Modern digital commerce has emerged beyond just the web and mobile web. Not only is commerce omnichannel – serving both digital and physical experiences – it’s now omnitouchpoint, encompassing a 360-degree journey of engagement.
Brands and retailers are increasingly integrating commerce with rich content, social networks such as Facebook and Instagram, voice assistants such as Google Home and technologies such as AI chatbots. The challenge for many digital enterprises remains extending commerce out of core, legacy systems and into these new touchpoints.
Enterprise architecture is typically composed of several large platforms, each designed to do a specific thing in a silo. Digital commerce platforms must work together with ERP, CRM, OMS and PIM systems. Stitching these solutions together is complicated and costly, and puts a heavy burden on IT to extend and maintain these systems. The “solution” doesn’t always function the way a retailer wants, and often stands in the way of its business goal to innovate and evolve the customer experience.
Challenges with Legacy Systems
Beyond the complexity of enterprise architecture, enterprise applications themselves are challenging to customize and extend to new touchpoints. Built as large monoliths where all components share the same code base and are tightly coupled, development changes to accommodate the business’ unique use cases and innovation roadmap can compromise this code, if they’re possible at all.
Designed for web-first, monolithic commerce platforms are generally hardwired to their desktop and mobile front ends, and are not designed for contextual device or use case specific experiences now expected of them. Headless commerce, where the front end is decoupled from backend code, can help tailor design and formatting, but not features and functionality. Simple tasks like adding a buy button to digital lookbooks can’t be done without APIs, and APIs can only work with a monolith’s back end code as is.
Microservices: Modern Solution to Legacy Architecture
There’s good news. Microservices architecture is a trending approach that solves the pain of legacy architecture and siloed systems. It involves small applications built around a single business purpose. Each has its own data store and well-defined APIs that allow them to extend to any new touchpoint, regardless of the user interface or context. Microservices can be independently deployed, meaning the business can use only the services required for a new experience, rather than hardwiring to a monolith that can only serve commerce in a rigid way.
Because microservices are small, freestanding applications, decoupled from other components of the commerce system, they can be updated rapidly without compromising the code of other services or the extensive full-system testing required with monolithic platforms. New code can be delivered much faster and with less risk, a boon for organizations with aggressive digital transformation roadmaps. Data moves through the organization freely, and new experiences can be launched and removed easily without compromising critical areas of the system.
Creating Seamless, Unified Experiences
It’s not uncommon for brands and retailers to venture into new product and experience offerings. For example, outdoor gear giant REI now offers adventure travel, a natural complement to its product catalog.
However, adding new product types or sales channels to legacy platforms is challenging and often not feasible. The database must be modeled to accommodate new categories, SKU attributes and merchandising rules. Monolithic databases are just as difficult to modify and extend as application code. This forces organizations to integrate yet another siloed application to their commerce environment.
These tack-on platforms typically have their own content management, UI, and transactional systems. An example is REI Adventures, its destination travel unit. While integrated with the website’s global navigation, it lives in a subfolder which takes the customer out of the gear catalog. Members must create new usernames and passwords for this experience, and must book travel by telephone.
A truly integrated experience would allow REI members to seamlessly shop both business units with the same account credentials and unified checkout. It would also allow REI to cross-sell gear with travel packages, integrate experiences with personalization tools and consolidate analytics and reporting.
With API-driven, headless microservices architecture, REI would be able to extend the front end to accommodate new product templates, and quickly add new product catalogs that integrate with account, cart, checkout, loyalty and recommendations.
Innovating with Startup Agility
Startups rarely launch a fully-baked product out of the gate – with good reason. Releasing a lightweight, minimum viable product (MVP) to test and gather feedback is the best way to accelerate speed-to-market, avoid unnecessary development and maximize ROI.
Best Buy Canada recently soft-launched an integration with Google Home. The AI-driven voice experience allows customers to find and compare products, locate and reserve products in-store, get product recommendations and ask questions, all without struggling through layers of navigation menus and filters or mobile keyboards.
Microservices and APIs allow you to experiment and fail faster, supporting a culture of innovation. If pilot projects are a success, they can be rolled out to a wider market with enhancements delivered slowly over time. If they’re not a hit, they can be removed without leaving a trace.
Microservices Are For Everyone
The best news is you don’t need to rip and replace your legacy systems with microservices to take advantage of their speed, flexibility, and scalability – they can be deployed alongside your legacy commerce system.
While many digital leaders such as Best Buy, Staples and Amazon have fully migrated to microservices, they did so by “strangling their monoliths,” gradually replacing components with microservices over time. This allows you to prioritize the services that benefit the most from modularity and reap the benefit sooner, allowing you to invest in the future instead of in ongoing maintenance.
Jon Feldman is Senior Director of Product Marketing for Skava