Monolithic, decoupled, headless, and microservices – what are they, and why does it matter?
Digital content is the lifeblood of any modern business. Today’s companies need an effective way to create and manage increasingly vast troves of content across a huge range of formats including video, image, and text. That’s why choosing the right content management system (CMS) or e-commerce platform is one of the most important technology decisions you’ll make when building your online business.
Given that your website is one of your most critical sales and marketing assets, the CMS you choose will have an enormous impact on the success of your business. Making an informed decision won’t just help prevent you from going over budget either – it will help safeguard your business from cyberthreats, scale with demand, and adapt easily in an era of constant change. But before you can make that choice, it’s important to understand how CMSs work.
Content management used to be simpler. In the early days of the web, everyone was using a desktop computer. Most of those were running the same operating system and web browser, and there was minimal diversity in screen resolutions and input methods. Even the web itself looked simpler back then, with only a handful of unique formatting features being available.
Today, things have changed beyond measure. While end-user experiences might have gotten simpler, what’s going on behind every online interaction is more complicated than ever. Now, people are viewing online content on an increasingly large range of different devices. We’re not just talking about smartphones and tablets either. People are now accessing online content using a multitude of other internet-connected devices from smartwatches to Smart TVs.
To accommodate this radical evolution of consumer habits, online content management had to transform too. This meant separating the front end from the back end. In a CMS, the front end is what the end users, such as your customers, interact with. The back end typically refers to the administrative layer, where your team uploads and publishes online content.
In the old days, it was practical to use a singular codebase to handle all content management. In software development, this is known as monolithic architecture. It’s basically an all-in-one solution that lets you store, manage, and present content. This traditional CMS architecture is fine for personal websites and blogs and basic small-business websites. It’s easy to manage and requires minimal technical knowledge.
One of the best-known examples is a typical installation of WordPress, the CMS which powers millions of blogs and other websites. Administrators can log in to access a dashboard where they can create, manage, and publish content and change the look and feel of their websites using predesigned templates. End users get to enjoy a familiar browsing experience. But it’s the same software that does everything.
However, a monolithic CMS has some serious limitations, especially when it comes to more complex applications. Because the front end and back end are locked together, there’s less scope for customization. This translates into more time and money invested in maintenance and upgrades. Moreover, the dependency on a single code base also means there’s a single point of failure which, if compromised, can bring down the entire system.
The next step in the evolution of the web CMS was the introduction of decoupled architectures. This is when the front end and back end are completely separate and communicate with one another via an application programming interface (API) or plugin. Many marketing teams consider this to be the best of both worlds since it provides the familiar functionality of a monolithic CMS with the flexibility to display content on practically any system.
A decoupled architecture allows for faster and more flexible content delivery. Also, businesses can enjoy complete control over the end user experience without having to make changes to the back end (such as the product database). Using a decoupled CMS can also be better for security, since you can avoid having that single point of failure. As such, it’s the obvious choice for most online stores, especially those wanting to deliver personalised omnichannel customer experiences.
A headless architecture takes things a step further in that it doesn’t come with a front end at all. It allows for the creation, reading, updating, or deletion of content, but it doesn’t have any way of presenting it to the end user. That might sound unnecessarily complicated, but it does mean brands can use any front-end they like through the use of integrations. This is especially useful when you want to deliver content beyond mobile apps and websites alone to include things like self-service kiosks, smartwatches, or even virtual reality headsets. Some examples include the drag-and-drop content editor Episerver, or the e-commerce CMS Bloomreach.
Today’s businesses are finding themselves under rising pressure to adapt quickly to constantly evolving customer demands. For this, they need a flexible and scalable architecture that allows them to deliver excellent experiences across an increasingly wide range of platforms. One of the ways they’re doing this is through a headless CMS architecture, where there’s no specified front end. However, without a front end to handle content presentation, you also need a team of developers at your disposal to create alternatives.
Microservices present an increasingly viable alternative that’s easier to maintain yet offers all the versatility and more of decoupled and headless architectures. With microservices, the end user experience is the result of lots of smaller services, each with their own codebase, working together via APIs. Although this also means there’s little in the way of centralized management for these services, it does mean it’s easier to isolate specific services and fix any issues without bringing the whole system down.
Let’s consider an ecommerce store driven by microservices. The back end consists of multiple services, with each one carrying out a specific role. For example, there’s a service for storing product databases, one for managing purchase orders, and another for handling payments. These microservices can then feed information into a variety of front-end templates designed to accommodate desktop, mobile, and IoT users.
But while microservices offer unprecedented control and flexibility, they may still be overkill for smaller businesses which don’t need to accommodate such a diverse range of end users.
In conclusion, there’s no standard platform or solution that works great in every scenario. But there is one that will accommodate your unique business needs. If you’d like to learn more about digital customer experiences, be sure to subscribe!