Why Headless in MACH is a no-brainer

MACH stands for Microservices-based, API-first, Cloud-native SaaS and Headless - as this new mantra for ephemeral abstracted compute logic comes to the fore, why should Headless be such a no-brainer for the modern IT stack?

Side view of businessman with illuminated brain sketch instead of head on grey background

Openness matters. As we look across organisations, departments, teams, people and everything in between, we see new open approaches being brought to bear and becoming engrained in corporate culture and workflow practices.

If we have to distill openness into three key zones, then this process would pinpoint human-centric open work systems (where we champion meritocracy over patriarchal hierarchy), open source itself at the software application development and deployment level… and, importantly, open IT architecture at the lower baseline level as it is built to support the modern IT stack.

Why is openness at those three levels (four if you include open thinking or some more cerebral element) so useful and important? Because it paves the way for companies to be more agile, flexible and customisable in the face of change, a lesson none of us needs to be reminded of after the last three years of disruption.

How MACH makes open IT architecture

The need to build toward eminently open IT architectures is the lifeblood of the MACH Alliance, a group of independent technology companies that are dedicated to creating future-proof enterprise technology and propelling current and future digital experiences with an open and connected technology ecosystem.

MACH stands for Microservices based, API-first, Cloud-native SaaS and Headless.

The Alliance supports a composable architecture in which every component is pluggable, scalable, replaceable and can be continuously improved through agile development to meet evolving business requirements.

Working to drive MACHified MACHiness (their term, not ours) as an early member of the MACH Alliance is Rob Daynes, VP of strategy, Cloudinary. Based in Santa Clara and Tel Aviv, Cloudinary provides a cloud-based image and video management solution to enables users to upload, store, manage, manipulate and deliver images and video for websites and apps.

Move over, maladroit monolith

Daynes points to a recent MACH survey among IT leaders across several key geographies that showed that MACH adoption is high on the agenda for C-suite technology leaders. Some 47% of leaders surveyed stated that they are aspiring to move from monolithic to best-of-breed, composable solutions; a noteworthy increase from last year’s 36%. Furthermore, 79% expressed a strong intention to add more MACH components to their architecture in the future. Cloud-native applications were the highest priority focus at 58%, but with Headless the lowest at 23%.

For the record to remind ourselves, Headless technology is so-named because it decouples front and backend services. Often used as a term to denote the way in which contemporary Content Management Systems (CMSs) work, any computer (a server is a good example, but let’s remember that MACH is all about software) could be described as Headless in the purist sense if it works quite happily without a monitor i.e. it exists to feed other application and user endpoints (typically via an Application Programming Interface - API) with content held in a repository.

Headless is appealing because systems administration (sysadmin) functions such as software versioning can be handled at the backend, this makes ‘bulk releases’ across multiple channels (to multiple Heads) possible… and that Head could be a desktop, laptop, tablet, smartphone, VR or AR headset, smartwatch or something else.

Shoulders back, let’s raise Headless

“Despite evidencing considerable upward growth in focus and interest, it’s not surprising that Headless came in as the lowest priority. For some, the idea of decoupling front and backend services and having each part operate separately, communicating through APIs, can feel daunting. This is especially true for IT people accustomed to working with a traditional enterprise software suite and just one vendor,” said Daynes.

The downside of the traditional (non-Headless) approach is that it lacks the essential agility, flexibility and customisability we referenced earlier. The Cloudinary team say they have worked with customers who have understood that adding new technology functionalities is an arduous, time-intensive task.

Conversely, the Headless model enables flexible frontends, unrestricted by the limitations of monolithic software architectures. It also gives the freedom to choose the backend components that best match a company’s needs.

Headless CMSs & DAMs

Daynes defines the wider use of Headless across the already-noted CMS space and the corresponding sister discipline of digital asset management.

“Two key applications for headless systems are Content Management Systems (CMS) and Digital Asset Management (DAM). A headless CMS is basically a content repository (backend) that includes all the necessary tools to manage content in one place and deliver it through APIs to any possible frontend (digital channels such as website, applications, etc.) in any programming language,” he said.

He continues, “A headless DAM decouples the master asset library from the centralised interface and allows digital assets to be delivered and reused across different systems via custom or pre-built interfaces. Used together, headless CMS and headless DAMs can provide access to the broadest content and visual media capabilities and deliver media-rich experiences that significantly improve the user experience.”

Traditionally, CMSs were instrumental in building and managing a website experience, with all the content, data, editing interface and code housed in a single environment. The Headless approach still requires a CMS for the important task of informing web developers where a digital asset shows up on a page.

“One of the biggest drivers toward a Headless architecture for visual experiences is the inflexibility of image and video optimisation in traditional CMSs. In this visual-centric world, it is essential that every single image and video needs to display well on every possible channel or device. Today’s image and video optimisation workflow includes manipulation for cropping, pixel dimensions, file sizes, brand overlays or filters, browser specifications, screen size, orientation and load time,” said Cloudinary’s Daynes.

In a traditional CMS approach, any of these changes need to be manually entered into different templates for each channel and this involves spending a lot of time and resources before a campaign can even launch. A headless approach eliminates that issue, freeing up companies to use their Headless CMS and ‘plug and play’ with a best-of-breed DAM.

How does this work in practice?

Take for example a personal care brand that needs to produce and maintain content for sixty global markets. With a traditional architecture in place, the team would spend perhaps as much as half of their time managing, editing, and publishing media assets, manually tailoring them for each market, channel and device. With a Headless DAM in place, this activity is typically reduced to less than 10% of workflow time.

That’s a saving in cost and resources, including CO2 (an increasingly important consideration as companies prioritise green IT and sustainability initiatives), so appealing on more than one level.

In our visual economy, images, videos, and personalisation play a crucial role when it comes to improving user experience, driving conversions, and increasing customer loyalty. Though adoption is high on the agenda for tech leaders, I can only encourage CTOs and software architects not to forget about the H in MACH,” concluded Daynes.

Organisations today obviously need to constantly innovate their digital experiences and without a Headless system, this can take a lot of time, effort and resources. From the Cloudinary perspective and among MACH Alliance partners who concur with the company’s stance, there is a need to embrace Headless enabling technologies that provide seamless, personalised omnichannel experiences.

A Headless architecture approach is becoming part of the essential arsenal that the IT C-suite may now be looking to. Whether we go in feet first, on our hands and knees, or elbow-bumping our way in politely, Headless technology is becoming a no-brainer.