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From Monolithic to Composable Architecture: How to Drive Value and ROI

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An Introduction to Edgio’s Beyond the Edge podcast Episode 2: From Monolithic to Composable Architecture: How to Drive Value and ROI, hosted by Ishan Anand, VP of Product for the Edgio Applications Platform.

Ishan Anand: Hello, and welcome to Beyond the Edge, a podcast dedicated to exploring the dynamic challenges faced by modern digital businesses. I’m your copilot, Ishan Anand, VP of Product for the Edgio Applications Platform. And today, we’re diving into composable architectures, how they help organizations increase team velocity, and build faster sites. Amazon, Nike, Walmart, Toyota, Target, and countless other brands are using this approach and for good reason.

Because according to the Salesforce 2022 State of Commerce report, 77% of organizations that have adopted this architecture, that’s three out of four, say it gives them greater agility and improves their conversion rates. So let’s go beyond the edge with our guests. Today we have Mihaela Mazzenga, CTO at Valtech, and Ellery Womack, Senior Director of Engineering at Edgio. Mihaela, please introduce yourself and tell us about your background in composable architecture to get started.

Mihaela Mazzenga: Thank you, Ishan. So my name is Mihaela Mazzenga, CTO at Valtech North America. I would say the bulk of my experience has really been in building SaaS platforms where approaches like composability and headless have actually been around for some time, truly driven by the need to not reinvent the wheel and reduce the overhead of running on multiple touchpoints. From there, I applied my knowledge at an iconic American brand that had transformed into pure plate digital, and I led them through a very pure composable, headless migration, which was one of the first end-to-end of its kind in the region at the time back in 2019. And I’ve been applying that knowledge to enterprise brand transformations with Valtech. I’ve also spent over two and a half years at the MACH Alliance as an ambassador and as an ambassador lead for the program really tied very closely to the customer side of the work, and more specifically, the things that ultimately drive business value in the world of Composable.

Ishan Anand: Thank you. Really glad to have somebody who’s been doing so much pioneering work from the early days with MACH in the enterprise. Ellery, can you tell us more about your background with Composable Architecture?

Ellery Womack: Certainly. My name is Ellery Womack. I’m the Senior Director of Engineering at Edgio. I work in Edgio’s Expert Services Department, where we help customers get the best value out of our CDN, web hosting, and security products. And over the past few years, I’ve helped a number of customers improve website performance and also adopt composable, headless architectures, which just deliver great experiences for end users. My background is in technology consulting, where I’ve worked mostly in system integration and helping other clients with mission-critical software engineering projects. And at Edgio, we’ve helped over a hundred customers, and many of which are in the e-commerce space, dramatically improve the site speed of their applications.

What is MACH? Composability? Headless?

Ishan Anand: Great. Thank you. Let’s start to bring the audience up to the same level and just clarify some terms. I’ve seen on countless customer calls, the terms composable, headless, decoupled, API-first, and MACH architecture are used interchangeably, and it often can cause confusion. Mihaela, could you help clarify these terms?

Mihaela Mazzenga: Yes, and I feel like sometimes all of these discussions start off with the definition of MACH. What I’d like to do this time to elevate our discussion, maybe push the maturity of the topic a little bit, is to really focus on why it matters or what’s different about it, because I think a lot of the audience can simply get to the definition of microservices and APIs and cloud and headless pretty easily. But really composability means leveraging multiple separate capabilities that together create a complete system. You’ll hear these often referred to as building blocks or Lego blocks. And ideally, these capabilities are cloud-native SaaS components, but you can also compose with custom cloud solutions within your own environment. If you study classic software engineering, it’s the foundational approach to composition. It’s just applied to the modern world of cloud functions as they are today. And I do want to add also that I think we’ve…Many times there are also questions asked on whether MACH is the future, and that’s wonderful that we’ve created an acronym for it. But I think this type of software assembly is actually very much the present. So microservices, APIs, the cloud-native SaaS, and headless are what really pull all of these great approaches together.

And it’s specifically the combination that brings the best of modern software to the table for building business capabilities and for scaling experiences, because you can have microservices, you can have APIs, you can have SaaS, you can have headless truly all independently, but the most meaningful impact happens when you bring them together. I think this is often missed in our understandings, in our designs, and maybe when we talk about the things that aren’t working, really rooting yourself and understanding the end-to-end value, not just focusing on only one thing that you understand is really critical for success in the new world of software assembly.

