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Architecting Composable Digital Experiences

Mission-driven organizations face a number of unique challenges when it comes to building digital products. Finding cost-effective ways to launch new services, having the ability to iterate quickly, providing non-resource intensive access to remote and underserved communities, and creating the most accessible and secure experiences possible, just to name a few. Composable Architecture can bring a whole new set of capabilities to an organization’s digital stack by providing the means and the way to do all of the above and more, but is it right for your mission-driven organization? Let’s take a deeper look.

What is Composable Architecture?

Headless, Composable, Jamstack, MACH, and API-First are just a few of the terms commonly used to describe the approach of decoupled software architecture. In short, all of them are used to describe digital platforms and services, separated from the presentation layers presented to users, with everything stitched together via APIs. This approach is distinct from more traditional content management or digital experience (CMS/DXP) implementation approaches where monolithic services, back-end management, and front-end templates are all tightly interwoven.

The goal of this approach is to allow best-of-breed services, technologies, and frameworks to be used in crafting digital experiences across various channels and touchpoints along the full user journey. Be it web, mobile, social, or emerging technologies such as voice, AR/VR, or mixed reality, Composable Architecture allows for the creation of personalized experiences that are seamless to users and in line with how they’re interacting with organizations and their digital solutions today.

At Forum One, although we use the term Composable Architecture, we prefer the MACH Alliance’s acronym for defining what’s meant by that term as it does a great job of explaining the various components of modern Composable Architecture:

  • M (Microservices): Individual pieces of business functionality that are independently developed, deployed, and managed
  • A (APIs): All functionality is exposed through an API
  • C (Cloud Native): SaaS that leverages the cloud, beyond storage and hosting, including elastic scaling and automatically updating
  • H (Headless): Front-end presentation is decoupled from back-end logic and channel, programming language, and is framework agnostic

What are the benefits of Composable Architecture? 

Composable Architecture’s benefits are numerous and the approach has wide-ranging impacts for not only users, but for developers and anyone else within organizations responsible for creating and managing digital experiences. Including:

  • Best-of-Breed Technology: The plug-and-play and API-first nature of Composable Architecture attempts to solve for vendor lock-in concerns and creates the ability to select best-of-breed technology and solutions for separate pieces of a technology stack. Composable has displaced the concept of the all-in-one DXP and allows for different pieces of a tech stack to be moved in and out over time without a complete rebuild. For instance, the front-end stack can be changed out without changing the CMS or vice-versa. Or a personalization service can be added or swapped out without a major overhaul or total replatform of the entire stack. In practice, this isn’t perfect but is much more flexible than traditional architectures.  
  • Omni-channel User Journeys: As mentioned, Composable Architecture is much better equipped to handle the typical user journeys we see today. A traditional CMS architecture that’s tightly coupled to and geared towards a web-only experience creates silos across channels and doesn’t offer the same capabilities and seamlessness across touchpoints. When done well, this means users can interact with your organization’s website, mobile app, and other digital channels in a seamless and personalized way.
  • Performance & Security: The front-end of a modern Composable web experience is typically built as a static or hybrid-static web app utilizing frameworks such as Next.js, Nuxt, or Gatsby and deployed to CDN and Edge-based hosting solutions  (Vercel, Netlify, Azure Static Web Apps, AWS Amplify, etc). The nature of how these sites are hosted creates tremendous benefits when it comes to performance (site speed) and security (the attack surface is greatly reduced). From experience, if architected and deployed right, you can easily expect Google Lighthouse scores in the 98+ range, even for highly complex digital products. This means a more performant and less resource-intensive experience. Increased performance is a huge win for any digital product, but is especially important for organizations looking to deploy digital services to remote or underserved communities.
  • Developer Experience: From a developer standpoint, the separation of concerns between back-end and front-end systems makes life a lot easier, the developer experience a lot cleaner, and workflows more streamlined. Bottlenecks are a thing of the past with teams no longer needing to wait on stubbed-out views to be created. And the step of integrating the front-end with templates tied to the back-end disappears as well. In a Composable Architecture, front-end and back-end developers can work completely in parallel based on an agreed-upon API contract. Overall, Composable Architecture allows developers to use efficient and popular modern frameworks, tools, and languages.

Are there potential drawbacks with Composable Architecture?

All of the above benefits aside, Composable Architecture isn’t a silver bullet. If you’re just looking to stand up a quick, no-frills website without personalization or other integrations and services, it likely isn’t the most economical solution at the moment. There’s been a lot of time and effort put into standing up themes, accelerators, and out-of-the-box functionality in traditional setups that haven’t caught up yet, in certain cases, when it comes to Composable Architecture. Because of this, there’s often more custom work involved in developing basic websites. 

A lot of platforms are making headway in this area though. 

Platforms like Contentful and Contentstack were created with Composable Architecture in mind and brand themselves more as Content-as-a-Service platforms than a full CMS or DXP. Standing up these platforms is remarkably quick and easy and they’re known for how agile they are when it comes to standing up and iterating on new digital products and services. Most of the efficiency gains with these platforms are on the back-end, with the front-end being completely decoupled and up to you to develop and host. That said, because of the decoupled nature, like with all things Composable, you can easily utilize open-source JavaScript libraries that aren’t tied to any specific CMS or back-end. The nature of being pure JavaScript, as opposed to CMS-specific libraries, means a much larger developer community and a larger pool of open-source libraries to pull from. 

Traditional enterprise DXPs such as AEM and Sitecore have transformed their strategy over time to refocus in the direction of Composable and are making headway in ease of development as well. Sitecore has stated that their new products Experience Edge (their SaaS-based offering) and Sitecore Headless Services (their hybrid/headless offering) are the future of the platform. Because of that, they’ve invested in creating a version of SXA (their accelerator and OOTB component library) that works in tandem with Headless Services. This new version is now more-or-less at parity with traditional Sitecore, making standing up a Composable experience on Sitecore just as easy, if not easier, than standing up one on traditional architecture. 

On the open-source front, Drupal and WordPress have been a little slower to move when it comes to Composable Architecture. This is quickly changing, however, and there’s been recent growth and maturity in the Drupal space, primarily tied to Acquia and their headless CMS, which moved out of beta late last year. As well as the launch of tooling such as Next.js for Drupal. On the WordPress side, things like Atlast from WPEngine are maturing and being adopted quickly. With the introduction of these new platforms and tools, we’re now seeing Composable Architecture accelerate within the Drupal and WordPress communities at a rate comparable to enterprise platforms and the newer Content-as-a-Service ones.  

Should you consider Composable Architecture for your next digital solution?

The shift from monolithic to Composable Architecture has been taking place over the last several years, with early adopters consistently displaying the power of the approach. With platforms, tooling, and frameworks all now moving in that direction, the approach has moved fully into the mainstream. Mission-driven organizations looking to create highly accessible, performant, personalized, and robust modern digital solutions should look no further than Composable Architecture as the go-to approach. At Forum One, we’re excited about the possibilities that this approach creates and are continuously looking at how we can help our mission-driven clients leverage the benefits to create impact and drive change.

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