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A quick intro to the MACH architecture strategy

While not particularly prescriptive, alignment with a MACH architecture strategy can help software teams ensure application designs make proper use of current technologies.

You may have heard of LAMP, MERN and MEAN, which are all tried-and-true software architecture design approaches for building web-hosted applications. Now, there's another architectural acronym spreading across the software industry, MACH, which stands for microservices, API-first, cloud-native and headless.

The MACH architecture strategy embodies what are widely considered the four nonnegotiable elements of modern software design. Let's examine the principles of MACH, what it means to implement a MACH architecture, the pros and cons of this approach and some ways to get started with a MACH strategy.

What is a MACH architecture strategy?

A MACH architecture is an approach to software design that emphasizes four essential -- and, likely, recognizable -- tenets of modern software development:

  • Microservices. An architectural design approach that promotes the partitioning of applications into multiple services and components that developers can develop, deploy, manage and update independently and in isolation.
  • API-first. A development approach that places APIs at the center of software development and dictates that API-related considerations (including access controls, integrations, naming conventions, etc.) should be addressed as early in the development cycle as possible.
  • Cloud-native. A hosting strategy that emphasizes the use of cloud-based platforms and tooling to build and deploy applications in distributed environments rather than on local hosting locations.
  • Headless. A software design approach that uses abstraction to decouple an application's front end from its back end, allowing software teams to make changes to front-facing components like the UI without being tethered by back-end concerns.

Rather than present a prescriptive lineup of architectural components, all four of these principles represent relatively high-level software design concepts that can be implemented in any number of ways. For example, a software team could implement a cloud-native application using a variety of different container, serverless or orchestration technologies. Similarly, there are few rules regarding exactly how many services a microservices-based application should contain.

Admittedly, the MACH concept gets a little messy when you consider that the core concepts behind some of these elements -- namely, microservices and headless -- may sometimes seem at odds. For instance, while headless architecture seemingly promotes a design style where applications consist of two pieces, microservices architecture implies that applications should be split into several pieces or more. As such, there is arguably no such thing as a single "MACH application" that embodies all four elements' principles in their entirety.

That said, the MACH architecture concept provides a valuable reminder to development teams that they should consistently try and take advantage of the best design strategies and technologies available. Today, that means microservices, APIs, cloud and headless.

The pros and cons of MACH

The main point of a MACH strategy is to design and implement an overall architectural framework that fosters thoughtful application development and continued resiliency through the implementation of modern software design concepts.

Some of the specific benefits a MACH strategy aims to introduce include the following:

  • Flexibility. MACH applications tend to comprise multiple individual parts that can operate and be modified in isolation. For instance, the loosely coupled nature of microservices and cloud-native deployment can provide a lot of flexibility for an architecture.
  • Scalability. The loose coupling encouraged by MACH also helps support high application scalability. Individual application components can scale independently, allowing for more predictable growth over time, an increased ability to handle unexpected workloads and the capability to conserve resources in times of low workload volume.
  • Reliability. Cloud-native deployment and distributed deployment also help MACH applications achieve higher rates of reliability. If part of the environment hosting your MACH app fails, the app could remain available.

On the other hand, pursuing a MACH architecture strategy also poses some key challenges for both architects and developers, including added complexity regarding deployment requirements and management of the hosting stack. MACH applications tend to contain more moving pieces than a traditional monolithic application, and are almost assuredly deployed in a dynamic cloud-native environment. Getting a handle on MACH applications will likely require the addition of complementary management tools, such as sophisticated container orchestrators and API gateways.

The decision of whether a MACH architecture makes sense for your application needs depends on one question: Does the enhanced flexibility, scalability and reliability of MACH applications outweigh the added management complexity you'll have to contend with? Although the answer will be "yes" for most enterprise-level software teams, smaller operations may want to consider if they are actually better served hosting applications locally or keeping larger services intact.

How to get started with a MACH architecture

The best way to get started with MACH is to evaluate your software architecture's capabilities and determine how closely they align with the MACH approach. Given the fact that MACH is really just a shorthand list of what are already widespread modern software development practices, there are plenty of software teams that may already be running a MACH architecture without even realizing it.

At the very least, most software teams are likely putting one or more MACH elements to considerable use already. In that case, this evaluation will help reveal which of the four components your organization might be overlooking. For instance, if your organization is currently deploying microservices-based applications on individual servers, deploying those applications in containers across a cluster of servers would be one way to closer align with a MACH strategy.

Another plausible scenario is that a software team already uses microservices and cloud-native hosting, but isn't yet managing APIs in a way that positions it at the center of application design plans and build processes. Adopting an API-first development strategy -- that is, one that places a priority on determining how APIs will behave and addresses specific business requirements before any actual coding starts -- would place that team one step closer to proper MACH adoption.

However, for teams that are truly starting at square one, such as those still running a localized monolith, it often makes the most sense to start out with headless application design. Headless is typically the simplest MACH element to implement, and will eventually open the door to further partitioning application components through a transition into microservices. With half of the essential MACH elements in place, software teams can allow themselves time to further pursue API-first development and cloud-native deployment down the line.

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