‘The coolest tech club in town’: how Mach is changing digital offerings

For direct-to-consumer brands looking to create premium experiences for their customers, Mach architecture may well be the answer, according to Mars’ digital commerce chief architect Anjali Subburaj

It has been called the future of architecture and a leading group of advocates for it has been dubbed “the coolest tech club in town”. No, it’s not the metaverse or the next big thing in crypto. Instead, it’s something called Mach.

Mach is an acronym (for microservices-based, application programme interface-first, cloud-native software-as-a-service and headless offerings). In short, it is a technology architecture that allows businesses to have complete control over their digital commerce ecosystem.
And according to a 2022 study by Mel Research, 79% of tech leaders are planning to increase their investments in it over the next year and beyond.

“The individual elements of Mach have been around for some time,” explains Anjali Subburaj, digital commerce chief architect at Mars and an ambassador for the Mach Alliance. “But combined, they offer a new structured, modular technology architecture principle which is very powerful.”

As well as giving businesses control of their digital commerce, Mach provides the flexibility to respond to change quickly and seamlessly, helping them to meet the evolving needs of customers and the wider market. And as Subburaj knows, the benefits of Mach for modern, direct-to-consumer (D2C) brands looking to create premium experiences for their customers can be enormous.

“Mars is looking to have Mach as its future technology architecture,” she says, adding that work on a new Mach offering for Mars’ flagship brand, M&M, started last year and is due to go live soon.

The process involved taking classic Mach products available from vendors, and combining and augmenting them with Mars’s own custom solutions to create a seamless, premium omni-channel solution for D2C business.

“We were struggling with an existing legacy platform that had outlived its life,” explains Subburaj. “We needed top-grade solutions for everything and we were looking for something that would give us a competitive edge while helping us to deliver a seamless and personalised experience to our consumers.”

Before joining Mars, Subburaj had worked on a D2C omni-channel offering for another business which had involved more traditional, non-Mach solutions. “It was a challenging experience and somewhat frustrating because I had to create three different silos: one for the website, one for mobile and one for point of sale. So I knew the drawbacks of trying to do omni-channel with a traditional set of technologies,” she says.

The individual elements of Mach have been around for some time. But combined, they offer a new structured, modular technology architecture principle which is very powerful

It’s a familiar problem. Brands and retailers that market and sell online have relied on legacy software platforms that are inherently inflexible and complex, and that limit innovation, explains Kelly Goetsch, chief strategy officer at Commercetools and chair of the Mach Alliance. “This reliance can make it hard for businesses to adapt quickly to their customers’ evolving needs, and it can ultimately leave them vulnerable to decreased customer loyalty and revenue,” he warns.

Subburaj adds that the challenge with a company such as Mars was the complexity of the organisation. “It’s not a single business,” she explains. “Mars has different segments, sub-segments and multiple brands, and we needed to find a solution that’s one size fits all.”

What drew her to Mach was that it could support “innovations in both a test-and-learn format as well as building scale”. That offers huge advantages for a complex organisation in a rapidly evolving digital landscape.

But despite its clear benefits, Subburaj warns chief technology officers (CTOs) not to “just jump on the bandwagon” without having first set out a personalised roadmap that clearly shows how it will work for their organisation. That might require some persistence.

“It’s an emerging technology, so tech leaders need to invest in understanding, educating and taking their businesses with them,” she says. “I’ve seen a lot of challenges where technology teams will say, ‘Yes, we want Mach’, but then the business stakeholders are not getting it. So there is that tension.”

Some large legacy organisations are not geared towards agility, she says, “which can slow down the delivery of value, making business leaders lose faith in something they are already nervous about”.

During the process with Mars, Subburaj says she worked closely with the Mach Alliance. Described as the “coolest tech club in town” by Forrester analyst Joe Cicman, this not-for-profit industry body advocates for open and best-of-breed enterprise technology ecosystems. It consists of more than 50 vendor members, as well as brand ambassadors from the end-user companies. Set up during the first lockdown of 2020, it aims to help organisations understand how to use and leverage Mach technologies to improve their digital experiences.

Sree Sreedhararaj, CTO of French cosmetics giant Sephora and a Mach Alliance ambassador, says the main benefit he has gained from the alliance has been an educational one. “As a CTO or a technologist, there is much to learn daily from peers and other ambassadors,” he says.

