The Agile Shift in Composable Technology
- Composable technology. Embrace micro-frontends for agility in digital architecture.
- Flexibility achieved. Decoupling front ends boosts agility and reduces risks.
- Composable approach. Modular user interface components improve development speed.
In the era of composable architecture, where flexibility and agility reign supreme, the front end often stands out as the last bastion of monolithic development. While the rest of your tech stack embraces microservices, headless platforms and API-driven solutions, the front end can sometimes feel like a locked-in, rigid entity. It’s the face of your business, the pages on your website, the screens of your mobile app, and, to many customers, it is your business.
However, despite its critical role, the traditional front end has its limitations. Composable architecture has inevitably pushed more complexity than ever to the front end. Your front-end code now bears the responsibility of seamlessly calling APIs to retrieve content, drive functionality and make everything work cohesively.
Consider this: Independent features of your site or application are often bundled together in the front end. When one feature changes, it triggers a domino effect where everything needs to be repackaged, tested and deployed. This not only slows down development but can also introduce unnecessary risks and complexities into your workflow.
The Promise of Composable Front Ends
The solution to these challenges lies in embracing composable front ends — a philosophy that extends the principles of composability to the user interface. Composable front ends provide a structured approach to building modular, reusable and independently deployable user interface components.
Imagine being able to break down your front-end architecture into smaller, self-contained modules — micro-front ends — each responsible for a specific part of your application. These micro-frontends can be developed, tested and deployed independently, offering a level of flexibility and agility that mirrors the rest of your composable technology stack.
Embracing composable technology front ends isn’t just a technological choice; it’s a strategic move that can improve how businesses approach web development. Benefits of this approach include:
- Agility: Composable front ends enable faster development cycles. You can make changes or introduce new features without disrupting the entire application.
- Reusability: Front-end components become highly reusable, fostering consistency in design and functionality across your digital experiences.
- Enhanced collaboration: Development teams can work on different micro-frontends simultaneously, promoting collaboration and parallel development efforts.
- Streamlined maintenance: Updates and maintenance become more efficient, reducing the risk of regression issues and downtime.
There are multiple ways to approach creating composable front ends. There are several platforms, digital marketing tools and frameworks that each have their own benefits and drawbacks.
Related Article: The Future of Digital Experience: The Shift Toward Composable DXPs
Composability Through Routing to Micro-Front Ends
The simplest approach to composable technology front ends is to break your website into micro-front ends based on their path on the website. For instance, if your product catalog resides at “/products,” you can set up networking proxies to route those requests to a separate application hosted on dedicated servers. This strategy enables the isolation of complexity within multiple applications, each managed by different teams. They can iterate and enhance their features independently, minimizing the risk of affecting other parts of the site.
While straightforward, this does introduce challenges when it comes to sharing elements and components across the different parts of the site. Having a uniform header, navigation and footer is a requirement, and there may be a need to share individual content components as well. Using content from a headless content management system may ensure the content is always correct, but you’ll still need to solve for ensuring the presentation is consistent across each micro-front end.
Related Article: The Heart of Composable Architecture
Build Time Composability
There are several approaches to managing the complexity of sharing components across micro-front ends or even multiple applications. One approach is to package components using a tool like Node Package Manager (npm). You can deploy your components to a private component registry and install them where needed. This can quickly become difficult to manage as you try to keep versions of components in sync especially as you try to manage dependencies and deployments across multiple applications.
There are platforms that help reduce this operational overhead. One such platform, Bit.dev allows you to register components in a shared location and provides the dev ops tooling to support versioning, releases and automatic updates across dependencies. It also provides tools for visualizing the dependency tree so you can see where components are used across applications.
Related Article: The Benefits — and Challenges — of Composable Digital Experience Platforms
Run Time Composability With Module Federation
Composability at the CDN With Edge Side Includes
Edge Side Includes (ESI) can play a pivotal role in supporting composable front ends by enabling the dynamic assembly of web pages at the edge server, such as a Content Delivery Network (CDN). With ESI, specific parts or components of a webpage, known as fragments, can be individually cached and then combined at runtime to create a complete web page. It’s important to note that although these fragments are statically cached, ESI syntax does allow them to be conditionally applied based on request headers or cookies.
This approach enhances the composability of front ends by allowing different components, possibly served from various sources to be seamlessly integrated into a single page. It promotes modularity, scalability, and performance optimization, as only the necessary fragments need to be retrieved and combined, reducing latency and server load. By leveraging ESI, businesses can create dynamic and personalized user experiences, all while maintaining the benefits of a composable architecture in their front-end development.
