How Drupal Fits into an Increasingly Headless CMS World

Over the past few years, headless content management systems have revolutionized the traditionally dull CMS market. In a headless CMS, the front end (aka head; means rendering and publishing) is separated from the back end (content) and managed outside of the core system. WordPress vendors like WP Engine are now putting headless products front and center on their sites. Even Automattic, a company that spun out of the open-source WordPress product, offers a headless CMS product—though its founder Matt Mullenweg was initially reluctant to embrace the trend.

Not to be outdone, longtime WordPress competitor Drupal also has a lot to say about headless.I talk to the Drupal creator Dry Buytaert About his company Acquia’s new “open source, headless startup kit”, announced today as part of the Drupal-based Acquia CMS.

Approach headless with caution

Buytaert has been advising on separating Drupal since 2016, so he has some strong opinions on when and how to use the headless approach.

Up front, he acknowledged the tradeoffs involved in choosing a headless CMS. “Headless is generally great for developers,” he told me, “but for business people or marketers, it comes at a price. […] I see a lot of digital agencies really pushing for headless when it’s not actually in the client’s interest. “

He thinks agencies sometimes opt for headless so that their developers can use the latest JavaScript frameworks, but warns that this could mean content creators “lose the ability to preview, edit in context, lay out pages, etc. — all of those things. Not always usable in a headless CMS.”

According to the press release, the main benefit of the “Acquia CMS Headless Starter Kit” is enabling organizations to “serve content to more than just a traditional web browser.” Examples cited include digital signage, wearables, chatbots, mobile apps, and kiosks (I had to google the latter to make sure this product category still exists; but sure enough, think about the self-service screens at your local movie theater, which can let you buy a ticket).

Acquia’s Headless Starter Kit

In addition to the headless kit, Acquia also released the Next.js starter kit “to help speed up building front-end applications that display content created in a headless CMS.”

Buytaert told me that Acquia’s large clients often use a hybrid approach, using both traditional Drupal software and headless APIs.

“We saw [hybrid] Very important for large organizations because they have a lot of different sites,” he said. “And each site tends to be very different. […] Some are templates, some are very custom, some are [sites] There are engineering teams, and some only have marketing teams to work on. And, if you’re constantly talking to large organizations with diverse website portfolios, they need to be able to mix and match these different architectural approaches. “

Drupal and WordPress in Headless

Drupal was created in 2001, even before WordPress (which came out a few years later). It has always positioned itself as a more powerful CMS than WordPress, which means it is geared towards developers as well as content creators. Drupal currently says it wants to attract “ambitious website builders,” which Buytaert defines as a middle ground between developers and content creators. So I asked him how “ambitious website builders” tend to use headless?

“We see people using it for all sorts of different things,” he replied. “Sometimes it’s because they want to use the JavaScript framework of their choice, but we also have customers that already integrate with AR [Augmented Reality] Solutions, chatbots or voice assistance. It is not only used to create different traditional websites but also other types of applications. “

How does Drupal’s headless approach differ from WordPress, I ask?

“My understanding is that it’s more fixed in WordPress,” he said, “and the approach we took in Drupal was to rewrite Drupal’s core systems, almost like an open-heart surgery.”

He explained that there is a base version of Drupal, called “Drupal Core,” that “has all of these headless features out of the box.” These headless features are not “fixed”, he said, but are implemented as traditional Drupal features. Alternative to CMS. Instead, their approach is to make headless “part of the core of the platform.”

He added that he’s not sure how WordPress is headless, “but last time I checked it was more like an installable plugin — it’s not native to WordPress like Drupal.”

Pure Play Headless Providers and Jamstack

Drupal is more nuanced than pure headless CMS companies like Strapi and Contentful. I’ve written before that pure headless solutions tend to have poor support for content creators; they simply aren’t as easy to use as Drupal or WordPress. Buytaert thinks they might eventually merge with what his company, Acquia, offers now.

“We’ve gone into headless and adopted a lot of headless ideas in Drupal, but vice versa, and I feel like pure headless solutions are probably moving towards Drupal as well – as they try to figure out how to preview, How to do layout, how to do contextual editing. […] So it seems to me that they will add all these features to a future version [of their products] In the end, things will almost converge. “

Another website creation trend that has taken the developer world by storm over the past few years is Jamstack. The “jam” in Jamstack refers to JavaScript, API, and Markup; the “stack” part refers to cloud computing technology. I asked Buytaert Drupal how it fits into the Jamstack model popularized by companies like Netlify and Gatsby.

“Gatsby was actually created by two Drupal developers,” he replied, adding that “Drupal was the first content platform supported by Gatsby.” About Jamstack’s core capabilities, including creating a CDN (content delivery network) that leverages of static sites, he pointed out simply that 15 to 20 years ago “we were generating static pages — that’s always what Drupal was able to do.” He noted that there were some Drupal modules (its plugin terminology) that generated static sites Configurator (SSG) functionality was added to Drupal.

Nonetheless, he admits that Jamstack has introduced some unique innovations to website creation.

“​​What’s new is that some of the approaches that some Jamstack solutions use, like developer workflows, are slightly different and new – there’s some great innovation going on in the world, don’t get me wrong, but we’re also right A repetition of an old concept.”

Don’t forget content creators

Although Drupal is a more technical CMS platform than usual and is aimed primarily at developers, Buytaert said “it’s important not to leave marketers and content creators behind”. Especially considering that Drupal has been on the web for 22 years, he believes that creating websites shouldn’t be just the domain of web developers using their fancy JavaScript frameworks.

“I believe everyone needs to be able to build websites,” he said, “and everyone needs to be able to build advanced websites — now more broadly, digital experiences may not just be websites, but may include other types of customer touchpoints, Such as local mobility, or voice and chatbots.”

Created with sketches.

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