Ishan Anand: Yeah, I really like that insight that you can have microservices. You can have all the acronyms in MACH, microservices, API, Cloud Native, and Headless, but you may not actually MACH. It’s like you can have all the ingredients for a cookie recipe, but you still got to combine them together and bake them the right way so that you get actual cookies and they don’t turn out burnt, right? I think that’s a really insightful point. Don’t look too literally at the definition. It’s also how you use it.

Why Migrate to Composable Architecture?

Ishan Anand: Let’s talk about why companies should make this migration and the companies and organizations that have made that transition. Ellery, can you start us off on that?

Ellery Womack: Certainly. One of the biggest successes we’ve seen at Edgio was with the Fortune 500 fashion retailer, who when COVID began, started to see a sharp decline in revenue as fewer and fewer people were able to shop at their retail or their brick-and-mortar locations. And they were on a monolithic e-commerce platform where they felt it wasn’t nimble enough for them to grow their digital business at the pace they needed to keep up with customer demand. And it was already struggling. So we engaged with them first on a proof of concept just to show them if we rebuild the top-of-funnel pages, as we call them, the homepage, the product listing page, and the product detail page, that you’re going to get better customer experience. It’s going to be faster than what you have on your current platform, and that should lead to improvements in conversion rate, average order value, revenue per user, bounce rate, and all the important KPIs that they’re typically focused on. So we were able to get this live in a matter of months for one of their brands. We had the desired outcomes that we anticipated. In their case, because they are a multinational business with multiple brands, the next step was, how do we apply this everywhere else?

We have multiple brands in the United States, Canada, Europe, Asia-Pacific, and so on. The next phase of the journey was to build an architecture that would be reusable so that we have a single code base that’s deployed for all of these websites, all of these brands globally. Over the subsequent two years, we were able to iteratively roll this out to all of their businesses, which had been operating as independent monolithic e-commerce platforms. And now when they do an improvement or add a new feature to one place, everyone else gets the benefit. And all of them saw similar benefits in terms of their KPIs once they moved over to the later architecture.

Ishan Anand: That’s great. So Fortune 500 company gets better conversion rates and their team is iterating faster. It’s almost like getting more engineers on your team without having to actually spend the expense. Mihaela, do you have an ROI example or case study that comes to mind?

Mihaela Mazzenga: So really building on that, Ellery, it’s interesting how similar this truly is, and maybe it points to where the most value is. I think that in these large multi-brand, multi-region organizations that are now potentially looking at the technology sprawl that has been created over many years and questioning how to continue to drive value. That’s probably a conversation that’s not just in the question of composable, just holistically true to the promise of composable. While it allows for differentiation at the display or touchpoint layer, it also allows for that consolidation that you mentioned of their core capabilities, or I’ll call those commodities, within their global technology footprint. So these organizations are now truly needing to start to think more like SaaS companies themselves. They need to determine how to maximize the investment, but most importantly, bring that same level of quality experience to all of their customers. You can only do that with the common core capabilities while allowing the customer touchpoint to be completely customized to that region or to that brand’s customer needs. The interface at this point doesn’t have to be the same. It actually should not be the same because the front-end, the experience, that touch point with the customer, quite honestly, needs to be the most personalized, where the core being a commodity truly doesn’t.

This can really only be achieved at scale with MACH, and I say that because I think MACH leans into differentiation. Even when you consider the number of varying partners a global organization tends to have, we’re not saying that there’s one partner to do it all. There’s the full expectation that not only do you have multiple technologies, but you also have multiple partners, and those partners understand where they uniquely drive value as well. While at the brand level, we can maybe reference things such as uplift and conversion, I think at the organizational level, here we really want to reference, quite honestly, organizational transformation. I hate to use that word because it’s overused, but it’s true. Innovation and mindset, which can sometimes be quite immeasurable. Having the right understanding and expertise in this is critical because this isn’t just about building the next website. It’s about true transformation, and you have to have the right experience at the table to bring forward this type of transformation to fruition. Sometimes you don’t even recognize you’re on the path and you need help to truly capitalize on that investment. There are organizations today that are taking this leap, no pun intended, because as an example, the Mars organization in collaboration with Valtech has created a leap accelerator for multi-brand environments to really set a foundation of composable and allow that differentiation, but achieve incredible time to market in that equation.

