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Why the Future is Headless

Part 2

A lot has changed in the world of software providers. Gone are the days when a few monoliths dominated the software landscape as discussed in this Seek + Find article. There are more and more wonderful individual solutions, which, in most cases, are better than an all-in-one solution package. What do these Headless solutions mean for companies and software development? Well, it means that you can now be very picky with the best individual solutions – and flexibly combine it all together within one system.

More Than Just a Website

The way people interact with digital applications has changed fluidly but radically. Websites are no longer just a bunch of static pages. They can become digital experiences spaces with personalised elements that are optimised for user flows, driven by data, and enriched with artificial intelligence.

Many companies see this potential and are therefore making the digital space a strategic priority. But the broad demands and requirements cannot usually be met by one manufacturer alone. Especially not when objectives and solution approaches can (or rather: have to) change constantly. For this reason, every modern website or web application needs a customised setup that meets the requirements of employees, partners and customers. 

In addition, devices and (future) touchpoints are subject to constant change. In order to meet these changing demands, the highest possible flexibility, stability and scalability are required. These challenges are no problem for Headless and decoupled enterprise content management systems.

Headless is Not Just Headless

Headless is anything but "mind-less", because Headless is the future. Headless systems are decoupled content management systems that separate the backend from the frontend. Unlike monolithic systems, the system architecture is not rigid but flexible. This means that required services and data sources can be connected via interfaces and later exchanged or expanded. 

But not all Headless systems are the same. Even if the term itself is not protected, it is of course not enough to just integrate an API into a monolithic system and then call the product "Headless". It is not the interfaces that make up Headless systems, but rather the entire system landscape with all its specifications and advantages.

Nothing but the Best Service, Please.

Due to the paradigm shift in software development – leaving behind monolithic systems – there has been a rapid evolution of cloud and SaaS solutions in the last three to four years. SaaS stands for Software as a Service. And as Wikipedia summarises it, SaaS is "based on the principle that the software and the IT infrastructure are operated by an external IT service provider and used by the customer as a service".

This means that more and more specialised SaaS solutions are conquering niches and providing special solutions that address and solve precisely one problem. And that is exactly what makes these solutions so interesting. True, there are still big tech companies like Google or Microsoft that have many different solutions that all work together (more or less smoothly). The SaaS innovators, on the other hand, are usually focused on one core business and are often even market leaders in their field. These "best-in-class" providers include Algolia, Contentful, Commercetools, Stripe, Cloudinary, Uniform and Hubspot; to name a few. Monoliths and legacy tech companies – with their generalised feature set without specialist capability – often lose out.

Headless = Fast, Flexible and Future-Proof

If you have technologies developed today, you want to be able to use them tomorrow. And also stil the day after tomorrow. Thanks to the many different SaaS solution providers, it is possible to develop customised DXP (digital experience platforms) for companies that can also grow with the requirements of the future. 

Via microservice and API architecture, the solutions can communicate with each other and exchange data. Speaking of exchangeability: The providers themselves also remain replaceable. This flexibility makes it easier for companies to react to new conditions and replace partners or add new cloud providers that complement the stack. Moreover, unlike monolithic systems, there are no maintenance and upgrade costs for operating the system. Because Headless solutions are mostly cloud-based, maintenance is part of the service provided by the respective SaaS provider.

Thanks to Headless, it is also possible to develop solutions very quickly – for two reasons: Firstly, the systems come with a large set of prefabricated, function-specific standards that are always kept up-to-date and can be accessed out-of-the-box. Secondly, there are fewer complex dependencies due to the separate system landscape. This means that work can be done on various components at the same time. 

Both make it possible to provide and deploy a MVP within a short time. Whereas in the past one used to talk about year(s) of development time (within which, according to the nature of things, customer needs, touchpoints and end devices often change), today an MVP can be created within a few months. And it can be further developed in small iteration steps.

With APIs to New Business Models

With API-based systems, companies also have the chance to develop new business models. Thanks to the open systems, it is possible to connect third parties and use data across systems. That way, different data such as image files, stock levels, customer data and business processes can be played out on different channels. This applies not only to different end devices, but also to different touchpoints such as apps, IoT devices, marketplaces, social commerce and other channels.

