Exploring the Benefits and Functionality of Headless Drupal

4 Mins read

Drupal is among the biggest, most popular, and free, open-source CMS in the world. After the release of the newest version, Drupal 10, more and more users have chosen this platform to create their own websites. Frankly speaking, no wonder they do. Drupal 10 offers numerous features which help developers build versatile content for a marvelous digital experience. 

Interestingly enough, the event that opened a whole new world of possibilities for drupal website development happened way back in 2015: REST API became the core of the CMS. One of the major advantages of REST APIs is how much flexibility they provide. Myriad types of calls can be handled by REST, and different data formats may be returned or even changed structurally due to the fact that data is not tied to resources or methods. What is more, the traditional approach to website development is not the only option anymore. Drupal headless architecture framework, as well as hybrid implementation, are gaining in popularity. In this article, we want to pay attention to the functionality of headless Drupal and why it may be just the right framework for your website.

Should we abandon the traditional CMS altogether? 

The short answer is no. Of course not. In case you are building a site for a single channel that is going to be maintained by your marketing team, opting for a traditional Drupal mode is the best idea: its simplified architecture ensures ease of use. However, there are certain issues that users had with its traditional architecture you may want to read about.

  1. Every time a new pivotal version is released, you don’t get that clean and smooth upgrade. Adopting the latest major version is very time-consuming.
  2. Drupal development is tightly coupled, so the frontend team has also to become Drupal developers if they aim to style a website appropriately.
  3. The customization process is not so flexible and reportedly even tedious!
  4. Drupal has an extensive web of database tables where your content may become trapped while implementing the traditional approach to site building.

Introducing Headless Drupal

In this section, we want to primarily show the difference between the traditional (otherwise known as unified) Drupal framework and the headless one. In a nutshell: in the conventional Drupal framework, both the front-end rendering and the back-end managing of content are provided. The composable framework of the unified model offers the back-end CMS and an HTML rendering engine, Twig. The traditional mode has a built-in templating and storage system that basically allows developers to create, edit as well as store the content of a web page. 

Headless Drupal acts in a similar way: you may create, edit and store content and data within the CMS. The key difference lies in templating. There is a separate framework outside the CMS templating system that is used instead, and everything is offloaded onto the said framework. This is achieved through an API (Application Programming Interface) because it enables the same accessibility of content as well as data. What happens fundamentally is that the headless Drupal repository and the decoupled application exchange data via standard HTTP methods. After the application has made a request, it passes parameters to the API. Then the headless Drupal content management system returns the response.

Reasons to go headless

Certain users only see the inconveniences of rendering offloading to another system since the traditional CMS possesses the functionality to do just that. And it may be a hassle to some, but there are a few points to consider before writing off headless Drupal.

  1. A single website, multiple platforms. In order to house all sorts of data, modern companies possess CRM software (Constituent Relationship Management), AMS (Association Management System), and a whole assortment of other platforms. How do you bring all these data together? You integrate APIs with a headless CMS, and it collects the data from the CMS. This integration allows a seamless data interaction and altogether improves the user experience for your web page visitors.
  2. Similarly: a single CMS and multiple platforms. The possibilities are endless with this one. Headless CMS grants you the ability to output data as an API, and, in turn, you may use the same data for any other platform that relies on it! Yes, a web page, a separate mobile app, and even a smartwatch can all use the same data you’ve already outputted.
  3. The most up-to-date front-end technologies. Nowadays, the confines between websites and web applications are getting blurry due to certain frameworks appearing that come with the purpose of application-level interactivity in mind. Such frameworks are becoming the standard since they are capable of handling complex real-time interactions, visualizations, and animations. Thanks to the split between content (CMS) and presentation (frameworks), each system can address what they were designed for. Together, the CMS and front-end frameworks create an amazing tandem: the former is exceptional when it comes to content creating and storing data, and the latter presents us with the possibility of displaying this data in a way that makes your designers squeal with excitement.
  4.  Long-term adaptability. Data and presentation detachment is an exciting feature of the headless CMS. Just imagine your CMS has to be updated for some reason, and you don’t have to worry about ending up with a modified web page. As long as the newer system’s API is able to output the same data as the last CMS, the look of your web page will be unaffected. If the CMS is outmoded, you save time, money, and, most importantly, the effort you put into designing your existing website!
  5. Performance and security on top of the game. Since the traditional system cannot render and display a page without pulling and parsing the data from your stored content each time, the performance is not as smooth and effortless. At the same time, a headless CMS has built-in performance optimizations, all thanks to the data being stored in an API.

As with any CMS, headless Drupal is not free of disadvantages. Since the front end is controlled by a decoupled application, technical teams can’t really enjoy the Drupal capabilities valued by many users. Interestingly enough, the praised decoupling strategy cancels out such Drupal facilities as in-place editing and display management. 

Is going headless the right choice for me?

There is no one-fits-all answer for this. You should analyze the needs of your site and then decide if more benefits await you if you take on a traditional or a headless approach. If you are unsure, the Hybrid method is also something to consider. The flexibility of this approach allows you to select the right way for each piece of functionality. With a hybrid approach, you may still be using the traditional CMS templating for some parts of your website that would require significant resources to output data while still enjoying the earlier-mentioned API functionality.


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