Headless Architecture: What Is It, And Why Is It The Future?
Headless architecture is a relatively new software development concept. How does it work, and in what way does it benefit online businesses? What role does it play in eCommerce? Learn about its principles, check some examples of headless architecture implementations and find out how to ditch a monolith legacy solution and jump on the headless train.
Keep reading to discover:
- What is headless architecture?
- What is the difference between headless architecture and microservices?
- What are the benefits of headless architecture?
What is headless architecture?
Headless architecture has recently become one of the most significant eCommerce trends. The core idea is to separate the frontend (user interface – UI) from the backend (business logic) layer of the website. This way, even most mature businesses gain the maneuverability and flexibility of a start-up.
In principle, a headless system encompasses an array of solutions: headless frontend , headless commerce platform, headless CMS , search, or payment. The eCommerce industry has mostly embraced the concept of headless architecture, hence the term " headless commerce ".
Headless architecture vs. microservices
The term “headless architecture” is strictly related to “ microservices ”. To avoid misunderstandings, let's clarify the difference between the two of them.
Microservices allow marketplaces to cherry-pick tech providers for each business function without changing the rest of the system.
On the other hand, headless architecture emphasizes mainly decoupling frontend and backend layers, and it falls under the umbrella of microservices.
Benefits of headless architecture
Headless architecture gives your business the agility and flexibility to face an intensely competitive eCommerce market and meet ever-changing customer expectations.
It also allows for composing your tech stack with best-of-breed solutions specialized in their functions. They connect via "headless" API , which means you can easily replace them when needed without changing your whole stack. This way, your tech-related decisions stay future-proof.
API is a bridge for data transferred between the backend and the frontend, which provides a presenting layer in a consistent and standard format across multiple channels.
What’s more, a headless approach gives you the flexibility to choose the best way to build your frontend layer. You are not tied to the frontend technology provided by your eCommerce platform or CMS anymore. This opens up unlimited possibilities to approach omnichannel sales and frees marketing specialists to introduce changes to the website without the help of the developer team.
Last but not least, headless architecture enables you to scale your business without limits. As a headless frontend platform, Vue Storefront provides multi-store and auto-scaling capabilities to empower your business.
However, this is just the beginning. Other benefits of headless architecture include:
- Every feature can be added and tested separately without interfering with the whole system
- Every bug can be fixed independently and added only when it works well
- No single change impacts the system's integrity
- Each team can develop, deploy, and scale its services independently of others
- The entire system is divided into parts, making a new developer’s onboarding process easier
- Time-to-market of a new application or feature is shorter, which gives your business greater flexibility
- You can test/add/remove various 3rd party platforms
Read more about benefits of headless commerce
Monolithic software? Time to move forward!
Headless system is the opposite of monolithic architecture, which provides all the components needed for managing and publishing content on the web with a single codebase.
Fifteen years ago, monoliths were the only option for eCommerce businesses. They seemingly represented a cozy "all-in-one" approach and guaranteed full control of the system.
However, many companies that relied on monolithic legacy systems found that any growth led to problems with keeping up with their own scale or—in the case of big enterprise companies—with legacy systems issues.
They often required large IT departments specialized in old frameworks like DB2, C, Pascal, .NET, Java, or Cobol, only to maintain infrastructure and solve technical problems. Maintenance took up the time that should have been spent building modern features for users.
Long story short, monoliths were simply incapable of keeping up with the pace of business.
Monolith drawbacks: The main reasons why you should ditch your legacy system
One of the crucial obstacles in finalizing purchases online is poor user experience. Users make snap decisions to abandon their carts if they have to wait for a page to load or are forced to figure out how to find the right information.
Yet, they also expect that the content applies to their personal preferences that differ depending on the country in which they live, the devices they use, their age, and other factors.
That means sellers need to meet user expectations by offering precisely what they want. Nothing less, nothing more—because overwhelming people with features or content is just as dangerous as providing too little.
With a monolithic system, every frontend design change forces a change in the backend, and vice versa, making every decision more consequential.
And this issue becomes more complicated as the business grows, e.g., expanding to new countries or offering new products. Every single change on the presentation layer, every customization of templates, site structure, or design, jeopardizes the whole system, including the database.
Headless architecture and microservices solve that problem. Their general idea assumes that technology is used to serve the business, not the other way around. All of the units that an application consists of are focused on business goals and can be deployed or removed as needed.
To sum up, below you will find the most significant drawbacks of monolithic architecture:
1. Staying up to date with the latest market trends is difficult
Fast-paced changes in consumer habits make the eCommerce market a highly competitive environment. Sellers must be agile enough to implement modern solutions and meet trends and expectations quickly because user loyalty is fragile and depends directly upon their experience.
Monolithic architecture makes it challenging to deliver excellent customer experience when all elements are tightly connected; moving to modern frameworks that offer, for instance, better web performance can be risky, as can changing the UI.
Since the frontend and the backend are one unit, developers can't just alter the frontend layer to adjust it to a new brand identity or marketing goals without interfering with the underlying database code.
2. Every change needs a lot of coding
All updates made in the monolithic systems are highly time-consuming since they need to be thoroughly tested.
