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Customer 360 and Data Mesh: friends or enemies?

Raise a hand who saw, was asked to design, tried to implement, struggled with the “Customer 360” view/concept in the last 5+ years…

Come on, don’t be shy …

How many Customer 360 stories did you see succeeding? Me? Just … a few, let’s say. This made me ask: why? Why put so much effort into creating a monolithic 360 view thus creating a new maintenance-evolution-ownership nightmare silo? Some answers might fit here, in the context of centralized architectures, but recently a new antagonist to fight against came in town: Data Mesh.

“Oh no, another article about the Data Mesh pillars!”

No, I’m not gonna spam the web with yet-another-article about the Data Mesh principles and pillars, there’s plenty out there, like thisthis, or those, and if you got here is because you might already know what we’re talking about.

The question that arises is:

How does the (so struggling or never really achieved) Customer 360 view fit into the Data Mesh paradigm?

Well, in this article I’ll try to come up with some options, coming from some real AgileLab’s customers approaching the “Data Mesh journey”.

This fascinating principle, inherited (in terms of effectiveness) from the microservices world, brings to light the necessity to keep together tech and business knowledge, within specific bounded contexts, so as to improve autonomy and velocity of data products lifecycle along with a smoother change management. Quoting Zhamak Dehghani:

Eric Evans’s book Domain-Driven Design has deeply influenced modern architectural thinking, and consequently the organizational modeling. It has influenced the microservices architecture by decomposing the systems into distributed services built around business domain capabilities. It has fundamentally changed how the teams form, so that a team can independently and autonomously own a domain capability.

Examples of well-known domains are Marketing, Sales, Accounting, Product X, or Sub-company Y (with subdomains, probably). All of these domains have probably something in common, right? And here we connect with the prologue: the customer. We all agree on the importance of this view, but eventually do we really need this to be materialized as a monolithic entity of some sort, on a centralized system?

I won’t answer this question, but I’ll make another one:

Which domain would a customer 360 view be part of?

Remember: decentralization and domain-driven design imply having clear ownership which, in the Data Mesh context, means:

  • decoupling from the change management process of other domains
  • owning the persistence (hence: storage) of the data
  • provide valuable-on-their-own views at the Data Products’ output ports (is a holistic materialized 360 customer view really valuable-on-its-own?) — this is part of the “Data as a Product” pillar, to be precise
  • guarantee no breaking changes to domains that depend on the data we own (i.e. own the full data lifecycle)
  • (last but not least) having solid knowledge (and ownership) of the business logic orbiting around the owned data. Examples are: knowing the mapping logic between primary and foreign keys (in relational terms), knowing the meaning of every bit of information part of that data, knowing what are the processes that might influence such data lifecycle

If you can’t now answer the above question DON’T WORRY: you’re not alone! It just means you’re starting as well to feel the friction between the decentralized ownership model and the centralized customer 360 view.

IMHO, they are irreconcilable. Here’s why, with respect to the previous points:

  • centralized ownership over all the possible customer-related data would couple the change management processes of all the domains: a 360 view would be the only point-of-access for customer data, thus requiring strong alignment across the data sources feeding the customer 360 (which usually would end up slooooowing down every innovation or evolution initiative). Legit question: “So, this means we should never join together data coming from different domains?” — Tough but realistic answer: “You should do that only if it makes sense, if it produces clear value, if it doesn’t require further interpretation or effort on the consumers’ side to grasp such value”.
  • If you bind together data coming from different domains, it must be to create a valuable-on-its-own data set. Just the fact that you read, store and expose data would make you the owner of it, that’s why a customer 360 persisted view would make sense only actually owning the whole dataset, not just a piece of it. Furthermore, Data Products require immutable and bi-temporal data at their output ports, can you imagine the effort of delivering such features over such a huge data asset?
  • valuable-on-its-own Data Products, well, I hope the previous 2 points already clarified this point 😊
  • If we sort out all the previous issues and actually become the owner of a customer 360 persisted materialized view, while still being compliant to the Data Mesh core concepts, we should never push breaking changes towards our data consumers. If we need to do make a breaking change, we must guarantee sustainable migration plans. Data versioning (like LakeFS or Project Nessie) could come in handy in this case, but there might be several organizational and/or technical ways to do so. Having many dependencies (like we’d have owning a customer 360 view) would make it VERY hard to always have a smooth data lifecycle and avoid breaking changes since we could find ourselves just overwhelmed by breaking changes made at the source operational systems side.
  • The whole Data Mesh idea emerged as a decentralization need, after seeing so many “central data engineering / IT teams” fall under the pressure of all the organization which was relying on them to have quality data. It was (is) a bottleneck in many cases worsened by the fact that these centralized tech teams couldn’t just have sufficiently strong business knowledge of every possible domain (while unfortunately they were developing and managing all the ETLs/ELTs of the central data platform). For this very same reason, the Customer 360 team would be required to master the whole business logic around such data, i.e. being THE acknowledged experts of basically every domain (having customer-related data) — just impossible.
a customer360 logical view, with domains owning only a slice of it

OK, I’m done with the bad news 😇 Let’s start with the good ones!

