Headless architecture has become a bit of a talking point lately.
With its promises of enhanced flexibility, greater scalability, and the ability to deliver content seamlessly to a myriad of platforms, it’s no surprise that this forward-thinking approach is catching everyone's attention.
In this article, we’ll be taking a closer look at what headless architecture is, its practical applications and the all-important role that APIs play in connecting the diverse microservices that operate within a headless ecosystem.
So, without further ado, let’s get stuck in.
In simple terms, the phrase “headless architecture” is used to describe a web or software approach where the back-end (the bit users don’t see) is separated from the front-end or “head” (the bit users do see).
Thanks to this separation, developers and administrators are able to manage content and data independently and serve it to various platforms like websites, mobile apps, or other digital interfaces through the use of APIs.
Unlike traditional monolithic systems which tend to be comprised of tightly integrated components, headless systems delegate a sizable portion of the system to another service which is typically hosted separately, often with an internet-based communication layer.
How can this be beneficial? Well, if you’ve ever tried to make changes to a monolithic system, you might be familiar with its limitations.
With a poorly organised monolithic architecture, implementing updates can be a bit like trying to rewire an entire house just to change a lightbulb – the consequences can be far-reaching and highly inconvenient. Apps go offline, services become inaccessible, and users are left in the dark.
Since headless architecture doesn't rely on this interdependence, updates can be carried out more efficiently, without causing a domino effect of disruptions.
Let’s take a look at some of the most common headless architecture types:
When content management systems initially emerged, they represented an appealing choice for business owners aiming to establish an online presence. Platforms like WordPress and Drupal enabled individuals with limited technical expertise to effortlessly publish content, reach a broader audience, and take advantage of pre-designed templates and themes, facilitating the creation of professional-looking websites without the need for custom web development.
However, as the majority of these popular systems were designed with a monolithic structure, their constraints have grown more evident over time.
Monolithic content management systems have led to design restrictions, performance issues and challenges with content distribution across multiple channels. Since these websites have started to grow in size and intricacy, their management now requires a greater investment of effort and resources.
This is where the headless CMS has started to gain attention.
By detaching content creation and storage from the presentation layer, users have more opportunities to tailor their content for diverse platforms and devices, select the best tools and frameworks for their specific projects, and efficiently manage content distribution across multiple endpoints.
Although headless content and document management systems share a similar name and structure, there are some key differences between them.
Unlike our CMS, which focuses primarily on the creation and distribution of digital content, a DMS is designed to concentrate on compliance and workflow management, helping us to store, organise, and control access to documents like contracts, reports, and media files.
Think of it this way: The main job of the DMS is to manage files efficiently, not necessarily to display them on websites.
Some of the most popular document management systems, such as Microsoft SharePoint and Google Drive, are cloud-based (i.e. the services are delivered via the internet). This means that users can access, edit, collaborate on, and share their documents and files from virtually anywhere with an internet connection.
So, why use a DMS as a headless system?
By separating the handling and storage of digital documents and assets from the user interface, the DMS becomes more flexible and can be integrated with a variety of front-end applications such as workflow tools, analytics platforms, software, and, our headless CMS.
This can be particularly helpful when different departments within an organisation have unique document workflows and access requirements. Since the user interface is no longer attached, we can create custom user interfaces that meet the specific requirements of different users or teams.
Security and Compliance
A headless DMS also has the potential to enhance security and help businesses meet compliance requirements such as GDPR.
By detaching the user interface from the core document storage and management system, it reduces the attack surface, limiting potential vulnerabilities.
For example, let’s say we have a multinational corporation using a headless DMS to manage sensitive financial data. The company can safeguard this data by isolating the data storage within a highly secure environment, reducing the risk of unauthorised access.
Having this separation allows for fine-grained access control, ensuring that only authorised users and applications can interact with the DMS. In addition, security measures like encryption and multi-factor authentication can be implemented at the API level, adding an extra layer of protection against data breaches, unauthorised data manipulation, and cyber threats.
Nowadays, many businesses use monolithic CRM systems such as Salesforce, Hubspot and Zoho to manage customer information. And while these platforms offer a wide range of features, they aren’t all that flexible, particularly when it comes to dealing with raw data.
Let’s give you an example.
Imagine you are a healthcare organisation using a traditional CRM.
Since your monolithic CRM was designed around basic medical information, you can’t accommodate the influx of patient data from electronic health records, wearables, and patient feedback. This has resulted in incomplete patient profiles, delays in diagnosis and treatment, and increased manual data processing.
If you were to introduce a headless system, in theory, you’d be able to create customised data structures, integrate raw patient data in real time, and automate data processing. This change would not only resolve data management challenges but it would also improve patient care by providing holistic patient records, faster diagnoses, and streamlined data management.
Get the idea?
One of the main appeals of headless architecture is that it opens the door up to much more flexibility, allowing businesses to adapt and evolve with the times in order to meet the needs of their staff and service users.
If you've already dared to dip your toes into the world of headless architecture, it’s very probable that you’ve encountered a vast number of online articles discussing the advantages of headless commerce.
For e-commerce businesses, a headless commerce architecture offers multiple benefits and can be comprised of many, if not all, of the parts we mentioned above.
You could use a headless CMS to maintain your online store's content, a retail mobile app for convenient shopping, a headless CRM for personalising customer interactions, and a headless DMS for efficiently handling customer invoices — there are countless possibilities.
Along with some of the advantages we mentioned above, for e-commerce businesses in particular, there are several reasons why headless architecture is becoming increasingly attractive. Here are just a few:
Customers are fed up of slow loading speeds: “Slow websites and apps have no effect on my shopping experience” - Said no one ever.