This requires more labor to make sure nothing goes wrong, and the time of IT professionals does not come cheap.
However, the testing process is impossible to avoid since one single mistake can cause the whole system to collapse.
3. One service provider limits the business possibilities
The all-in-one approach, as mentioned above, seems comfortable at first. There is no need to dig the internet in search of additional solutions.
The problems start during growth when default features turn out to be inferior to other ones available on the market, and the dependency on one IT provider reveals itself as a significant drawback.
Headless architecture is a must-have in omnichannel eCommerce
For instance, monolithic architecture, such as Magento, is undoubtedly robust and offers many excellent features. However, its great power comes at a high cost when it comes to performance. As one extra-large unit with a frontend tightly coupled to and dependent upon the backend, monoliths can be very slow.
The out-of-the-box features mean lots of code—and the more code you have, the longer it takes to process. Headless architecture is based on a decoupled frontend integrated with a headless CMS, so there is no need to render so much "default" code, and everything runs faster. The advantages of Headless CMS, like Storyblok, Contentful, Bloomreach, Contentstack, or Amplience are, however, not limited to performance.
The topic of headless vs. traditional CMS is huge and broadly covered, so let’s pinpoint the main differences:
Traditional CMS consists of:
- a database (where web content and digital assets are stored)
- an admin panel for managing content
- a visual layer that presents information from the database using frontend technologies
- a page rendering engine that brings these three elements together
Headless CMSs have only:
- a database for storing content
- an API with access to HTTP queries
- an admin panel
Netflix, Amazon, and Uber: From monolith apps to microservices
Leading tech companies like Netflix, Amazon and Uber have chosen the headless approach. They make great examples of headless architecture implementations:
Netflix was one of the first businesses to conclude that a monolithic architecture is not an optimal solution for a complex application. Simply because the components in a monolithic app are tightly connected, and a single mistake can lead to several days of downtime. In the VOD business, this is a dealbreaker for users, and so the risk was too high to bear.
Amazon, now the largest eCommerce platform globally (which sells literally everything), started as a modest bookstore. A two-tier monolithic app was a perfect solution for this relatively small entity. However, when Amazon started to grow, it faced a pressing problem with the system's scalability. Typical bottlenecks such as long deployments, hard-to-handle vast databases, difficulties with adding new features, and fluctuating website traffic delayed the company’s growth.
Uber was, at first, a straightforward app available only in San Francisco and consisting of a few features like connecting drivers and users, billing, and payments. A monolithic architecture was just fine for a local enterprise but, similar to Amazon, it became a massive roadblock when Uber began to scale.
It’s the same story told many times over in different major companies. Zalando hit a similar wall in 2010. It had already transformed from a modest store that primarily sold flip flops to a widely known fashion brand—and their Magento-based eCommerce system couldn't handle so much more traffic. Switching to microservices allowed Zalando to speed up the integration of innovations and A/B testing, to see which one would bring the best conversion rate.
Zadig & Voltaire and Tally Weijl, both brands operating in the fashion industry like Zalando, have followed the lead. These fast-growing French and Swiss companies have also moved over to microservices. No wonder, in the fast-growing eCommerce market, there is no place for laggards—and the fashion industry is particularly ruthless with those who deal in last year's trends.
Discover more headless commerce examples in eCommerce.
Headless architecture is not only for enterprises
Headless commerce is not limited to big global brands. In fact, headless architecture is very democratic, simply because it doesn’t force a bloody revolution in the system by killing off the whole class of existing functionalities and restarting the architecture from the very beginning.
On the contrary, it is very agile and enables the addition of new business functionalities to existing monoliths, and integrates with standard UI with almost no technical support.
In practice, several different platforms (e.g., CRM, CMS, OMS, loyalty programs) can be ‘covered’ under one umbrella (i.e., frontend) and managed by a person without deep technical knowledge.
Is headless architecture the future?
Most monolith systems are powerful and have multiple plugins and features, but—especially in the eCommerce industry—it is usually necessary to stray from the beaten path to stay ahead of the competition. Or at least that was the accepted norm…
And then headless architecture appeared. It suddenly allowed for the construction of the systems by putting together loosely coupled elements, almost like working with digital LEGOs.
Headless architecture allows users to develop systems at different speeds: e.g. at the front with fast-paced design iteration and a field to explore new features, and at the back with special attention to security and stability. The two sides of the system communicate via API, so they remain separate entities while the data flow is undisturbed.
How to move from monolith to headless architecture? [eBook]
What is headless architecture?
Headless architecture is a relatively new software development concept which has recently become one of the most significant trends in eCommerce. The core idea is to separate the UI (frontend) from the application logic (backend). This provides even the most mature businesses with the maneuverability and flexibility of a start-up.
What are the differences between microservices and headless architecture?
Microservices allow marketplaces to cherry-pick tech providers for each business function without a need to change the rest of the system. Headless architecture mainly emphasizes decoupling frontend and backend layers, which falls under the umbrella of microservices.
What are the drawbacks of monolithic software?
There are three main drawbacks of monolithic software:
- Staying up to date with the latest market trends is difficult.
- Every change needs a lot of coding.
- One service provider limits the business possibilities.