I think value or the definition of value has matured incredibly over the last, especially 12 months.

Ellery Womack: And it’s not just large brands and large enterprises that are good candidates for MACH and Composable. We’ve also worked with some much smaller companies as well. One good example is Universal Standard, who is a Shopify customer who is leveraging Edgio. They had a particularly slow mobile site experience and they had a pretty urgent need to improve things. There was a decision point around, do we go to Shopify 2.0, take another incremental step, or do we leverage our tech expertise and actually just make the pivot now to headless. They ended up deciding to go with headless and built a new website using Nux, then the Shopify, Storefront API. And when they launched it, they saw a 200% improvement in conversion rate. So even if you don’t have multiple brands under your umbrella, if you have the right team, I wouldn’t hesitate to look at MACH more closely.

Ishan Anand: Yeah, I really love that Universal Standard Case Study as a demonstration that it’s basically any size business. And they had a really compelling talk they gave at the Jamstack Conference a few years ago. And Mihaela, I like what you’re talking about is MACH as the solution to this technology sprawl. And as part of every company needing to be a tech company, as software eats the world, software is basically eating all parts of your business and your organization. And MACH is the solution that they’ll help you manage that complexity when it starts eating various parts of the business. I’d like to take it, let’s suppose somebody is convinced now. Clearly, we’ve shown value and ROI at all scales of business.

Steps to Take to Make This Transition Seamless

Ishan Anand: But what are the steps a team organization needs to take to make this transition as seamless as possible? How do I get from here to there? Maybe, Ellery, you can start us off on that.

Ellery Womack: Sure. So starting off with the technology, one of the great things about MLOc and Composable is you get to pick all of your tools. So a good first step is to look at all the vendors for the tools that you need to use and start doing some vendor selection, identifying a content management system that you like. Oftentimes, if you’re using a monolithic platform, you have one drag-and-drop editor, and maybe a couple of other options that you can integrate. But with Composable, the world is your oyster. So you can look at a number of different options. So selecting a content management system, e-commerce system, or front-end framework, just trying to identify all the tools you want to use, and then you look at all the integration points. How do you want to combine these things together, if there’s any back-end replication that needs to happen between systems, planning out your migration, and ultimately you want to start doing a proof of concept for these tools to make sure that your teams are happy with them. At the end of the day, one of the biggest benefits is that now your teams get to do their day-to-day jobs and the tools that they love and fit their needs more perfectly.

That’s a great benefit that your teams are going to see once you start going down the headless track. I always recommend to people, especially in the e-commerce industry, to start building out your product details page. If you can launch that first, that’s where you’re going to see the most benefit. So if you’re trying to figure out, do I start with the homepage, PLP, or PDP? That’s definitely the place to start because you just have so much organic traffic and paid search going directly to product pages, and people will typically look at one product, add to the cart, and then convert. So I highly recommend you start there and then work backward to your PLP, your search, and your homepage. And for the demo line, cart and checkout are good things to look at. But in many cases, I wouldn’t consider them for the MVP or anything like that.

Features of Composable Architecture for Max Benefits

Ishan Anand: Okay. And then as you’re going through that, as an organization going through that selection, Mihaela, what features should businesses be looking for in order to get the maximum benefit out of a composable architecture?

Mihaela Mazzenga: And before I answer that, I want to add on a little bit and maybe add into it, because, Ellery, you jumped straight into the tech deep end there. And in composable, I think, especially if you’ve been working on an all-in-one platform. And by the way, I’m not saying that in a negative way, because I do think that every type of tech solution has an appropriate match. But outside of technology, it is an absolute mindset shift in terms of what you’re capable of doing and the expectation around your contribution as an organization within any discipline, whereas before I think it was more opinionated, and that you were working around the opinions that are preset by a platform. Even when there was flexibility, there were just things you didn’t have to think about. I think a roadmap, if you want to make it a lot easier as a holistic organization, a roadmap is incredibly important if one didn’t exist before, and understanding how you’re going to drive value through the transformation, understanding when you’re going to end the transformation because there’s a point where product and product iteration restarts and that’s not necessarily during the middle of a transformation as an example.