Slow loading times drive customers nuts. If a customer is forced to wait for a page to load, they’ll quickly abandon cart and start looking elsewhere for alternative options.
With headless commerce, it’s possible to optimise front-end performance without affecting the back-end and therefore rapidly improve loading times.
They want to experiment with new features: Staying competitive in e-commerce means continuously innovating.
Headless commerce platforms provide the flexibility to experiment with cutting-edge features, such as clothing and accessory try-on tools and innovative promo displays. When it comes to creativity - there’s a lot for you to play with.
They want to provide convenience: Thanks to third-party integrations, headless commerce enables online retailers to connect with marketplaces and embrace alternative payment methods, extending beyond the conventional use of credit cards or gift cards. This speeds up the checkout process and allows shoppers to select the payment methods that they are most comfortable with.
Well, not necessarily…
In many cases, it’s possible to adapt what you already have.
Take your CMS for example.
Applications like WordPress and Drupal have already made it possible to access their data via APIs and plugins. This allows you to effectively use them as headless systems or content databases.
Technically speaking, these headless content management systems aren’t strictly “headless”. That’s why you’ll often hear them referred to as “decoupled” since they still have a head (front-end), it’s simply up to you whether you use it or not.
Then we have mobile apps. With a web API, you’re able to use your monolithic server in a variety of different ways.
Your server contains essential components such as your storage files and database. One way to make your setup headless is to remove your database from your server and replace it with a different, self-contained database.
Alternatively, you can set up your system so that your mobile app communicates directly with your existing database (that lives within your server).
The main thing that unites both of these approaches, is that they rely on web APIs to work. Your API is used to transfer data from the database. It receives the data, processes and sorts it, and then delivers it back to the mobile app before displaying it in a user-friendly way.
So, what’s the fuss all about?
APIs are basic instructions for how systems can talk to each other.
No matter what kind of system you have, they are almost always the preferred choice for enabling seamless communication and integration between different applications, and services.
In fact, the power of the internet essentially came from the HTTP API protocol but we’ll dive deeper into that in our next article…
Your API can define how requests and responses are structured, enabling applications to request specific actions or access information from other software services.
Here’s a simple restaurant analogy to help us break it down:
In a restaurant, you choose the food that you want before the waiter (API), conveys your order to the kitchen (back-end system). Then, your food (data or service) is delivered back to you for consumption (use in your application).
Oftentimes, businesses already have systems with APIs, or at least the potential to expose APIs, without realising it. Sometimes, these systems have been developed with internal APIs for integration purposes, or they may support industry-standard interfaces for data exchange.
What this means is that, rather than trying to resolve issues by building an entirely new headless system from scratch (which could be very costly and time-consuming), businesses can leverage their existing APIs and integrate them into a decoupled, hybrid or headless architecture.
How does this integration work?
Sadly, there’s no simple answer to this question since it’s very much dependent on the type of system that you have and what it is that you want to achieve.
For instance, if you owned a language mobile app and wanted to decouple it to address issues with voice recording and text input, your integration would look very different from that of the owners of a shopping app aiming to add new promotions and discounts.
In the case of the language mobile app, the integration might involve optimising your existing voice recognition API for better performance on mobile devices, enhancing the user interface for text input, and ensuring smooth synchronisation between voice and text input features.
On the other hand, the owner of a shopping app might focus on integrating APIs related to product catalogue management, payment gateways, and customer data to implement new promotional features. Different objectives require different solutions.
Either way, there are a number of vital considerations that nearly always need to be taken into account when migrating:
You’ll need to ensure that your existing APIs are secure. This may involve implementing authentication and authorisation mechanisms to protect data and services.
Depending on the structure and format of the existing APIs, you may also need to map the data and services to align with the requirements of the decoupled system.
You’ll need to set up an integration layer or gateway that allows new front-end applications to communicate with the existing APIs. This can involve creating a unified API gateway or middleware to manage requests and responses.
With any migration, rigorous testing is crucial to ensuring that the integration works seamlessly. This includes both functional and security testing.
When you deploy the integrated solution, you’ll need to set up monitoring and analytics to keep track of performance, usage, and potential issues.
Lastly, as the business grows and evolves, the integrated decoupled architecture should be scalable and maintainable. This might involve adding new APIs, updating existing ones, and ensuring continued compatibility.
There is never “one right solution” for development (despite what the internet might tell you)!
I’d encourage all business owners or stakeholders to understand data flow. It’s important to be able to visualise where data is stored and how it can connect and flow to different systems.
Whilst headless solutions can help spin up databases rapidly, there is always a trade-off. This is true with all technology. For simple mobile apps, a headless solution could provide all the functionality needed allowing you to focus on the front-end mobile application development. However, you are also limited to the confines of that system.
Therefore, thinking about your overall digital and tech landscape from a data flow perspective allows you to have agency over all aspects of your technical stack without knowing the specifics of a technical implementation such as specific syntax.
As we can see, headless architecture holds the potential to provide a range of benefits to businesses that are struggling with disparate systems and locked data.
In spite of this, it's crucial to remember that what's “en vogue” or trending within the online tech world, isn't always what's practical for everyone. The re-structuring of your existing architecture should be guided by strategic roadmaps to ensure that your decision aligns with your organisation's specific objectives. Expectations need to be managed, and factors such as cost, time, and suitability must all be thoughtfully considered.
When working with you, we’ll make sure that your decisions are well-informed by taking a consultative approach, weighing up the pros and cons, and being transparent about your options.
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