Headless architecture: Seven things to know

Scratching your head each time “headless architecture” enters the conversation? This post goes out to you. We define the term and then go deeper, covering its seven key features.

If you work in an industry or role where you bump shoulders with developers every now and again, either at the water cooler or over Slack for you remote folks, you’ve likely encountered the term headless architecture with increasing frequency. You’d love to understand why it's becoming so popular with your peers, but you're not really sure what headless architecture even is. 

To help you understand the term (and confidently enter office-place conversation), we’ll first provide you with its general definition and then go on to examine some of its key characteristics and benefits.

Headless architecture defined

Headless architecture describes a decoupled approach to building applications. In this approach, the frontend of the application — the portion that dictates user experience (i.e., what the end user can see and interact with) — is separated from the backend — the server side of the application that dictates structure, defines logic, and stores data. 

With this decoupling, content, media, and anything else housed in the backend is not restricted to a single device, layout, or channel. Rather, it can be delivered to as many different frontends, or “heads,” as a business needs. With this architecture, it’s possible to develop a web app and then ship the same business logic and functions to another channel — say a mobile app — where it can be enjoyed by users on the go without excess developmental gymnastics. 

If this definition inspires déjà vu, it might be because you’re familiar with other, related frameworks, such as composable architecture, best of breed architecture, microservice architecture, and microservice-based, API-first, cloud-native, headless (MACH) architecture. All these terms describe a single decoupled architecture, similar to headless architecture, that prefers the use of tech stacks over suites. 

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Seven key features of headless architecture

1. It uses APIs to connect the front- and backends 

While the front- and backends aren’t tightly coupled in headless architectures, they do need to speak to one another, which is where APIs come in. Application programming interfaces (APIs) are software intermediaries that enable communication between applications. In the scope of headless architecture, developers configure specific APIs, often REST APIs, to pass raw data, or content, from backend business logic services to the frontend presentation layers. 

2. It enables omnichannel presence 

The primary reason companies adopt headless architecture during digital transformation is because it enables them to more easily build and manage multichannel digital experiences. With the internet of things (IoT) ever-expanding to include web apps, mobile apps, wearable technology, voice assistants, AR/VR, and whatever comes next, the web app’s lone digital reign is officially over, and with it, the preference for coupled architectures.

Traditional content management systems, such as Drupal, WordPress, Adobe Experience Manager, and Sitecore, which were built for a single use case — supporting tightly coupled websites — are struggling to accommodate these new channels. With text, digital assets, CSS, HTML, JavaScript, and other elements of a brand’s digital experience and messaging designed for a single touchpoint — e.g., a blog post, landing page, homepage — the opportunity to reuse content across new devices and channels becomes a challenge.

While you can introduce another CMS for each new digital channel added, this means more tools to manage, more administrative overhead for developers and content creators, and greater financial commitment.

3. It easily integrates with other tools

The secondary reason that companies select a headless architecture is that it integrates well with other tools. With the option to introduce open-source, third-party, and custom-built technologies or even an entire suite, teams can build out a tech stack that addresses the needs of present and future projects or preferences.

You can think of each tool integrated, which are called microservices, as building blocks that can be added, removed, or reconfigured to build out any digital experience or feature desire. The scalability of headless architecture supports future-proof tech stacks that allow digital teams to integrate best-in-class tools today with the flexibility to augment the tech stack as necessary in the future.

Monolithic architectures, on the other hand, require teams to wait for their single solution vendor to develop new capabilities or build workarounds for their desired functionality, creating unnecessary tech debt.  

4. It flexes to diverse languages and frameworks

With freedom in tooling, headless architectures allow development teams to diversify the languages and frameworks they use. This is a big jump from monoliths, like a traditional CMS, where the software provider decides which languages and frameworks developers must use. Monolithic software solutions offer a breadth of capabilities at the expense of functionality and flexibility.

With more freedom and flexibility in languages and frameworks, team members that work with headless architectures become more productive and may even experience greater satisfaction with their job — a bonus for employee retention.

The language and framework of choice can be tailored to a given project, its ecosystem, and developer skill sets. Frontend developers might mix and match their use of popular frontend frameworks, such as React, Angular, Vue.js, Svelte, or Preact, while backend developers might reach for backend frameworks like JavaScript, Python, PHP, Java, or Ruby.

5. It accelerates productivity through agile workflows

Headless architectures shrink time to market in more ways than one. In addition to supporting diversity in frameworks and languages, a headless approach supports agile workflows rather than the traditional waterfall workflows common in monolithic architectures.

Each microservice within a headless architecture is often managed by small, dedicated teams who can work autonomously. This allows teams to iterate and deploy new functionality as needed without the interdependencies common to tightly coupled monolithic architecture.

In the case of a headless content platform like Contentful in which content and code are decoupled, technical and nontechnical teams can collaborate seamlessly. With traditional digital workflows, stages of a project are completed independently. Creatives can generate and edit content while developers tweak code without one effort stalling — or reliant — on the other.

With such agile development, publishing, and optimization processes, brands can act on end-user feedback more quickly and create elevated customer experiences in real time. 

6. It supports structured, composable content

Headless architecture doesn’t just improve the workflows and capabilities of developers, it improves that of editors, marketers, and anyone else who creates, updates, and manages content by supporting composable content.

Instead of having content and related media tied to a specific layout, composable content, or structured content, it breaks elements into small building blocks that can be easily edited and reused on other channels or in support of new content and experiences.

In addition to eliminating excessive copying and pasting (and the possibility that errors arise with such manual migrations), structured content is more accessible to web-crawlers and lends itself to personalization and translation, improving SEO and the markets that businesses adopting this content structure infiltrate.

To implement structured content, a headless architecture must be paired with a headless content management system. Try the solution offered by Contentful! You can sign up for a free account and start building in moments.

7. It supports composable commerce

While headless architectures can provide a framework for the digital needs of brands across all industries, it is being used within retail to such an extent that headless ecommerce, also called headless commerce or composable commerce, is now a software and framework in and of itself.

There are no significant differences between headless ecommerce and headless architecture, except that the first is more specific and includes an ecommerce platform such as Adobe Commerce (Magento), Shopify, BigCommerce, WooCommerce, and Squarespace, among others. The popularity of headless ecommerce can be seen by the volume of leading retailers and marketplaces utilizing the framework, which include Amazon, Costa Coffee, Etsy, Nike, Notion, Shiseido, Target, West Elm, and more. 

coffee cup with steam

Further reading and resources

While the information above offers a succinct overview of headless architecture, there’s much more to this modern architecture. For more targeted information on how headless relates to content management platforms, check out this white paper on the subject, or get the rundown directly from Contentful Solution Engineer Harry Jeyarajah.

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