Combining too many things at one time, including product advancement, transformation, customer experience, brand relaunch, and swapping out backend operational systems such as OMS all at the same time – an absolute recipe for disaster. Understanding your capabilities as an organization, how fast you can go, understanding your team, understanding the gaps on your team in your organization, the impact this is going to have on process beyond just technology, the impact it’ll have on people, change management becomes absolutely necessary to contend with to define, because as we know naturally, any type of change for us as humans is usually unsettling, lots of questions, and this won’t be any different. This is a massive paradigm shift for most organizations. And what I want to say is that if you’re letting technology lead, you probably need to reassess that strategy because this should be a business-led initiative. At the end of the day, if you can’t separate the two, if you are mostly a tech company and you’re doing this for tech reasons, certainly there’s every type of flavor, but even in that, please understand your why.

Ishan Anand: Yeah, that’s a really good call out.

Mihaela Mazzenga: So that leads to the features, right? What type of feature should be targeted? Which ones reap the most benefits? And quite honestly to that, I would turn around and ask, well, what are the features that you believe drive the most value for your customers or within their demographics, within your teams? And in terms of where you start, you have to start with that value. And normally, that will lead you in the direction of your customer. So what are the customer pain points? What are the customer value points? We’ll talk about things such as overall speed, all right? Will I, as a customer, bounce before the home page is rendered as an example, then focus on the edge? Will I bounce before I’m able to convert? Time to transaction and focus on commerce. Do I experience the best-personalized content that you have to offer? Content readiness and focus on CMS. Can I find the products that I want and may not know that I want as well? Then focus on Search. In all of that, there’s underlying TCO and underlying speed, which I don’t think you can remove from any part of this equation.

And both of those independently have very lasting impacts on an organization. So although I could have an opinion as a technologist, I think you need to look for features that make sense to you to drive value.

Ishan Anand: I like that, understanding the why. And at the root of it, the why is going to come back to your customers, and it’s going to be rooted in that and not necessarily the technology. That’s really to serve the why you already have with why you’re in the business. It’s a really powerful reminder.

Who Should be Using a Composable Architecture?

Ishan Anand: I want to transition a little bit. We talked earlier about how there’s a range of sizes of businesses that have adopted composable architecture. And, Mihaela, you said earlier, monolith isn’t necessarily bad in some cases. So how do you know, as a company, who should be using composable architectures? I’ll throw that tie to either one of you to answer.

Mihaela Mazzenga: Ellery, I nominate you.

Ellery Womack: Thanks. I appreciate that. So there are probably two really common topics that come up with the customers I tend to work with. One is flexibility and tools, just having the right tools that serve your business purpose. So do the tools feel like the tools give you the flexibility that you want to do your day-to-day job? Or are there other tools that are a bit more focused? They have smaller sets of functionality that would be more suitable to your needs. Building a composable stack is all about finding the right tools and products that are the right fit for you, your business, and your team. And then you integrate them together so that your team can do their job on their terms. So again, tool selection, vendor selection is really important to this. And one more thing that’s come up pretty commonly is just the need to enable multi-touch points and the inability to do that with your current stack. So you want to provide a consistent customer experience across in-store, mobile, web, and other channels. It’s important that you don’t replicate your business logic and workflows to multiple monolithic and supporting channels. In engineering, we tend to call this dry, meaning don’t repeat yourself.

Mihaela Mazzenga: And Ellery, I would actually say that everyone should be using a composable architecture. And I don’t want to make this a MACH versus monolith conversation. There are powerful legacy systems that will absolutely remain in play for most organizations. There are homegrown components of that. There’s so much complexity and integration. I think number one, that the landscape will continue to shift toward composability. The API economy will continue to grow, and we have to be careful that the answer is actually hybrid. There will be integrations you have with systems that aren’t deemed MACH, and they shouldn’t be in some cases. And then you’ll have integrations with systems that do give you the granular business capability. I think today’s organization needs to simply look and say like you said, flexibility and tools, what are the tools that I can leverage? What are the tools I shouldn’t change? Because change for change should be the last option in this environment. But I don’t know that in today’s modern age that there is an organization that actually isn’t going to leverage some composability within their software architectures. Is it the purest MACH approach in all cases? No, absolutely not, but I do think it exists.

