Composability and Drupal: Going Headless at Scale

June 13, 2023 | Chris Greatens
Composability and Drupal: Going Headless at Scale

Businesses need to react quickly to changes and the wants and needs of their customers. While this has always been true, it has become increasingly evident since the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the disruption to businesses was massive. Overnight, brick-and-mortar businesses were forced to build or expand their digital footprint. The companies that had built their digital infrastructure with modular and open platforms had a huge advantage over their competitors.

One of the latest trends in the digital experience space is composable architecture. Using a composable architecture provides organizations with the ability to add new channels and add or replace digital capabilities quickly. The speed, agility, and flexibility that composable architectures provide better prepare organizations to adapt to changing technological and consumer trends.   

What is Composable Architecture?

A composable architecture is one that uses a modular approach that effectively separates the digital experience channels (e.g. website, mobile app, digital signage) from the back end platforms (e.g. Commerce, CMS, Search). Two of the key principles of composable architectures are: composable architectures are front-end agnostic and composable architectures are back-end agnostic. Being front-end agnostic allows a composable architecture to be omni-channel. Being back-end agnostic allows a composable architecture to be omni-capable. These two principles are the key to the flexibility provided by a composable architecture.

To achieve those two principles, an orchestration layer is used to separate the front-ends from the back-ends. The orchestration layer is responsible for integrating with the back-end systems, applying business logic and processes, and providing an interface to provide the data and content to the front-end applications. To satisfy those responsibilities, the orchestration layer is built using packaged business capabilities (PBCs). PBCs allow the data and content to be retrieved from the back-end systems, processed, and returned to the front-end applications in an organized way. There is no one way to build and organize the PBCs, which provides additional flexibility. 

Using a composable architecture results in a system that is flexible and agile. Adding a new channel, platform, or PBC can be done with a faster time to market. The back end developers can focus on exposing more functionality and platforms. The front end developers can focus on composing solutions to best meet the end users’ needs. The architecture is able to adapt to the ever-changing business needs. In essence, composable is headless at scale.

Composability Within Drupal

You may be wondering, if composable is the future, how does Drupal fit in? Drupal has been around for a long time, and during that time, it has continued to evolve. In many ways, as Dries Buytaert points out, Drupal has evolved to be a composable digital experience platform on its own. The goal has always been to allow developers to build flexible systems with a modular approach to allow their organizations to quickly adapt to their customers’ needs. 

Drupal was an early adopter of the headless movement. Modules to expose the content via REST APIs using JSON and GraphQL have been available since Drupal 7 and many of these modules are now incorporated into Drupal core. Indeed, there are many recipes and starter kits that make building a headless Drupal site easier. 

Being modular is a key attribute of a composable architecture. The ability to build solutions from reusable components provides agility and speed in building a new experience. The Drupal platform is modular. Drupal core comes with a variety of modules used to build most Drupal sites. In addition, the Drupal community has built thousands of modules that extend Drupal core allowing developers to extend the functionality even further. Developments like Project Browser are making it easier to find and use these modules. 

One of the key benefits of a composable architecture is the ability to seamlessly integrate different back-end systems to create a best-of-breed solution. To deliver the customer experience that is demanded by their customers, organizations need to bring together data and functionality from a variety of platforms. Third-party integration modules are one of the key areas covered by the extensive pool of Drupal community contrib modules. With these modules, Drupal developers can build a composed solution within the Drupal platform that brings together data and functionality from a variety of platforms.

Part of the promise of a composable architecture is the ability to quickly bring together an experience. Having a low-code/no-code tool available can really speed up the process and this is where the Drupal platform shines. Layout Builder is a Drupal core module that gives editors the ability to build pages using drag-and-drop capabilities with prebuilt components built by the developers. Products like Site Studio from Acquia take low-code/no-code building to the next level. The business is free to innovate at the speed it needs to innovate.

In many ways, Drupal provides a composable solution. Drupal provides out-of-the-box support for a headless website. It’s built with a modular approach, is open and makes it easy to bring together many systems, and provides low-code/no-code builders that make it simple to compose solutions. And while Drupal can provide many of the benefits of a composable solution, it does not quite reach the full potential of a truly composable solution. 

Composability With Drupal

A truly composable architecture is a modular solution where the front end and back end are completely separated by an orchestration layer. A composable architecture is more flexible, scalable, and efficient than a monolithic architecture. This results in huge benefits to the organization. As there is a need to add an additional channel to the digital experience, the builders have the flexibility to build it exactly as needed by leveraging the already built components. And, as the organization’s needs change, those components can be updated in one spot to efficiently distribute those changes. As the need to scale arises, the back end systems can be swapped out and scaled up without disrupting the digital experience channels.

Drupal has a long history of being used as a headless CMS. For the better part of the past decade, Drupal has been used to power some of the most innovative and powerful headless experiences. Beginning in Drupal 8, Drupal core provided  REST and JSON:API support giving developers the option of using Drupal in a coupled or headless manner. In addition, Drupal provides GraphQL support by installing a community contrib module. 

Drupal really excels as a CMS when it comes to complex authoring workflows and complex content modeling. Drupal has a mature feature set that makes building workflows and complicated data models easy. There is great flexibility and power to be leveraged with Drupal.

By using Drupal’s headless capabilities, Drupal can be a key part of a composable solution. Content administrators are comfortable using Drupal and developers can harness the power of Drupal. In a composable architecture, Drupal’s many features can be used while also using other platforms for their strengths. The best-of-breed model leverages the best of all worlds. 

Composable architectures are a powerful approach to building headless at scale, and Drupal is a powerful tool that embraces many concepts of a composable architecture when used by itself. But Drupal is not limited to that. As organizations look to unlock the value of all their systems, Drupal can be a key component of a composable architecture.

Check out this blog to learn more about how composable is powering transformative digital experiences.