Front-End-as-a-Service Solutions (FEaaS)
With more and more content management systems (CMS) and commerce platforms moving to a headless-first approach, having pre-built front ends that can be configured to connect to backend APIs can save a lot of development effort. These configurable experiences are known as Front-End-as-a-Service (FEaaS) and can not only be configured to consume a variety of different backend sources, but also can be customized from a look a feel perspective to meet brand and style guidelines.
This approach has found traction with commerce platforms. With common needs for complex experiences that drive the shopping cart, checkout process and product search, having a ready to consume front end that can be easily integrated with a variety of both commerce and content backends is very appealing. Examples of these types of solutions include Instant Commerce, Front-Commerce and Vue Storefront.
Component builders provide low-code solutions for creating and customizing front-end components, empowering non-technical users, such as marketers and content editors, to shape front-end elements. This approach accelerates development and reduces dependency on developers for certain tasks. However, it entails integration efforts with existing tech stacks and potentially requires customization to meet specific requirements. Governance, version control, and the maintainability of generated components should be carefully managed.
Embeds & Other Off the Shelf Composable Components
The early 2000s saw the rise of embeddable website experiences. News tickers and visitor counters gave rise to Flickr Slideshows, YouTube Videos and Google Maps. By the late 2000s social media widgets were common tools that helped drive engagement, driving the growth of platforms like Twitter and Facebook.
These embeddable widgets were simple ways to extend the functionality of your website, allowing you compose experiences using third party content and code. This approach is just as relevant today, as more and more platforms offer ready-to-use configurable experiences.
If you are trying to integrate features that are common across websites into your application, this is an approach worth considering. You’ll find solutions for integrating features like search, authentication, web forms, ratings and reviews and many other domain specific solutions. For guidance on how to compare and evaluate these solutions, see my article on evaluating the Long Tail of Composable.
Composable Technology Cautions
While composable technology front ends offer a wealth of benefits, it’s crucial to approach this architectural shift with caution. As you decompose your front-end architecture into smaller, modular parts, you may encounter an increase in complexity, both in terms of development and orchestration. Managing the governance of these modular components becomes paramount to ensure consistency, security and compliance across the entire user interface.
Additionally, operational support and monitoring become more intricate, as you now have multiple micro-frontends to oversee, each with its own dependencies and versioning considerations. Organizations must strike a balance between the agility of composable front ends and the need for robust governance and operational efficiency to harness the full potential of this transformative approach.
Furthermore, it’s essential to acknowledge that composable front ends represent a relatively new frontier in web development, and the platforms and tools supporting this approach may still be in the process of maturation. Organizations venturing into this realm should be prepared for potential limitations and evolving best practices. As the landscape continues to evolve, staying abreast of updates, emerging technologies, and community-driven advancements will be essential to navigate the challenges and leverage the full potential of composable front ends effectively.
Wrapping Up on Composable Technology
In the ever-evolving landscape of digital experiences, the concept of composable technology and architecture has reshaped how we approach web development. While the rest of the tech stack embraces modularity and flexibility, the front end has sometimes felt like the final frontier of monolithic development. Yet, it’s the face of your business, the window to your products and services, and the canvas where user experiences come to life.
Composable architecture has, at times, shifted the complexity burden to the front end, where traditional development struggles to keep pace. But here’s the promise: Composable front ends can revolutionize this crucial aspect of your digital presence.
By embracing composable front ends, organizations unlock a world of agility, reusability, enhanced collaboration and streamlined maintenance. These benefits mirror the principles that drive the rest of your composable tech stack, enabling you to iterate and innovate without disruption. From routing-based micro-front ends to build-time composability, run-time module federation, Edge Side Includes (ESI) for edge-level composability, Front-End-as-a-Service (FEaaS) solutions, and low-code Component Builders, the path to composable front ends is diverse. Each approach brings its unique strengths, ready to empower your development journey.
As the digital realm continues to evolve, composable technology front ends provide adaptability, offering a structured approach to building and maintaining web experiences. Whether you’re navigating a complex ecommerce ecosystem or striving for seamless integrations, the composable front end is your key to shaping the dynamic and engaging digital landscapes of tomorrow. With the right strategy and tools in place, you can harness the power of composable front ends to drive innovation, deliver personalized experiences and stay ahead in the ever-evolving world of digital business.
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