And, quite honestly, the most powerful combinations are those that are hybrid, because it recognizes that our intent here is to give the organization the choice, and that choice may be legacy in some cases. We need to focus on what makes us different and continue to push on really buying commodities and building differentiation. To me, that is an equation that covers both monolith and composable and MACH and every other acronym you want to throw at it. But I think it’s everybody’s oyster today.

Ishan Anand: Yeah, I like that positioning that it’s not necessarily a binary choice. You can incorporate legacy. It can be a spectrum, so to speak, of how much MACH or pure MACH components are in your stack.

It’s Time to Embrace Composability: Leading Indicators

Ishan Anand: I want to put ourselves in maybe the mind of a listener in the audience who’s like, okay, this sounds great. It’s checking all the boxes. But they’ve always viewed composable or MACH as it’s always perpetually the future initiative. Further down the roadmap takes a lot of investment. What could be the leading indicators that could be used as triggers that it’s time to make the change now? What challenges would they be facing day to day that indicate, Actually, don’t… You shouldn’t wait. You should actually start making that incremental step now.

Mihaela Mazzenga: I think always the leading indicator is customer friction. So are there points in the customer journey that aren’t ideal that conversion has been reduced, bounce rates are increasing, the length of time or the quality of the experience and the data and the content, it all leads to some customer dissatisfaction. As we know, customers generally have no issue with telling us where they’re not satisfied with parts of the experience. I think we start there and granted, that’s not necessarily unique to legacy. It’s not like you can’t have issues even in a MACH and composable ecosystem. But if you don’t have customer friction and if you’re happy with your TCO, it may beg the question on truly what type of result you’re after in going down this route. But I think it starts there, and those are easy things to look for. They should be known things within your organization and the customer journey that you’re already measuring, hopefully.

Ellery Womack: Yeah, just to piggyback onto the performance aspect of that, if your website is not passing Core Web Vitals, that’s a good indicator that you’re due for a change. It doesn’t necessarily mean MACH and composable. But if you can’t get there, then you should certainly consider it. A lot of our customers are looking at their Core Web Vitals on a very regular basis because that influences their search ranking on Google. So looking at their largest contentful paint and how quickly users can see something on the screen, cumulative layout shift, which measures the amount of shifting around of content on the page as it’s rendering, and for symptom delay, which is a measure of once I try to interact with the page, how quickly does it update and respond? Google is using this information to feed into organic search rankings. And if you’re not in the top three search results, then more than half the clicks for those searches are not going to your website. So it’s really important to stay on top of this. This is one area where MACH and composable from an architecture perspective is something that will deliver the best performance available on the market.

So that’s one thing that our customers look really closely at. And even use our RUM, which is a real-time user monitoring tool, to stay ahead of the curve and make sure that as they’re pushing out new changes, they know in real time what that’s going to do to their core vital data.

Mihaela Mazzenga: And Ellery, even in those, right? There are, I’m sure, cases that you can reference where the solution was both, right? So in an attempt to get fast time to value, you can layer an edge solution such as an Edgio on top of a legacy system to really get immediate and fast uplift in a matter of investment of months as you start a migration or total transformation. And I don’t think that value can be understated. So again, pointing back to hybrid and should be encouraged to mix and match to the best of our abilities and driving that better experience for the customer.

Wrap Up

Ishan Anand: Yeah, I think that’s actually a great note to end on that hybrid should be encouraged because it gets you faster time to value for these benefits. We started with how composable architecture makes sites load faster and teams more agile. And now we’re closing with how you should go about adopting it and that it’s not necessarily a binary choice. I’d like to thank you guys, our guests, Mihaela, CTO from Valtech, and Ellery, Senior Director of Engineering from Edgio. And then thank our audience as well for joining us today on Beyond the Edge. We’ll see you in the next episode, where we’ll be speaking about Predictive Prefetch and how this approach can drop page loads down to sub-second speeds. Don’t miss it. We’ll see you in the next one.