Customer 360 view and Data Mesh can be friends

As long as it remains a holistic logical/business concept. Decentralized domains should own the data related to their bounded contexts, even if referring to the customer. Domains should own a slice of the 360 view and slices should be correlated together to create valuable-on-their-own Data Products (e.g. just a join between sales and clickstreams doesn’t provide any added value, but a behavioral pattern on the website with the number of purchases per customer with specific browsing-behaviors do).

In order to achieve that, domains and – more in general – data consumers must be capable of correlating customer-related data across different domains with ease. They must be facilitated on the joining logic level, which means they should NOT be required to know the mapping between domain-specific keys, surrogate keys, and customer-related keys. I’ll try to expand this last element.

Globally Unique Identifiable Customer Key

According to the Data Mesh literature, data consumers shouldn’t always copy (ingest in the first place) data in order to do something with it, since storing data means having ownership over it. As a technical step justified by volumes or other constraints for a single internal ETL step, that’s ok, but Consumer Aligned Data Products shouldn’t just pull data from another Data Product’s output port, perform a join or append another column to the original dataset, and publish at their output port an enhanced projection of some other domain’s data, for many reasons, but I won’t digress on this (again, it’s part of the Data as a Product pillar). What data consumers need is a well-documented, globally identifiable, and unique key/reference to the customer, in order to perform all the possible correlations across different domains’ data. The literature would also call them polysemes.

Notewell-documented should become a computational policy (do you remember the Federated Governance Data Mesh’s pillar?) requiring for example that, in the Data Product’s descriptor (want to contribute to our standardization proposal?), a specific set of metadata must describe where a certain field containing such key comes from, which domain generated it, what business concepts it points to. Maybe that could be done also leveraging a syntax or language that will facilitate the automated creation (thank you Self-Serve Infrastructure-as-a-Platform) of a Knowledge Graph afterward.

OK, the concepts of polysemes and the globally unique identifiable customer-related key are not new to you, and they shouldn’t, but what I want to put the lights on is how to conjugate it with the Data Mesh paradigm, especially because several architectural patterns are technically possible but just a few (one?) of them should guarantee long term scalability and compliance with the Data Mesh pillars.

An MDM is still a good alley

The question you might have asked yourself at this point is:

Who has the ownership of issuing such a key?

The answer is probably in the good-old-friend the Master Data Management (MDM) system, where the customer’s golden record data can be generated. There’s a lot of literature (example) on that concept, also because it’s definitely not new in the industry (and that’s why a lot of companies approaching Data Mesh are struggling to understand how to make it fit in the picture since it can just be thrown away after all the effort spent on building it up).

Note: eventually, such a transactional/operational system might also lead to developing a related Source Aligned Data Product, but it should just be considered as a source of the customers’ registry information.

OK, but who should be then responsible of performing the reverse lookup, to map a domain-specific record (key) to the related customer (golden record’s) key?

We narrow down the spectrum into 3 possible approaches. To facilitate the reading of what follows, I’d like to point out a few things first:

  • SADP = Source Aligned Data Product
  • CADP = Consumer Aligned Data Product
  • CID = Customer MDM unique globally identifiable key
  • K = example of a domain-specific primary key
Approach 1: The Ugly
Approach 2: The Bad
Approach 3: The Good

The latter approach is what could make a customer 360 view shine again! This way, domains — and in particular the operational systems’ teams- preserve the ownership of the mapping logic between the operational system’s data key and the CID, while in the analytical plane no other interactions with the operational one are required to create Source Aligned Data Products other than pulling data from the source systems, and at the Consumer Aligned Data Products sides no particular effort is spent to correlate customer-related data coming from different domains.

Disclaimer 1: approach 3 requires strong Near-Real-Time alignment between the Customer MDM system and the other operational systems since a misalignment could imply publishing data from the various domains not attached to a brand new available CID (many MDM systems operate their match-and-merge logic in batch, or many operational systems might think to update-set the CID field with batch reverse lookups quite after domain data is generated).

Disclaimer 2: a fourth approach could be possible, i.e. having microservices issuing in NRT global IDs which become master key in all the domains having customer-related data. This is usually achievable in custom implementations only.

Wrapping up

In the Data Mesh world, domain-driven decentralized ownership over data is a must. The centralized Customer 360 monolithic approach doesn’t fit the picture, so a shift is required in order to maintain what actually matters the most: the business principle of customer-centric insights, derived from the correlation of data taken from different domains (owners) via a well documented and defined globally unique identifier, probably generated at Customer MDM level and integrated “as left as possible” into the operational systems, so to reduce the burden at the Data Mesh consumers’ side of knowing and applying the mapping logic between domain-specific key and Customer MDM key.

. . . 

What has been presented has been discussed with several customers and it seemed to be the best option so far. We hope the hype around Data Mesh will bring some more options in the very next years and will keep our eyes open but, if you already put in place a different approach, I’ll be glad to know more.

 

If you’re interested in other articles on the Data Mesh topics, you can find them on our blog, or you can learn more about how Data Mesh boost can get your Data Mesh implementation started quickly.

Author: Roberto Coluccio, Agile Lab Data Architect

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