Frameworks vs platforms in digital commerce

Frameworks or platforms? Unveiling the differences for your digital commerce journey

commercetools speaker image Micheal Scholz
Michael Scholz
VP, Product & Customer Marketing, commercetools
Published 26 May 2023

If you’re exploring the tech lingo in digital commerce and aren’t yet able to differentiate what’s a platform and what’s a framework, you’re not alone. These terms are sometimes used interchangeably or overlap in some way, so pinpointing a definition can be challenging. In this article, learn the difference between frameworks and platforms, why it matters and how these technologies are evolving.  

Frameworks vs platforms in digital commerce

With every business today relying heavily on software, business and technology leaders need to understand key terminologies, their differences and similarities, so they can shape their digital commerce strategy. Understanding frameworks and platforms is at the heart of making informed decisions on whether to build or buy commerce solutions — or a mix of both. So let's roll up our sleeves by exploring these technologies and what they mean for your business. 

What’s a framework?

A framework is a pre-designed and reusable set of libraries, tools and components (preset tools, libraries, SDKs, etc.) that provide a structured approach to developing applications. This pre-defined structure, coding conventions and a collection of functionalities simplify the development process while enabling programmers to create custom-built applications. 

Like a standardized template, frameworks enable developers to avoid repetitive tasks for specific programming projects, removing unnecessary and uncreative busywork. For example, when using Spring (Java) or Symfony (PHP), programmers don’t need to think about things such as persistence, routing and session management because standardized framework components do the work.

A framework analogy: Build your own house 

Think of a framework as having a blueprint or a construction plan for building a house. You have the freedom to build it and customize how you want it, decide what materials to use, how large or small it should be, and so on. In addition, you must build your house from scratch — with no third-party vendor involvement — which may require considerable effort. 

What are the ins and outs of frameworks in the digital commerce space?

Using frameworks is the way to go when you want to achieve hyper-customized online stores. The fact that frameworks are highly customizable, giving developers the freedom to build an eCommerce site or application precisely to their specifications, is an enticing proposition. For instance, Vue.js is a great example of a framework for building and orchestrating your own frontend. 

While working with frameworks can yield excellent results, such as tailored and unique storefronts, it requires a high degree of digital maturity and extensive developer resources. Despite providing a standardized “blueprint” to cut down on repetitive tasks, working with a framework means developers must create eCommerce applications from the ground up, which has a significant impact on implementation time. 

However, as with everything in life, frameworks continue to evolve, with many now providing pre-built features to make them easier to use and faster to deploy. 

What’s a platform?

According to the research leader Gartner®, “A digital commerce platform is the core technology that enables customers to purchase goods and services through an interactive and usually self-service experience. The platform provides necessary information for customers to make buying decisions and uses rules and data to present fully priced orders for payment.”

In addition, a platform can “provide out-of-the-box capability to provide, or APIs to support, a self-service, interactive commerce experience that includes a storefront, product catalog navigation, product pages, shopping cart, check-out and customer account.” 

In short: A platform provides the underlying infrastructure (hardware and software) to build and run an application. 

How are digital commerce platforms evolving? 

Traditionally, an eCommerce platform is an online ecosystem with an array of tools and services that allow merchants to create and run their own web shops. This model has been popular since the birth of digital commerce in the 1990s, providing businesses large and small with all things commerce. In a nutshell, companies just had to buy access to these platforms and enjoy all the standardized features from the get-go. 

These legacy all-in-one platforms (also known as eCommerce suites) provide a collection of applications by a single vendor and are offered as a pre-integrated, pre-packaged software stack. Often considered monolithic in nature, the components are bolted together with dependencies around data models, acquired databases, frontend/backend, and more, which must be purchased, released and upgraded as an atomic unit.

A traditional platform analogy: Buy your own house 

If the framework is a blueprint or construction plan to build a house from scratch, a traditional platform is akin to a tract home. This type of housing development provides multiple similar houses built on a tract of land, which are common in suburban developments. In practice, you buy a house from a developer and cannot modify or customize anything, architecture-wise. The result is that your house looks like everyone else’s. 

What’s the state of digital commerce platforms today? 

Slowly but surely, the conventional approach to eCommerce platforms started to evolve. Companies that run eCommerce on a legacy platform find it difficult to tailor experiences outside of the standardized features provided and, therefore, are limited to differentiating experiences. That’s why the rigid, unwieldy platform/suites paradigm has shifted toward more flexible models, such as headless commerce and, now, composable commerce

In 2013, headless commerce was born to enable the multi-layered omnichannel world we live in today. Decoupling the frontends (the presentation layer, like your webshop or mobile app) from the backend (the commerce engine handling all product, pricing and customer data) made it much easier for brands to update and adapt frontends without impacting the backend. Doing so enables companies to maximize flexibility, increase innovation output and become more agile. In a headless environment, individually consumable APIs handle the frontend/backend communication seamlessly, which is technically and commercially beneficial. 

As digital commerce continues to evolve, composable commerce approach takes headless further from a simple frontend/backend separation to an ecosystem where every component is independent.  That way, companies can combine best-of-breed “building blocks” like search, cart and checkout how they see fit to create unique customer experiences. 

For instance, Gartner® predicts that more business leaders will adopt the composable model to embrace constant change as a tool for growth. In contrast to the limitations of legacy platforms or the high-effort projects of frameworks, the flexibility of composable commerce enables companies to customize their tech stacks with the building blocks they need, combining components from best-of-breed vendors like commercetools or in-house developed applications. 

In a nutshell, composable commerce provides a build-and-buy approach: You can decide what you buy (outsource more “standard” functionalities to best-of-breed vendors) and what you build (so you only spend resources on what matters and differentiates your business). 

A composable commerce platform analogy: Build and buy your house 

If we consider the house analogy one last time, a composable model resembles a manufactured home. Instead of a completely custom-built house that you must build yourself or a tract home without the ability to customize it, you get a pre-fabricated house using a mix of standardized and customized pieces. Not only can you best balance budget and functionality, but you can also tailor elements according to your taste and style.   

Conclusion: Build and buy with composable commerce

When considering moving forward with your digital commerce technology, you no longer have to decide whether to build or buy; you can (and should) do both. The composable model gives you the best of both worlds, as you have the flexibility to bring together components from best-of-breed vendors — like commercetools Composable Commerce and Frontend — and your DIY applications. You have complete freedom to expand, contract or even replace any of these best-of-breed components with alternative solutions without impacting the rest of your platform. 

The result: You can craft a unique tech stack that perfectly aligns with your business requirements and allows for seamless adaptability as your needs evolve.

Are you ready to benefit from a build-and-buy approach with composable commerce? Download the complete migration guide to get started: Your Journey from a Homegrown Platform to commercetools Composable Commerce.

commercetools speaker image Micheal Scholz
Michael Scholz
VP, Product & Customer Marketing, commercetools

Michael Scholz is the VP of Product & Customer Marketing for commercetools. With two decades of experience in retail & software at SAP, Hybris, SuccessFactors and Sift, he has been leading software development, presales, consulting, marketing & strategic alliances.

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