Published: 23 Jan 2023
“Life’s what you make it,” sang the synth-pop post-rock band Talk Talk in 1986 – perhaps a suggestion we should all take on board when considering the predictions for 2023. Economic forecasts are starting to make Nostradamus look like a fun dinner party guest, so when we start seeing stories about composable computing being the answer to troublesome times, it’s worth exploring.
A year ago, Gartner was predicting that composability would be one of the biggest tech trends of 2022. In 2020, it defined composability as: “[A means of] creating an organisation made from interchangeable building blocks. The modular setup enables a business to rearrange and reorient as needed depending on external (or internal) factors like a shift in customer values or sudden change in supply chain or materials.”
It outlined four principles: more speed through discovery; greater agility through modularity; better leadership through orchestration; and resilience through autonomy.
The idea that organisations could architect businesses for real-time adaptability and resilience in the face of uncertainty is an interesting one. Organisations using technology based on modular, packaged business capabilities rather than having to fit processes and plans around the prescribed functions of large software applications is certainly a shift in approach.
Kim Sneum-Madsen, CEO of open source content management system company Umbraco, works with the UK’s Royal Navy and The Royal College of Surgeons. He believes the composable approach to app development is increasingly important, not just to adaptability but to future-proofing IT investments.
“The economic situation will force companies to focus their budgets on technology that directly benefits customer experience and brings in more revenue,” says Sneum-Madsen. “No one wants to pay hefty software licences for features they’re not using and which don’t directly benefit the bottom line. This will drive more companies to adopt a composable approach to their tech stack, which allows them to blend best-of-breed technologies that keep pace with consumers’ expectations.”
As Joe Cicman, senior analyst, digital transformation, at Forrester, points out in his blog, the problem is that organisations have become used to doing enterprise tech in a particular way, bolting on subscription software to core enterprise resource planning (ERP) tools, for example, so they can meet the changing needs of departments.
Cicman writes: “Every day I asked myself, ‘how is it possible for one vendor to create one product that works across multiple industries and grows in scope as a company’s digital remit grows?’ After talking to the vendors, turns out … it’s not possible.”
Sneum-Madsen’s work with the Royal Navy is a good example of this, where Umbraco’s “composable architecture and headless CMS” has been the control centre for the MyNavy app. It has a huge remit, in that it has to be all things to all people, providing training and career planning, healthcare management, family support and arrangement of travel, among other functions.
Currently used by 35,000 people across the globe, MyNavy allows for the sort of flexibility required to meet the varying needs of users, integrating the most appropriate third-party applications, rather than being locked into a single supplier’s feature set.
To the MACHs
It is this idea of future-proofing enterprise technology and enabling personalised experiences across a broad range of functions that sits at the heart of the MACH Alliance, a not-for-profit industry body of over 70 members dedicated to “open and best-of-breed enterprise technology ecosystems”.
If you are wondering what MACH stands for, it is, according to the alliance, an industry tech standard for modern technology. The prerequisites to achieve this standard are: microservices based; application programming interface (API)-first; cloud-native software as a service (SaaS); and headless, where front-end presentation is completely decoupled from back-end logic and designed to be channel-, programming language- and framework-agnostic.
“MACH is absolutely the right way to go about it,” says Steve Nolan, chief technology officer CTO at Boohoo. The online retail brand, which has endured a rollercoaster few years, has been very acquisitive. Its stable includes PrettyLittleThing, Karen Millen, Debenhams, Dorothy Perkins, Warehouse, Burton, Oasis, Coast, Wallis and Nasty Gal.
The business was built on a Sage 200 financial management back end, but as it grew rapidly – just under £2bn in sales, according to its financials, from its 14 destinations and 19 million active customers globally – the need for scalability and flexibility exposed a few problems.
“It was hard to make changes and it was creaking,” says Nolan, adding that the business needed a more adaptive, cost-effective infrastructure that would also optimise the supply chain operation and improve efficiencies. The plan was to jettison bolted-on applications that sat on top of the Sage system and replace this with a composable MACH architecture, plugged into Microsoft’s Dynamics 365 ERP system. The company’s multiple products were then centralised in a single Akeneo product information management (PIM) system.
“You didn’t need an IT degree as a business user to utilise the PIM,” adds Nolan. “The digital back end has revolutionised the way the business operates.”
However, it’s not all plain sailing. Nolan admits that differentiating between caching static data and changing, personalised data for performance needed attention and, even in the age of open APIs, integration between systems has not been easy.
The problem is that what works to composable computing’s advantage – the modular nature and open ability to connect with other applications – is also, at the moment at least, a disadvantage. When it comes to collaborating with other businesses – in a supply chain, for example – there is a need for suppliers to embrace a similar approach to data. Despite the open, easy-to-use intentions, there are complexities and a requirement for skilled integrators to make it work.
“You can’t have business composability if the tech components can’t be easily integrated, and their underlying data accessed and moved,” says Bryan Oak, co-founder of Kompozable, an expert in integrating composable architectures. “This could be to complete a business process or to liberate the data for decision-making. Having the ability to move and fit together different tech components within a business will be key to achieving the vision of composable business.”
“You can’t have business composability if the tech components can’t be easily integrated, and their underlying data accessed and moved”
Bryan Oak, Kompozable
There is also a need for clear communication and collaboration across different teams, departments and suppliers. Without this, composable computing systems can’t be properly managed or implemented, according to Vicky Grobbelaar, founder of Ethiqs Legal, a boutique law firm for tech.
“They rely on a robust infrastructure to support the scalable nature of the system, which makes implementation costly, both in time and money. While they can provide better security, it doesn’t come without risks,” says Grobbelaar.
“Due to the modular nature of the systems, it’s often harder to monitor and control access to sensitive data. It can become complex to manage as it usually requires a business to manage and maintain multiple individual components, increasing complexity and overheads. Businesses might become ‘stuck’ with particular vendors as the use of certain components and technologies in the system can make it trickier for a business to easily change vendors in the future,” she adds.
Almost certainly, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages, but this is far from the plug-and-play image, for the moment at least. There’s a bit more to it than that, and for any business looking to become more composable, it is something of a cultural as well as a technical journey.
“Thinking and architecting for composability is the logical first step, but putting it into practice will take some creativity,” says Kompozable’s Oak. “By leading with data architecture, you can make better decisions about master data management and integration of transactional data to drive better decision-making. I predict that organisations will get behind the inherent benefits that composable business has the potential to yield. Businesses will realise that organisational design and culture has a big part to play in getting composability to work.”
If you are looking for evidence, there is plenty. As well as the MACH Alliance’s work with Boohoo and Umbraco’s work with the Royal Navy and The Royal College of Surgeons, composability has already reached into organisations across sectors.
“There are many examples of organisations that have successfully implemented composable business computing, including major companies in industries such as finance, healthcare and retail,” says Abdul Rahim, an IT professional and CEO of tech blog Software Test Tips. “For example, one well-known example is the UK retailer Tesco, which uses composable systems to quickly and easily create and deploy new applications and services, and respond more quickly to changing customer needs and preferences.”
Ethiqs Legal’s Grobbelaar also points to composability being implemented at Durham University, while MuleSoft is working with Crown Agents Bank, a UK-based provider of global payment services, on using a composable approach within its digital transformation strategy.
In that sense, Gartner was certainly right that 2022 would be a big year for composability, but this is just the start. Given all the talk about efficiencies and increasing agility, and the economic pressures to come, 2023 is going to be an even bigger year for composability. The ability to shape and match technology capabilities with needs is not without its challenges, but there’s enough evidence to suggest it will be worth the ride.
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