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Composable commerce vs. MACH

With its modern decoupled architecture that is native to the cloud, MACH architecture is necessary for building a true composable commerce strategy.


The continuing rise of e-commerce

In 1994, the New York Times published an interesting piece entitled “Attention Shoppers: Internet is Open.” Fast forward about three decades, and we can see that the Internet is not merely open — it is booming. Consider that:

  • The global e-commerce market is expected to reach $5.55 trillion in 2022.
  • By 2025, the e-commerce share of global retail sales is expected to hit 24.5% — the highest proportion ever.
  • 62% of online shoppers make at least four purchases a month, and 18% make two or more purchases a week.

And of course, no look at the growth of online shopping would be complete without referencing the biggest global event in a generation: COVID-19. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce Retail Indicator Division, e-commerce sales in the U.S. surged by 50% to $870 billion during the pandemic. And this growth is not limited to B2C engagements. In the U.S., B2B e-commerce in 2021 increased 1.17 times faster than the growth rate across all manufacturing and distributor sales.

Separate research also found that e-commerce sales in Europe jumped 200%-300% during the pandemic. And since early 2020, massive online shopping growth was also seen in Latin America, South America, Africa, Asia, and Oceania.

In fact, some analysts are predicting that within 10 years e-commerce will overtake retail sales in terms of total transaction revenues — a prospect that did not just seem unlikely at the dawn of online shopping, but something that was panned by some pundits as a fad that would quickly disappear. Alas, as the old saying goes: hindsight is 20/20!

Chapter 2

The challenges of modern e-commerce

Naturally, customers are not a homogenous unit. Rather, they are composed of diverse segments that have varying preferences and habits. A sales channel and engagement strategy that works for one group does not necessarily work for another. And adding to the complexity is that today’s customers typically have multiple devices at their disposal and expect to be informed and impressed regardless of whether they are shopping through a desktop, laptop, tablet, smartphone, or even their TV.

In the early days of online shopping, e-commerce platform architecture — dubbed “monolithic” — was designed so that each application functioned in relation to other applications. They were interdependent instead of independent. As a result of this configuration, in order to make changes, software developers had to develop and deploy a completely separate and updated edition of the server-side application (which was permanently coupled with the user interface and database). This was excessively time consuming, quite costly, and always risky.

Fortunately, there are some very smart software developers out there. As the clock ticked on the new millennium, they put their brains together and innovated an alternative e-commerce platform — one that did not have the limitations (or the frustrations) of the monolithic approach. They called it composable commerce.

Chapter 3

What is composable commerce?

Composable commerce is a software architecture in which the front-end (user interface) is separated from the back-end (business logic). As a result of this separation — and in a manner that is categorically superior to conventional monolithic architecture — brands can select applications and then combine them into a custom application that meets their unique needs. Applications are independent instead of interdependent.

Composable commerce is rooted in three core principles:

  • Modular architecture, which enables each component — called Packaged Business Capabilities (PBCs) — in the stack to function independently yet communicate and share data as required through APIs. Examples of a PBC include a shopping cart, checkout, promotions, etc.
  • Open ecosystem, which enables brands to build a best-of-breed stack of various third-party applications, pre-composed solutions, and best practices.
  • Business centricity, which enables brands to invest in software and apps that meet their unique needs and build a customized stack that adapts quickly to changing dynamics and demands.

A popular and certifiably non-technical way to grasp composable commerce is to think of LEGO pieces, which can be joined and re-joined together to form specific shapes, such as an airport or dinosaur.

Of course, taking apart a composable commerce stack is not quite as simple as detaching LEGO pieces. But the essence is the same (and as a nice bonus, there is no fear of accidentally stepping on a piece of composable commerce — which is a unique kind of agony that many parents are all-too familiar with).

Chapter 4

Benefits of composable commerce

In several ways, composable commerce is categorically superior and far preferred to a monolithic model. There are eight key reasons why:

Increased agility: Composable commerce enables a highly flexible environment, which allows brands to accelerate, pivot — or sometimes both at once — in order to deliver enhanced customer experiences, but without placing a major burden on software development teams.

Removable and replaceable components: Composable commerce is fundamentally module (recall the LEGO analogy), which means that each PBC can be replaced or removed as required, yet without forcing other parts of the system to shut down. This allows brands to launch new or improved features quickly and easily, with minimal or no disruption. It also means that software developers no longer need to dread full-stack upgrades.