If the connected systems are also to work together, this is possible through their own middleware and business logic. This in turn then provides information for an e-commerce system from various systems such as PIMs, CMSs and DAMs. Here, the data is made available in real time and also, there is no longer any need for nightly synchronisation or FTP uploads. In addition, it can be ensured that there is only one point of truth.

Modern Front-Ends: Availability and Security in Real Time

Modern front-ends are the language in which we communicate on the web today – ideally platform-independently. Progressive Web Apps (PWAs), ensure that the website is loaded in the client's browser and that all relevant data is processed here. Also, the data and media are only retrieved when they are actually needed – which happens in real time. Consequently, for example, if an online store sells out a product within a few seconds, this can be communicated directly to the consumers, which ensures a better customer experience. 

If availability is also required internationally, it is advisable to host the front-end application with a cloud provider. The hosting providers specialised in this usually deliver better value for money and have a global CDN network, which in turn has the great advantage of short global loading times.

Furthermore, Headless systems can also score high in terms of security: This is because they offer fewer attack vectors. If, for example, back-end systems fail, the front-end is still available. The information may be out of date for a short time, but once the availability of the backend is restored, the systems can update the data again.

The Holy Grail? Realtalk about Disadvantages of Headless

With all the benefits shown, you might think you can't go wrong if you decide to innovate based on Headless as an enterprise solution. But we also want to shed light on the downsides. Some disadvantages should be known and considered when deciding on a Headless CMS solution (although these can certainly apply to alternative systems).

1. Data Security and Standards

Many of the innovative solutions come from the USA or were primarily developed for the homogeneous US market, which has different standards than our European market. For this reason, when selecting cloud solutions, where the data will be stored is an essential question and should always be considered. This is especially important if sensitive company or customer data is processed in the system. In addition to this, the US market usually requires completely different standards that do not always fit our European market. 

2. Startups, Pricing and Licensing

In recent years, a lot of money has flown into the tech market. This has led to a bunch of innovative companies that have only one goal: Fast growth through short-term innovation and low prices. These companies are growing rapidly and, because of the investments, often do not initially rely on making a profit at the end of the year. At some point, however, every company reaches the phase where it must be profitable. At the latest after the IPO, profits must also be shown if growth stagnates. Therefore, it should always be taken into account that licence costs can increase dramatically in the short term. Or even that software startups no longer exist or are sold to a competitor with a different product vision. In recent years, even large, established software players such as Microsoft and Oracle have realised that they have a lot of catching up to do. For example, Microsoft bought Github for 7.5 billion US dollars. However, we know from the past that Microsoft has already changed its strategy for existing software products – and for some customers the software was subsequently not (or no longer) usable. Although Headless solutions create fewer rigid dependencies, it is still costly to replace systems.

3. Backups

Cloud-native applications are usually well versioned and back up data out of the box. Nevertheless, in-house backups should not be neglected. Therefore, part of the backup strategy should include the securing of valuable company data in cloud applications.

4. SLA, Support, API Response Time, Uptime

If the servers are no longer managed by your own company and you outsource this component to a cloud provider, you should make sure that they have proper SLAs, operate a clean uptime monitoring (always worth a look, right Personio?) and that the data is provided quickly worldwide.

5. One Interface vs. Many Interfaces

Mostly, in large companies, there are different teams working on web projects. They are used to working within one software interface. Medium-sized companies in particular, which previously worked with a monolithic software suite that combined all functions, have to get used to working in different interfaces for different tasks. 

Concluding Thoughts on Headless Systems

Despite the mentioned limitations of Headless and decoupled systems, we are convinced that the advantages of Headless systems clearly outweigh the disadvantages. The outdated legacy CMS and monolithic systems can hardly meet the demands of innovative and agile companies.  

Many companies who are looking for a new DXP, E-commerce or CMS platform today do so because they have reached their limits with their current solution. And smart decision-makers know that re-platforming shouldn't just be about maintaining the status quo but rather about having more options for the future. 

Growing brands and businesses need technologies that support and accelerate the delivery of digital experiences – helping to attract and retain customers, suppliers and partners. That's why it’s worthwhile to address individual needs with the benefits of Headless systems – and develop content platforms for the future.