Sreedhararaj adds that CTOs and chief information officers (CIOs) have traditionally been focused on infrastructure and the IT helpdesk support and operations. Technology was therefore always seen as a cost centre for businesses. But lately, organisations have come to realise that technology is an integral part of business strategy.

“Technology drives new companies and business models which never existed before,” Sreedhararaj explains. “While lots of organisations have started to realise the benefits of technology by looking at their peers and competitors, many chief experience officers are stuck with a traditional mindset. But technology is changing and advancing at a much faster pace,” he adds.

It’s an emerging technology, so tech leaders need to invest in understanding, educating and taking their businesses with them

Nishant Patel, co-founder of headless content management system Contentstack and a founding member of the Mach Alliance, says the ease of integration – and subsequent flexibility – that application programming interfaces (APIs) offer, and the range of capabilities provided by microservices, will only become more attractive over time.

“The business case for cloud has been proven time and again, and the move towards headless technologies and composable commerce will accelerate it,” he adds.

It’s a trend that is already visible in some big retailers. David Edwards, head of architecture at fashion retailer River Island, reports that all of his company’s technology choices are now made in alignment with Mach principles.

“We started with a small investment and now we’re accelerating our strategy to build a customer-focused, modern digital platform underpinned by Mach technology,” he says. “This will extend beyond the current implementation surrounding online checkout – and move across channels and capabilities to offer our customers an unrivalled experience that’s unified across touchpoints.”

Mach enables a faster pace of change at River Island, says Edwards. “The composable nature of a Mach architecture allows us greater flexibility to choose partnerships like Commercetools, Talon.one and Attraqt where it matters, but to choose just good enough partners where it doesn’t. It also allows us to easily change in the event that our Mach partners are unable to meet our needs,” he explains.

And with commerce ecosystems constantly changing as new trends – such as shoppable video, social media-based selling and premium experiences using augmented reality, virtual reality and the metaverse – emerge, brands need the flexibility to respond quickly to the market.

“Mach frees organisations up to respond to change with greater certainty,” says Goetsch. Indeed, elements such as headless technology (which is when the front end, user-facing element of an online store is separated from the back end functionality to enable greater flexibility and customisation) mean they can rapidly build and scale what they need and reduce costs at the same time.

And Mach principles don’t apply only in the D2C market. According to Subburaj, these technologies offer lots of exciting opportunities for the B2B market – and for improving employee experience.

“Why should business customers not have a premium experience and speed, just like consumers? Their processes and path to purchase are slightly different, with different complexities, but these customers also want to do their purchases online and they want the same online experience. And the same principles could apply to employee experience, too,” she adds.

With many tech leaders now looking to invest in Mach for their forthcoming digital transformations, it’s clear that the traditional technology architecture of the past decade might not be sufficient to respond with speed and agility to a fast-paced future environment, particularly if doing so in a cost-effective way remains important.

Mach explained

Kelly Goetsch, chief strategy officer at Commercetools and chair of the Mach Alliance, explains the technology behind the acronym

M is for microservices
Microservices are small applications that do one thing and do that one thing well. Inventory, pricing and promotions all commonly use microservices. The key is that they can be built, updated and deployed independently. This allows organisations and vendors to be constantly iterating and deploying new functionality, which ultimately leads to more top-line revenue.

A is for API-first
Being API-first means you start by modelling the interface you want and then writing the code to implement it. This means the APIs are a lot more user-friendly than if you had started by writing the code first.

C is for cloud native
Cloud-based multi-tenant SaaS (software as a service) – where a single application is held in the cloud and accessed by many users – means that you’re using a well-run service rather than relying on code that you own, manage and run. It’s the difference between getting a pizza delivered to your house and having to make one yourself. Businesses want to consume clean services that auto-scale rather than having to rely on inflexible bits of code.

H is for headless
Headless tech is a decoupling of the front end (the bit the user sees) of an ecommerce platform from the back end (where the functionality lies), allowing multiple front ends (heads) to be independently iterated and released, all in parallel. Historically, the “head” (there was only the web until recently but now there are mobile sites and apps, too) was simply embedded into the underlying commerce platform.