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Is a Decoupled Website Structure Right for Your Client’s Needs? The Answer Is Complicated.

Photo by Tobias Keller on Unsplash

If you don’t have a developer background, choosing the right architecture for your client’s website can feel like shopping for homes based on the type of foundation. It may not be the most compelling or clearly differentiated feature to review, but it’s the sort of fundamental decision that makes a big impact on whatever comes after.

For years, a monolithic architecture — one that keeps a site’s back-end tied with the code that makes up its user interface — was the only way to build and manage a website. However, with the advent of decoupled architectures, organizations could separate their CMS from the front-end design, promising better performance and flexibility.

After being introduced, this decoupled (or headless) architecture approach has been seen as the wave of the future for site development. Though the bleeding-edge buzz has diminished, a decoupled website still offers some critical advantages for many organizations — but plenty of complications as well.

Before making a decision that will shape your clients’ relationship with their site in the years ahead, you should consider some key factors in choosing a monolithic or decoupled site architecture. Though a decoupled site may be the more cutting-edge choice, your decision must come down to whether its advantages really suit your client’s needs. Ultimately, the right foundation for any architecture comes down to the structure it needs to support.

When Is a Decoupled Site the Right Solution? 

Depending on what your client needs to accomplish, decoupled architecture can make a real difference in site performance. While any organization would opt for a faster experience for site visitors, decoupling especially favors a few scenarios.

Streamlined third-party integrations 

If the site your client needs will function as more of a web application, decoupling often allows real-time data provided by API connections to run much faster.

Simplified content distribution 

Instead of your CMS publishing to a single website, it can function as more of a hub. A decoupled architecture streamlines your clients’ ability to publish content across platforms, whether that be a mobile app, Apple TV app, separate website, etc. This is made possible by using a decoupled CMS architecture that is agnostic to the mediums used for consumption.

Increased customization capabilities

A decoupled front end application can be configured to accommodate any client need. By contrast, a traditional/monolithic site architecture can be hamstrung by platform limitations or idiosyncrasies.

Faster development of site improvements

If your client works in a competitive, fast-moving industry, the flexibility of decoupling will allow them to keep pace. A monolithic architecture requires accounting for both the front-end and back-end of the site when rolling out any website improvements. By contrast, a decoupled environment allows for independent development, which permits new features and even full redesigns to be created for one part of the site without impacting the other.

Easier maintenance and debugging

In a monolithic site architecture, platform updates can lead to costly periods of downtime that impact the front-end of your clients’ website. With a decoupled system in place, CMS upgrades don’t have to impact the user experience. Similarly, troubleshooting for site errors grows more efficient as the code making up the user interface and the site back-end become smaller, more distinct parts.  

The Downside of a Decoupled Architecture

A decoupled site offers a lot of power to the right organization. But, as the movies have taught us, with great power comes great responsibility. For all the potential advantages of decoupling, your clients should understand the nuances behind their choice of site architecture.  

A decoupled system may still be suitable for the right client, but there are also potential downsides.

Higher complexity comes at a higher cost

With the front-end and back-end of your client’s site running independently, a decoupled architecture is inherently more complex. Instead of maintaining one codebase, a decoupled project requires more specialized development resources and coordination across teams. Managing both your site’s back-end and front-end experiences comes with costly demands for maintenance and upkeep.

Site maintenance demands must match internal staff capacity

If your client has a small IT team, they may be overwhelmed by the need to manage an often PHP-driven CMS alongside a decoupled front-end, which are generally created with JavaScript. To keep pace with both, your client should either scale their internal development capacity or partner with an agency for assistance.

Content management grows more complex

Though the user experience for a decoupled CMS is improving, your client’s site editors will face a different, more abstract user experience. If your client’s team is accustomed to an interface like WordPress, that provides rich previews and other traditional editorial features, they may require training and additional guidance to understand the system.

Decoupled architecture remains a work in progress

Given decoupling is a relatively young technology, the tools and methodologies are still rapidly evolving. JavaScript remains a changing landscape, and it’s hard to choose the right long-term framework. In five years, the technology may be more settled. But for now, the practice of implementing a decoupled architecture can feel like the Wild West. For clients who value stability, a monolithic architecture remains the tried-and-true approach.

Monolithic Site Architecture Continues to Offer Far-Reaching Benefits 

Compared with decoupling, a monolithic site architecture may stand as a traditional option for clients. But it doesn’t have to be defined by blanket perceptions such as slower performance and limited flexibility.

For clients with smaller teams or tight timelines for delivery, a monolithic site architecture is most likely the best solution. And by incorporating good development practices and tools such as a content delivery network (CDN) to improve site caching, sites using a traditional CMS can still perform at a high level. Your clients will also benefit from the stability and support that comes with a platform grounded by an open source community, with a rich plugin ecosystem.

With its assorted advantages and associated complexity, think of a decoupled site as a high-performance hot rod. It may look cool, run like a champ, and be the envy of anyone who doesn’t have one. But any hot rod requires consistent care, maintenance, and attention for its owner to see the benefits. Any client considering a fast-paced decoupled solution should know it will come at a similar cost.

Decoupled vs. Monolithic Site Architectures Offer a Spectrum of Possibilities

The decision of whether your client should use a decoupled or monolithic architecture doesn’t have to be black and white. Your clients have options within those two choices. We’ve seen some clients successfully deploy a blend of the two and we have seen clients successfully transition between both options. There are great SaaS options emerging for content management systems built specifically for decoupling and the traditional monoliths, like Drupal, are continually evolving their decoupled capabilities.

Ultimately, you have an array of options when it comes to deciding on the right foundation for your clients. Their needs, priorities, staff, and industry all play a role in making the decision. When you’re starting your next major project, consider the factors discussed above, or give us a shout, we’d love to help.

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