Migrating from a monolithic commerce platform presents significant advantages such as greater agility and flexibility for business-to-business companies; it can also enable the development of more consumer-like buying experiences, writes William Linebarger of commercetools.

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William Linebarger

The ecommerce platform market is being disrupted by next-generation commerce. Built as cloud-native applications that do not include a front-end user interface, or UI, as in traditional all-in-one monolithic platforms, next-generation ecommerce platforms are based entirely upon APIs (application programming interfaces) that connect in standardized ways to other software applications. These modern commerce platforms can be deployed as microservices that each has a specific role to play in online commerce.

This architectural shift is putting business-to-business companies at an ecommerce crossroads.   Sticking with an older-generation commerce platform means continuing to fund software development and maintenance, while struggling to increase online revenue or improve the customer experience. Modernizing conjures up painful memories of complex 18-to-24-month, multi-million-dollar re-platforming projects for IT leaders resistant to go down that path again. Often, B2B companies believe they are held back from modernization by the complexity of their product offerings, pricing and buying cycles, which makes the prospect of migrating their commerce approach seem extremely problematic and ultimately cost-prohibitive.

‘Headless’ commerce replaces ‘lift and shift’

The good news is that B2B companies have a better way to upgrade their commerce platform. Historically, replacing an enterprise application meant taking a “lift and shift” approach of building and customizing an entirely new platform, then switching over. Thanks to the arrival of cloud commerce services and “headless” commerce platforms B2B companies can now take a phased approach to platform migration. A headless commerce platform is one in which the customer-facing front end (a.k.a. the online storefront or UI) is decoupled from the back-end commerce transaction engine so brands and merchants can use any presentation layer, content management system or digital experience platform to create engaging customer experiences, while making every customer contact point shoppable, including mobile apps, social media, internet-of-things devices, chatbots, etc.

“I never want to re-platform again,” says Alex Shiferman, chief technology officer at Nuts.com, after having gone through long and painful re-platforming projects previously. To combine its B2C, B2B and wholesale sites, Nuts.com is taking a phased approach to migrating and seeing benefits across the company—from IT to marketing to the entire enterprise.

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Planning and executing the migration in stages minimizes both operational disruption and risk.  In a phased migration, continual transformation is the new normal because the project is divided into distinct business areas so that the functionality and data can be transferred out of the legacy platform to a new infrastructure one piece at a time. Once the legacy platform is replaced by the new system, continuous iterations can be made in each functional area. It helps to think about the project in terms of A) the organization, B) the architecture and C) the actual migration.

The Organization

Though it sounds fundamental, getting the organization behind a migration is critical to the long-term success of the project. In a company-wide digital transformation approach—which commerce migrations are often part of—this step alone could take considerable time and effort. Outside of a more global transformation project, though, it starts with setting up multi-disciplinary teams that include various business units.

These teams, with each member representing other internal discussions among their departments, drive the goals of each business unit. Internal groups are formed with clearly defined roles such as decision-making, development and oversight. Milestone checkpoints should be designed for the teams to come together and review progress. A focus on the organization will help during the project and beyond to keep the initiative on course and the stakeholders on board.

The Architecture

The architecture is the blueprint for migration. It describes the different components, the ways they are linked and where the information is stored. The architecture selected must fit the needs of the company considering number of channels, the number of touchpoints, size of the organization and overall go-to-market approach. Many enterprise-size B2B organizations are opting for next-generation platforms that become part of an overall digital ecosystem

The key question for B2B organizations in considering next-generation commerce is how much focus is needed on the online customer experience. If the organization has separate sites for different channels that are time-consuming and expensive to maintain independently, or if the organization also has a B2C channel like Sodimac—the ‘Home Depot’ of South America that sells to consumers as well as contractors—it may be time to consider a headless architecture. The ability to customize experiences, agility and speed are key benefits of this approach. For B2B organizations, these benefits often deliver big business opportunity.

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The Migration

Once the decision is made to migrate to a next-generation commerce solution, a migration strategy and roadmap must be developed. One approach to phase in a new platform is by channel. For instance, the platform is implemented for a new mobile app before being rolled out to other channels. Mission Linen, a 90-year-old industrial laundry company that sells and services the linen needs of restaurants, bars, auto shops, hotels and other businesses, took the channel approach to migration. The company first developed an Android-based app for sales reps to place orders and track customers in the field. Next, it will roll out the platform to other channels. This approach is helping Mission Linen expand geographically, add new accounts quickly and, most important, deliver an excellent customer experience.

The second phased migration strategy is commonly referred to as “strangle” methodology. The functionality of the monolithic platform is replaced piece by piece. The front-end user experience, for example, may combine the functionality of the old and the new platform for a time, or the user may see the new site during certain points along the customer journey, such as at check-out or when getting contract pricing.

The bottom line is that the migration strategy that works for one organization may not work for another. What’s important to remember is that new commerce architectures built from the ground up for a digital business world offer the ability to migrate in phases vs. having to wait for features and functionality that will keep the business competitive.

William Linebarger is a solution architect at commercetools, a provider of ecommerce technology. With more than 20 years of ecommerce development experience, he is a former director of enterprise architecture for multichannel retailer Belk Inc., where he led its transition to cloud technology. He also led the development of a microservices-based commerce platform at eBay Inc.

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