierless Architecture — is now entering a new phase of more broadly-based adoption, where we'll begin to see a proliferation of toolkits, frameworks and other recipes that embody the learnings of the first movers and early adopters. In parallel, the industry now has to speak more directly to business decision makers in addition to the developers and engineers that vendors have traditionally engaged with. Netlify's Kendal tells me:
I think as we start to reframe composable a little bit more in the realm of, 'What is the business problem and the solution that we're targeting?' you'll see more and more CTOs, digital transformation officers, even CMOs like myself step in and say, 'This isn't just a developer problem, you're solving real business problems.'
One element that may be different with this technology wave compared to previous examples such as cloud computing and SaaS is that the multi-vendor nature of a composable architecture means that systems integrators and consultancies will play a larger role than the vendors themselves in shaping the recipes that emerge. The Valtech acclerator may therefore be an important precursor of what's to come. Rasmussen comments:
Here the recipe doesn't sit with Commercetools as an example, because they are by nature unopinionated — 'Use us anywhere in whatever way you want, in whatever type of channel or use case you prefer.' The experience right now sits within the SI ecosystem.
I think the collective ambition should be that it actually becomes much more democratized. It needs to become much more accessible, because ... finding your way and creating that recipe from basically a blank sheet of paper hurts quite a bit.
There's a big opportunity to be seized here, but only if the SIs resist the temptation to hoard their knowhow in the interest of short-term profit and instead move ahead to productize their skillsets to reach a wider market.