Extreme configurability: Composable commerce gives brands an enormous amount of freedom to manage any aspect of their e-commerce operation – from the UI and other front-end experiences, through to order management, inventory management, and other back-end systems. What’s more, brands can choose PBCs from vendors that specialize in a particular area (e.g. one vendor for inventory management, another vendor for warehouse management, etc.), rather than rely on a single vendor that is typically solid in some areas but comparatively weak in others. Since composable commerce is about curating best-of-breed vendors to create a custom technology stack, brands should ensure they have fully documented APIs. Pairing best-in-class documentation with robust rapid development tools make development efforts easier and faster.

Future-proofed technology: Composable commerce is designed to continuously evolve based on external shifts (e.g. changing customer demand) and internal shifts (e.g. changing product line). Unlike the scenario with monolithic platforms, brands are not forced to wait for vendors to release an update. Instead, they can be proactive and make the system fit their needs and goals vs. the other way around.

No vendor lock-in: Composable commerce liberates brands from being locked into long-term vendor contracts.

Lower total cost of ownership (TCO): Composable commerce offers brands a significantly lower TCO compared to a monolithic platform, since the overall costs of a modular build are minimized by identifying specific solutions that fit identified business requirements.

Enhanced employee satisfaction and engagement: Composable commerce is built using low or no-code, and operations do not require specialized IT skills. For example, marketing teams can easily update website content in real-time without assistance from software developers. This makes everyone more productive — and happier.

Roadmap development approach: Composable commerce allows brands to migrate from a conventional monolithic platform in a structured step-by-step vs. an all-at-once manner. For example, high-priority features can be migrated first, followed by secondary features. This enables brands to analyze and establish realistic and achievable goals, timeframes, and cost estimates.


How do microservices fit in?

At first glance, PBCs and microservices can look identical. Compounding the confusion is that the two terms are often used interchangeably. And while there are some important similarities, they are distinct concepts and it is important to recognize these differences:

  • Microservices is an architectural approach in which larger apps or technologies are broken down into smaller services. These services are then deployed individually in a loosely coupled manner, so that development teams can swap them in and out of the stack without disrupting the entire system (refer once again to the LEGO analogy).
  • PBCs are aggregated sets of microservices that are targeted towards solving specific business problems, while being simple to integrate and use.


What is the difference between composable commerce and MACH?

MACH is an acronym that refers to four principles: microservices, API-first, cloud-native SaaS, and headless. They characterize modern, best-of-breed technology systems — including but not exclusively e-commerce platforms.

  • Microservices: As discussed earlier, these are individual pieces of business functionality that are independently developed, deployed, and managed.
  • API-first: All functionality is exposed through an API, which makes it possible to integrate two or more applications or services.
  • Cloud-Native SaaS: This refers to leveraging the full capabilities of the cloud, including storage, hosting, and elastic scaling of highly available resources. Also, functionality is updated by the vendor, which eliminates the need for upgrade management.
  • Headless: The front-end UX is decoupled from the back-end logic, which allows for complete design freedom in building the UI, and for connecting multiple channels and devices (e.g. existing applications, IoT, A/R, vending machines, sensors, etc.).

In essence, MACH architecture represents what composable commerce is supposed to look like and deliver. With its modern decoupled architecture that is native to the cloud, MACH architecture is necessary for building a true composable commerce strategy.


Is composable the same as headless?

In the previous section, we highlighted that headless is a characteristic of MACH, which is the gateway through which brands leverage the benefits and advantages of composable commerce. Does this therefore mean that headless and composable commerce are essentially the same thing? Not quite.

Granted, headless commerce and composable commerce are similar in the sense that they both enable flexibility and agility — and in this respect, they are both categorically superior to monolithic architecture. However, they are not the exact same thing:

  • Headless commerce refers to a system where the front-end and back-end are decoupled and can operate independently. For example, changes to the UI do not impact back-end services like order and inventory management.
  • Composable commerce refers to a system where all components are independent and brought together as part of a curated best-of-breed stack.

So, which approach is better: headless commerce or composable commerce? The answer depends on a brand’s specific needs, goals, and resources. Generally speaking, many brands that have traditionally used a monolithic e-commerce platform and want to adopt a flexible architecture will first migrate to headless commerce before eventually moving to composable commerce.


Composable commerce offers greater control

With customer demands continuously changing and the need for digital transformation more necessary than ever due to COVID-19, composable commerce gives brands greater control over how their e-commerce application is delivered. And on a relentlessly competitive business landscape, greater control means enhanced adaptability and agility. These are not just important for success. In the long run and big picture, they are essential for survival.

We invite you to learn more about Sitecore’s headless, API-first e-commerce platform Sitecore OrderCloud®, which supports a wide range of composable commerce strategies. With a robust developer portal including comprehensive API documentation, cloud-native architecture, and an extensive B2B2X e-commerce data model, Sitecore OrderCloud® is an e-commerce platform built to scale with brands through continuously evolving digital transformation.

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