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Frontend Development / Open Source / Software Development

‘Gatsby Killer’ Next-Drupal Brings Headless to Drupal CMS

Next-Drupal decouples Drupal's frontend from its content management system to give developers a faster experience, says John Faber.
Nov 8th, 2022 6:00am by
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John Faber from Chapter Three, a web agency, is something of an evangelist when it comes to the company’s open source offering, Next-Drupal. He doesn’t hesitate to call out products and tell you exactly what he thinks of them.

He’s adamant that Drupal needs to be a headless CMS. Not coincidentally, that’s exactly what Next-Drupal does, by using the popular React framework Next.js to build a frontend for Drupal’s content management system. Faber claims this creates a better developer experience and a more performant solution than Drupal alone.

“The frontend of Drupal has always been its weakness and so people have never been able to see its shining star of a content architecture platform on steroids because the stupid front end of Drupal always got in the way,” he said. “Chapter Three has been working [with Drupal] for many, many years and we decided to change the paradigm to match what’s going on in the rest of the world, which is decoupled Next.js.”

Drupal Goes Headless

The New Stack recently spoke with Drupal creator Dries Buytaert about his company Acquia’s new “open source, headless starter kit,” announced as a part of the Drupal-based Acquia CMS. Faber reached out to tell us that the Acquia Next starter kit was developed by Chapter Three and uses Next-Drupal as its base. Next-Drupal, which was released last November, is now downloaded 2,000 times a week, he added.

“It allows us to create these frontends that are production-level frontends on a very lightweight React framework, and this React framework is built around instant access,” Faber said. “Next was built from the ground up to provide instant access to data in remote places.”

A decoupled framework is something that typically comes at a premium. Many commercial offerings offer headless CMS, but the problem, Faber contended, is that when companies use these hosted solutions, they are essentially building their content infrastructure atop locked-in platforms that charge premium prices to scale.

“They own your data, right? As you get larger, this gets more expensive,” Faber said. “You could be a little blog site that’s getting some viral thing, and all of a sudden you’re paying 5-, 6-, 7-thousand dollars a month.”

Next-Drupal vs. Everyone Else

Drupal targets the enterprise space more than WordPress, which tends to appeal to small and mid-sized businesses, he said. Enterprises want new technology and Next-Drupal provides that new, headless CMS approach in an open source tool. While WordPress is easier to use and quicker to deploy, it’s more about page building as opposed to the structured content and content architecture that Drupal focuses on, he added.

Gatsby is another open source option that supports headless with plugins such as Contentful, Ghost and Prismic; Faber called Drupal-Next a “Gatsby killer,” adding that Next-Drupal does everything Gatsby does, but faster and cheaper.

He acknowledged that some people hate Drupal, but he contends that this is based on earlier versions of Drupal, particularly version 8, which leveraged Twig. Twig was hard and slow to work with, he said. But since then Drupal has been revamped to use JSON API calls natively out of the box.

“This is where we kick WordPress’ ass… [in] Drupal 9… everything is 100% API accessible,” he said. “You put any content into Drupal, you can pull it out with a JSON call, just right off the bat.”

He compared Next-Drupal to Faust.js, which decouples WordPress’s back end from its frontend.

“Essentially it does very similar things,” he said of Next-Drupal and Faust.js. “People want to get out of the WordPress frontend. Believe me, the WordPress frontend is garbage and always has been. If you decouple it, now it’s beautiful.”

California State University, Bakersfield is one website that switched from just Drupal to Next-Drupal in an attempt to make their website faster, he said. With Next-Drupal, they reduced their hosting bill by 33%, Faber claimed.

Stacey Childress is the director of Marketing and Systems for the Extended Education and Global Outreach at California State University, Bakersfield. Childress told The New Stack via email that the school had previously considered a headless approach a few years ago, but found the technology “wonky and fraught with technical issues larger than any gains we might have made in terms of speed and overall user experience.”

Their experience with Next.js was much different, Childress said.

“The Next.js platform and our particular use case has been very smooth for us,” Childress stated. “As has been the case with Drupal historically, we could customize our back-end experience to our liking for our content editors with virtually no restrictions, but we can deliver a far superior front-end experience through the headless/Next.js architecture for our prospective students – our users/customers.”

Users have noticed speed improvements and content editors are pleased with the content editing experience, and “the speed at which they can make and test changes,” Childress added.

Faber wants the world to know that WordPress isn’t the only product solving the frontend developer experience problem.

“We’re true open source and the true composable stack,” Faber said.

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