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Sep 29, 2021 | 7 minute read

Headless Microservices vs. 'Retrofitted' Headless

written by Pranav Bahadur

The eCommerce platform market has and continues to evolve as rapidly as customer preferences and expectations. For instance, innovations like curbside pick-up that became popular during Covid-19 are here to stay, and brands need the technology to keep up. While customer expectations continue to rise, many brands find that their traditional eCommerce platform cannot keep up with these drastic shifts in buyer patterns.

Making the necessary optimizations to keep up ends up blowing eCommerce budgets. One alternative to these rigid platforms is headless commerce. But, with more traditional platforms now offering 'headless' solutions, many brands ask us -is there a difference between one headless provider and the next? This post will help answer the questions around the different approaches, and crucially, what solution is right for you?

What is Headless? Are There Different Types of Headless?

In a nutshell, a headless approach is the 'decoupling' of the front-end layer (the customer-facing storefront)and the back-end (where business rules & logic live). This separation empowers brands with the control to customize an experience that best suits your customer across touchpoints.

When headless was pioneered by Elastic Path back in 2012, brands could finally leave their out-of-the-box, traditional platforms that only powered cookie-cutter experiences behind. With headless commerce, they had the flexibility to create unique experiences that would showcase their brand differentiation, accommodate for any complexity or unique requirements, and, most importantly, delight customers.

Fast forward to now, some traditional eCommerce platforms or tightly coupled monoliths are adding in an API layer to offer the core functionality of their back-end services & claiming to provide a 'headless' solution. While they are technically headless, not all headless solutions are the same. The key difference is where these platforms started and how far they can deviate from their foundations.

These 'retrofitted' headless solutions offer a customizable front-end by exposing the core features through an API layer. When compared to headless microservices solutions, they still lack in terms of customizability of the back-end. By contrast, in a headless microservices approach, each microservice in the back end exists as a separate module.

What this means for your business is that you can pick and choose the core commerce capabilities that work best for your goals, and easily compose a solution that includes "best of breed" vendors (like search, OMS, ERP, etc.). Also enabling you to quickly swap core commerce microservices or third-party solutions in and out as customer expectations and business requirements evolve. Continue reading to learn more about the differences between these two approaches.


Retrofitted Headless: A Brief Breakdown

A retrofitted headless solution is perfectly capable of smoothly operating a business model that it was designed for. In most cases, a retrofitted headless solution would fit a solely direct-to-consumer selling model or even a relatively straightforward B2B scenario if what you are looking for is an out-of-the-box approach that meets all your brand's basic needs. A monolithic back-end is excellent when tackling standard processes and issues for businesses with simple requirements or those looking to launch eCommerce for the first time.

Where it does begin to crumble is when new features or customizations for the tightly coupled back end are needed. For example, if your brand needs a specific order flow based on the B2B accounts you have, or if you need to add an option for mobile self-checkout, customization of a retrofitted headless solution will be complex. It would require the support of a dedicated SI or an in-house development team, not a luxury all brands can afford in perpetuity. While a new feature isn't impossible to add onto a retrofitted platform, the costs and time to market implications are drastically different compared to a headless microservices approach.

Even when a new feature is simple enough to add on, the time to launch will be dramatically slower due to the interconnectedness of the tightly coupled back end (the components locked together in the image) of these retrofitted headless solutions. The rigidity of these platforms requires extensive testing of each linked component to ensure a new addition has not broken any of the functionality of any of the other connected components.

Furthermore, the risk of a stop-gap addition like the ones mentioned above or a voice-enabled chatbot not meeting your brand's needs into the future remains high. Without the option to try another offering in a retrofitted headless architecture, your brand could be stuck in a 'what you have is what you get' situation. That is not ideal in a world that continues to move at a break-neck speed, adopts newer technology, and changes in buyer behavior.


Ready to Get Started with Headless Commerce?

Discover the steps for getting started, how to implement your front-end, considerations for choosing the right platform and more with our full guide.

Read the Guide

A New Approach, Built for the Innovative Brands

On the other hand, a headless microservices solution will allow your brands to achieve evolving goals when it comes to delivering an unparalleled experience for your customers. Each service in a headless microservices architecture is created to operate independently with a set of inputs. Each independent service does not rely on the operations of other separate microservices. Think of them like an independent service, where it takes inputs on one end, and any processes are completed within this independent service with a defined set of outputs at the other end. Add on another microservice, and the two can seamlessly operate based on the consistent inputs and outputs without needing to know or influence the processes in the predecessor (represented by the stand-alone octagons in the image above).

Why should you care? The benefits are threefold:

  1. Flexibility: Pick and choose necessary microservices to achieve your brand's goals, no extra bells & whistles, and the freedom to add or remove microservices as your goals and your customers' needs change.
  2. Scalability: Since each microservice was built to operate without dependencies, each of them will be able to scale seamlessly with the benefits of the cloud.
  3. Speed: With a headless microservices architecture, you can rapidly add microservices to implement new experiences. Or add functionality required in a new geographical market as needed. The extensive development and testing of customizing a retrofitted architecture are no longer an obstacle, allowing your eCommerce team to innovate and, crucially, deliver a stand-out experience for your customers.

Where is the Catch?

Of course, no solution is perfect. While no solution is perfect, some fit needs better than others. A common challenge for embracing a headless microservice solution is re-platforming from your traditional eCommerce platform. The costs and time commitment can feel prohibitive, but many brands overcome this with a staggered implementation approach. This method of slowly replacing pieces of a monolith with microservices is a tried-and-true path for transformation. Another option to overcome long implementation timelines could be leveraging a Pre-Composed Solution TM. These are business-ready solutions that are pre-composed from Elastic Path commerce capabilities, 3rd party integrations, and customizations so that brands can quickly deploy experiences; with greater flexibility and less risk. Browse our Pre-Composed Solutions™ here.  

A headless microservices approach comes with potential cost issues as well. When a brand needs several specific third-party microservices implemented to tailor to its model and goals, the costs of each third-party microservice coupled with the implementation costs for each can add up to a significant amount. While the initial purchase price can be high in this scenario -in some cases higher than re-platforming to a retrofitted headless solution- the benefits around Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) are proven in the long run. Once adopted, a headless microservices architecture, therefore, negates the need for further costly customizations and lengthy innovation cycles. For a deeper look at TCO and the benefits of a microservices-based headless solution, view our guide

Ready to explore a headless microservices approach? Give us a shout. We're happy to help guide you through the process of determining what the best fit for you is. Chat with us now on drift at the bottom right corner of your screen or request a demo to see the flexibility, speed, and capabilities of a headless microservices platform today!