What's the difference between front-end and back-end?

For websites and the databases that support them, it’s important to understand the difference between front-end and back-end. Put simply, the front-end is what the user sees, the presentation layer. The back-end is where the data and system code lives.

What is front-end?

The front-end is the presentation layer, for example, the part of a website that the user sees, where the visual web design is displayed. This includes everything you see and interact with on a website: the images, positioning of visuals and content.

As a customer visiting an online store, this would cover page layouts, images and text, menus, pictures of products and details about them. So, the front-end is like the shop window, where customers can see and interact with products.

What is back-end?

The back-end is the server, application and database side of the website, which users don’t see. For example, this is where the digital assets are managed by a DAM and the content is managed by a CMS. Read our Digital Asset Management Systems (DAMs) explained blog to learn more.

The back-end controls how the website works, such as how pages are connected, orders are placed, or payments made. Traditionally, in a monolithic platform, this would also be where bespoke code, 3rd party integrations and business logic would be built.

For example, on that same online store, the back-end would be the structure between pages and storage of information, you wouldn’t see it, but when you clicked a link, the back-end is what would direct you to the right page.  If you decided to purchase something, the back-end would search the database to find out whether you are a known customer and should be taken to the cart, or if you need to be taken through to the register or login page instead.

Importance of front-end vs. back-end

Both the front-end and the back-end need to work together to achieve a desired goal. In some cases, they are a single system with front and back coupled together. In other cases, they are decoupled, so different front-ends and back-ends can be connected to each other for flexibility.

Traditionally, coupled front-end and back-end architecture is used (sometimes referred to as a monolithic architecture), but in recent years, the digital industry has moved towards a decoupled approach (sometimes referred to as headless or microservices architecture). Instead of the front-end and the back-end being coded together as one system, the two now exist separately. With this approach, the front-end and back-end communicate through an Application Programming Interface (API) layer. You can think of the API layer as the translator. Before, front-end and back-end were built together, so direct communication was possible.

Now they are separate, they need to communicate through an intermediary. The simplest way to do this is by selecting the back-end technologies, which can include microservices such as a CMS (content management system), PIM (product information management), DAM (digital asset management), that already have an API built.

This Makes it straightforward to connect systems together and places the responsibility of maintaining the API on the vendor, removing the overhead from your internal team.
Please also mention a note that when you are looking to go headless and selecting the different back-end technologies (microservices) (CMS, PIM, DAM etc) it is advisable to select back-end technologies that already have an API built, as this makes it easier to connect to the API layer.

It also means that the vendor is responsible for creating and maintaining their API, which removes the overhead from your internal team.

Why should you use a decoupled architecture?

Decoupling enables developers to work on the back-end of a project, while designers or content creators can continue their own work independently on the front-end. Once new back-end improvements are ready, they can be brought together with the front-end through the API layer. This removes the need for lengthy code or content freezes while new back-end improvements are being developed.

Decoupling also protects your entire digital ecosystem by making it less fragile. By having individual, insulated components, you can safely make updates to one part of your ecosystem with less risk of it inadvertently impacting other parts of the system.

Most importantly, it has enabled growth in standalone vendor solutions. Previously, the option has been a single platform for your entire front-end and back-end architecture. Changes are expensive and time consuming, and you risk becoming locked in with that vendor, particularly if your enterprise solution is also provided by that vendor.

Decoupling means you can choose a CMS from one vendor, a PIM from another, use a front-end developer to create a bespoke web interface and buy an off-the-shelf app architecture, all linked by an API. This microservices approach removes the need to customise your CMS solution with bespoke code, such as integrations to other platforms.

By choosing to go API first, you avoid the increased difficulty and expense of maintaining a customised CMS in a traditional model. In fact, it’s not uncommon for CMS customisations to break when your vendor releases an update. Removing the risk of back-end customisations ensures your digital estate is more secure, highly robust and easier to maintain.

Overall this massively reduces the costs involved in these projects. Now, the money that you used to spend on CMS vendor updates and keeping the lights on can be utilised for building experience improvements.

What is a headless CMS?

A headless CMS is a Content Management System that only has a back-end. A traditional CMS, or a monolithic CMS, has a front-end and a back-end all in the same system. The front-end, the bit the user sees, is the ‘head’. And the back-end, the background technology users don’t see, is the ‘body’. So, a CMS without a front-end is therefore ‘headless’. Learn more a headless CMS in our ‘What is a Headless CMS?’ blog.

You may have heard about headless CMS and wondered whether it could benefit your business. If you want to learn more about how it works, watch our explainer video. We have also published a short whitepaper, ‘An Introduction to Headless CMS’, that outlines the range of business benefits.

Thinking of going headless?