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Decoupled Drupal with Gatsby: A Business Case Evaluation

by Bill Shaouy
December 28, 2020

If you are deciding between a standard Drupal architecture vs. a decoupled one with a GatsbyJS front end (which I’ll call “Gatsby” from here on out), certainly the latter approach offers some compelling advantages. Decoupling Drupal may be easier than you think. A Gatsby front end offers a more flexible and compelling user experience across multiple channels, as well as excellent performance, security, and scalability. 

However, in developing an independent front end and back end, one must factor in the additional costs and financial benefits of doing so vs a traditional standalone approach. As described in our introductory blog post, Building a Business Case, a business case exercise can clarify costs and benefits, both in terms of initial cost, ongoing costs, and revenues of each. 

In this blog post we’ll perform this exercise for standalone vs. decoupled Drupal with Gatsby, performing the following steps: 

  1. Determine the costs of each option
  2. Determine the benefits for each option
  3. Recommend an option based on cost and benefits

Determine the Costs of Each Option

Two different types of costs need to be considered when evaluating options, the cost of the initial implementation, and the ongoing and operating costs once the implementation is complete. The following two tables approximate these costs. Note: these costs are highly theoretical approximations, only to be used as an illustration. Actual costs can only be calculated once detailed requirements are considered. 

Implementation Costs

The following table summarizes theoretical implementation costs for each of the two options. These entail the licensing and build estimates for each option. This illustration (again, theoretical numbers) assumes a simple implementation with little to no customization. 

Cost

Standalone Drupal

Decoupled Drupal with Gatsby

Initial License

$0

$0

Build

$100K

$180K

Hosting (average)

$30K

$45K

Total

$130K

$240K

A few things stand out in this comparison:

  • Freedom from Licensing Fees: Of course, Drupal has no licensing fee, but if you use an open source front end technology like Gatsby, the licensing fee will be free for that as well.
  • Time and Effort Up Front: The initial effort for the decoupled build is greater than that for the standalone Drupal build. This is because front end technologies like Gatsby are newer, and in our experience, there are bumps in the road when working with them in an initial build.
  • The Stability of Drupal 8 and Drupal 9: Drupal 8 is stable and mature, having been release level since 2016, and Drupal 9 is architecturally similar.  With a standalone solution, there are fewer bumps in the road. 
  • Hosting: Hosting costs are greater with a decoupled solution as well. The cost of hosting services vary greatly and the figures we’re stating here are an illustration. Your actual hosting costs will certainly differ. That said, you will be paying for two hosting services with a decoupled solution, one to host the back end and another to host the front end, whereas a standalone solution requires just one.

Ongoing/Operating Costs

After implementation, each option incurs recurring costs. This is a critical consideration in evaluating options that often gets overlooked, and we recommend you always factor in these costs in your decision. For our example, the following table summarizes those costs (again, they are theoretical):

Cost

Standalone Drupal

Decoupled Drupal with Gatsby

Ongoing License

$0

$0

Maintenance and Support

$40K

$20K

Hosting

$30K

$15K

Total

$70K

$80K

 

As with the initial cost, the ongoing costs of the decoupled option are higher, albeit by less. In our example, they’re almost equal. While hosting costs are again higher for the decoupled option, maintenance and support costs are less. Although there are initial bumps in the road for a decoupled solution, our experience has also taught us that once those obstacles are overcome, it is a lower effort to maintain the solution because Gatsby, and the React framework it’s built upon, are simpler than that of Drupal’s front end engine. It is easier to learn, and developers skilled in it are easier to find. 

Determine the Benefits of Each Option

For investment in any of these options, a benefit is expected, particularly in expenses saved or new revenue earned. Focusing on annual revenue, the following table summarizes the theoretical benefits of each option based on an assumption that the standalone Drupal solution would generate $1000 a day in revenue, or $365K per year:

 

Standalone Drupal

Decoupled Drupal With Gatsby

Annual revenue

$365K

$416K

 

In this example, and in many real-world circumstances, a decoupled option slightly improves a site’s revenue, all other things being equal. This is because, in addition to having a more powerful and flexible user interface, a decoupled solution is more performant for the end-user. Further, a Gatsby front end typically runs as a static site on a CDN, with little to no database fetching occurring during a page load. According to sources like DomainRacer and MachMetrics, companies like Myntra, Amazon, Yahoo, Flipkart, and Mozilla experienced a boost in business by increasing the page load speed of the website with less than 2 seconds. Estimated revenue decreases conversions by 7% with a one-second delay, and a whopping 17% with a five-second delay. Further, page load time affects SEO rankings in Google, and slower websites have higher bounce rates. All of this impacts an organization’s reputation and customer loyalty.

Recommend an Option 

When we combine costs with benefits as described above, we are left with the following comparison: 

standalone vs Decoupled Drupal

A scenario for Standalone Drupal vs. Decoupled Drupal With Gatsby

In year 1, for example, the net amount earned by the standalone option is $365K - $130K, or $235K. In year 2, the cost is reduced to $70K, bringing the net amount to $295K. The above graph plots net revenue for the standalone option, in blue, and the decoupled with Gatsby option, in tan, over five years.

So, in this example scenario, we can draw the following conclusions:

  • If your organization is prioritizing short term results, the standalone option is more attractive due to the stability and maturity of the Drupal platform. There are fewer early bumps in the road. 
  • If your organization is willing to make a greater up-front investment for greater long-term benefit, consider the decoupled option with Gatsby by virtue of its low long-term maintenance costs and revenue-boosting performance improvements. 

As in our previous blog post on building your CMS business case, our example scenario is overly simplistic. In reality, detailed requirements can radically alter both the costs and benefits of any option one considers. We at Mediacurrent have performed this type of analysis for some of our clients to help them with their technology investment decisions and can do the same for you. Please contact us to learn more!

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Meet team member, Bill Shaouy

Bill is a senior technical professional who has been working with Drupal for over ten years. He has innovated client-centered, Drupal-based solutions for non-profit and for-profit organizations, placing a premium on fostering lasting relationships with clients and teammates in equal measure.

Bill was first introduced to Drupal in 2007, when he served as I/T Architect and Development Lead for the DC Comics Zuda web content management system. Since then, Bill has led Drupal projects in both the profit and nonprofit space, for such organizations as the State of Georgia, Jane Addams Hull House, the Mohonk Nature Preserve, the New York Hall of Science, Mentorplace, the World Bank, and most recently, the Atlanta Falcons. He also served as one of the original board members of the Atlanta Drupal User’s Group, giving multiple presentations there and contributing to the running of the early Atlanta Drupalcamps, and was also the founder and long time chairman of the IBM Drupal User's Group. Bill has also conducted many technology roadmap consulting engagements over the past several years, many from the nonprofit space. These engagements helped clients form a long term technology strategy based on current and projected requirements. 

When he’s not working, Bill is an active musician and songwriter, with two albums of his own and several more with him accompanying on piano.

Learn more about Bill >

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