Home / API-first Drupal: Innovating from Digital Experiences to Digital Ecosystems

API-first Drupal: Innovating from Digital Experiences to Digital Ecosystems

Recently, Acquia CTO and Drupal project lead Dries Buytaert touted Drupal as the optimal solution for “ambitious digital experiences.” But what constitutes an ambitious digital experience these days? Many of the digital experiences we encounter on a daily basis are no longer web-based, nor do they rely solely on web technologies at all.

Indeed, content touchpoints are multiplying at a fast clip as consumers seek increasingly diverse and distinctive means of interacting with content, like the Internet of Things (IoT), digital signage, conversational interfaces, and devices that employ machine learning to adapt to our characteristics. This calls into question: Is Drupal truly ready for our expanding milieu of devices, interactions, and experiences that we must contend with?

Luckily, last year’s release of Drupal 8 introduced a variety of capabilities allowing you to use the ever-powerful content management system (CMS) as an API-first content repository. Simply put, this means that Drupal is resolutely no longer for standalone digital experiences. In short, Drupal is well-positioned — and becoming even better — for entire digital ecosystems.

From digital experiences to digital ecosystems

Here’s a bit of a thought experiment. Think of the very first website you ever visited in your life. How was the experience of using that website? Now think of a contemporary website today. How has the experience changed over the years? When we do a comparison across decades like this one, the colossal diversification of digital experiences becomes more perceptible.

If we scrutinize digital experiences more incrementally over time, we can illuminate where touchpoints have entered the picture. The quadrennial Summer Olympics provide excellent temporal reference points to examine what exactly defines a digital experience. For instance, what were digital experiences for content like in 2008 during the Beijing Olympics?

Chances are that more likely than not, your content was delivered to your consumers through a single site in a single browser. Touchscreen smartphones were still a novelty, and many of the devices which we take for granted today were as yet prototypes in a subterranean research lab. But in 2012 in London, we begin to see a gradual proliferation of devices, each equipped with its own browser. Meanwhile, on smartphones, native mobile applications begin to partition walled gardens for consuming content.

In 2016 for the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, we witnessed an explosion of touchpoints and devices. Spectators in Rio and beyond relied on a bevy of applications and devices which all enabled more personalized and intimate interactions with content. For instance, the Olympics website of the American broadcaster NBC, built in Drupal, achieved over a billion minutes of video streaming over the course of the Games.

This is no small feat. But what about Tokyo in 2020? The Japanese government has already confirmed its plans to stage the most futuristic Olympics of all time, including robotic ushers, instantaneous translation between languages, and autonomous taxis to ferry spectators between events. All of these discard the foregoing model of consumption of content in favor of rich interaction with content.

In short, we are witnessing nothing short of a wholesale paradigm shift in how organizations think about content. The digital experiences we are accustomed to are no longer disparate touchpoints built by siloed teams, united solely by brand. Today, digital experiences constitute digital ecosystems which increasingly require centralization and orchestration.

From consumption of content to interaction with content

Consider for a moment how your personal experience of the Olympics might shift in the coming years as devices continue to enter the market at a blistering pace. What might a typical day look like during the Tokyo Olympics?

When you wake up in the morning to your smartwatch’s alarm, you peer sleepily at the screen and see various news notifications about the previous day’s swimming races, preemptively requested the night before. Then, when you rise to begin your day, you ask the Amazon Echo perched on your nightstand what happened the previous day in cycling, and Alexa responds with a curated list of news catered to your athletic interests.

As you eat breakfast, a small screen on your refrigerator depicts yesterday’s American medal winners and the overall medal standings across all participants in the Games. And as you walk to your car, bus, or train, your Google Glass pushes some notifications about the women’s gymnastics team into the corner of your lens. Finally, during your grocery shopping at the end of the day, you receive a notification on your smartphone about a sports drink on sale in the adjacent aisle based not on your browsing habits but rather how you’ve interacted directly with your content.

Of course, upon imagining this “typical” day four years from now, you may conclude that these possibilities are still remote and as yet unachievable. You might contend that realizing and articulating these myriad digital experiences requires a complicated and unwieldy architecture that current technologies are underprepared for.

In fact, all of this is possible and achievable in the short term with Drupal’s help.

Interacting with content, powered by Acquia

To demonstrate this, Acquia already has many compelling case studies in this area, especially around conversational interfaces and the Internet of Things (IoT). For instance, consider that Drupal 8 already has an open-source module available for Amazon Echo and that an integration with Alexa is not only possible but already very real, as you can see in the demo video below.

Holding a conversation with Drupal is certainly impressive, but it is by no means the only futuristic project that has leveraged Drupal 8 for forward-looking ideas. In New York City, Drupal 8 powers screens on information kiosks which show upcoming trains and service advisories, significantly ameliorating the waiting experience for passengers on platforms.

Drupal 8 also supplies data to a Tesla mobile application for Tesla vehicles, and Lufthansa is currently constructing in-flight entertainment systems which will consume content and data served by Drupal 8. All of these new applications open the door to even more new use cases and unfathomable opportunities for the audiences of our content.

API-first Drupal is free and open-source

What all of these innovative experiences have in common is Drupal as the centerpiece of each digital ecosystem. Today, you can use one Drupal repository to power IoT applications, chat applications, native mobile and desktop applications, single-page applications, set-top-boxes, and even other back ends.

Drupal 8 is API-first, which means that it is optimized for exposing content for the benefit of applications. Nevertheless, Drupal isn’t alone in this space. API-first content-as-a-service platforms, such as Contentful, Built.io, CloudCMS, and Prismic, are quickly infiltrating this new market. These are platforms which specialize in the broadcasting of content to other applications but do not display content themselves; in other words, they are headless. These API-first platforms generally charge to use their repositories in the cloud and often limit the number of requests you can make for content based on your subscription.

But Drupal has one key advantage in this age of new devices and touchpoints: It’s an API-first CMS that is free and open-source from end to end. This means all layers, including accessing and retrieving data, exposing that data, and consuming that data through software development kits (SDKs), comprise free and open-source software.

At Acquia, we are working hard to make Drupal even more API-first. Acquians are supporting ongoing efforts to shore up Drupal’s API-first capabilities as part of the API-first initiative in the community. In the upcoming weeks, Acquia team members will also be releasing Waterwheel.js 1.0, an SDK that helps accelerate the development of Drupal-backed JavaScript applications. This is just one part of the emerging Waterwheel ecosystem, a growing set of SDKs that bridge the gap between Drupal and other technologies such as Swift.


Think once more about where your digital experiences are today — your websites, your mobile applications, and all of the other content experiences you provide. Are they ready for the new world of content? Are they prepared for the constant upheavals in how we reach and understand our audiences? Are they equipped for the market trends that will redefine digital experiences as digital ecosystems and consumption of content as interaction with content?

How can you transform your digital experiences into a digital ecosystem that is ambitious, innovative, and uniquely competitive? Acquia has an excellent answer to that question. Stay tuned for an important announcement from Acquia next month about how we can collaborate to conceive, accelerate, and cultivate a compelling vision for your content. Together, we can take your content to the next level.

The contents of this blog post are adapted from a session delivered at the Brazil Innovators Summit in São Paulo entitled “Inovação na Acquia: Ampliando ecossistemas de conteúdo para novos espaços” (“Innovation at Acquia: Expanding content ecosystems to new spaces").

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