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What is Shopify Hydrogen and How Do I Upgrade my Business to Headless Commerce?


Aspiring eCommerce brands have never stopped hitting the ceiling as they continuously soul-searched what modern commerce platforms can provide.

Relentlessly, their main aim has been to build totally custom storefronts that bend to their unique brand vision. And, shopper expectations are increasingly becoming more competitive than ever before (with good reason).

They are constantly in search of a brand experience that spans multiple channels and integrates them into the brand identity.

To provide this, you must run rings around what is achievable with a standard (or even custom) Shopify theme

That being said, one of the biggest game-changers of all time in eCommerce has been the invention and the eventual rise of impressive headless commerce. This new killer approach to platform architecture has transformed the way online stores are built and operated.

More preferably, Shopify, one the leading cloud-based e-commerce platforms, has taken headless eCommerce further by storm when they introduced their new Shopify Hydrogen Platform. Released in February 2021, Shopify Hydrogen is poised to bring significant advancements in both developer experience as well as performance. It also brought with it, a suite of new tools specific to Shopify storefronts.

What is Shopify Hydrogen?

It is a react-based framework (a set of developer tools) for building custom Shopify storefronts that are highly personalized and performant. It is assembling together a wide range of technologies to build especially dynamic Shopping experiences with no controversy of performance.

Courtesy of its quick start build environment, smart catching, out-of-the-box components as well as a build cache defaults, eCommerce developers are absolutely impressed with this new framework. Besides, it aims to give you the speed of your preference, and the creativity you always crave for.

How does Shopify Hydrogen operate?

Similar to other headless solutions, Hydrogen makes use of React framework to create extremely performant and endlessly customizable online store frontends.

 Having realized that JAMStack frameworks weren’t the greatest fit for their platform, Shopify build Hydrogen, which features Shopify Hydrogen

If you shift to a Hydrogen React Shopify storefront from your traditional Liquid-based Shopify theme, the frontend of your e-commerce store becomes only connected to the backend by way of APIs.

Additionally, Hydrogen has pre-built components and hooks that map directly to your backend for an additional seamless transition to a headless store

Significantly, the Storefront API makes it possible for brands to connect certain third-party integrations to their new storefront, ousting the Shopify apps they formerly depended on.

It also depends on Vite for “server-side presenting (SSR), hydration middleware, and client component code transformations.”

For Shopify stores, Hydrogen is pretty easy to add from the dashboard.

Now let's get acquainted with the Shopify Hydrogen features which are key to understanding this platform better.

Hydrogen framework: has a Vite plugin that provides server-side rendering (SSR), hydration middleware, and client component code transformations. It acts as a building block that makes it possible for you to gain a balance between great commerce experience and user experience.

Hydrogen UI components: are components, hooks, and utilities that safeguard features and concepts that already exist in Shopify.

Shopify frameworks: Liquid vs React

Liquid: liquid is a template language written in Rugby and created by Shopify. It is the backbone of all the existing Shopify themes and it assists in loading dynamic content on the store's pages.

Framework: is the assembly of ready-made tools and components to come up with applications.

Hydrogen: A framework used for building Shopify's headless storefront.

Moving to the Hydrogen framework is tantamount to leaving Shopify’s templating language, Liquid, behind in favor of the open-source JavaScript framework, React.js.

Like Shopify, Shogun Frontend has ensured a tremendous bet on React as the future of headless storefronts.

Where Liquid has vastly lessened itself to Shopify theme development, React is widely used and only growing much more popular.

This means that brands can very easily come across highly experienced developers when hiring in-house, and there are several expert agencies to help with implementation.

With Hydrogen, your team will no longer use Liquid to build and make amends on custom Shopify themes.

What is the React framework?

Coined into existence by Facebook, React is a JavaScript UI development library that has gotten unrestrainedly popular in recent years for its reusable components, high-performance capabilities, and simplicity of development.

The open-source community that makes and maintains React describes it as declarative, component-based, and “Learn Once, Write Anywhere.”

As any front-end developer feels impressed to hear, React “makes it harmless to create interactive UIs.”

Hydrogen makes use of React Server Components (RSC), which gives room for page rendering from both the browser and the server at the expense of fetching all data from the server.

This assertive workflow raises page load by reducing the amount of data needed to render page elements. That said, RSC can as well add more complexity to your headless development.

Benefits that accrue as a result of going headless with Shopify Hydrogen 

  1. Provision of site performance optimization

One of the key benefits of going headless with Shopify Hydrogen is its exceptional site performance, especially site speed. 

By separating the frontend from its backend, you gain the desirable ability to unlock a super-fast loading page speed, while at the same time maintaining all dynamic content and functionalities within the backend. Connecting to Shopify Hydrogen can assist you in lessening the page load speed from a few seconds to milliseconds, thus leveraging the store’s Core Web Vitals. 

In summary, Shopify’s headless solution makes it possible for you to realize fully personalized and dynamic content that can be customized promptly without slowing the server and your site’s speed. With that, you can fully win the trust of all visitors and customers coming to your store.    

  1. Offers enhanced ability to scale

Another issue, which has been a thorn in the flesh to most developers, and that often goes hand in hand with site speed optimization is scalability. Before the invention of Hydrogen, developers have been languishing in difficulty with an attempt to determine the trade-off between speed and site experience when it comes to site optimization. 

As a matter of fact, any seasoned developer will well acknowledge the fact that it might be unsophisticated to deliver a highly interactive and personalized shopping experience with an ultra-fast web performance in case there is relatively low traffic. Nevertheless, as your store scales up, the site won't be in a position to handle a new influx of visitors every day, thus resulting in speed complications and poor site functionality.       

Luckily, with the invention of this eCommerce savior, Shopify Hydrogen, this problem has been effectively solved from its root with Shopify Oxygen. You don’t need to seek third-party hosting services since your Shopify store will be hosted directly on Oxygen. 

To make its service run smoothly and conveniently, Shopify has invested heavily in Oxygen's global structure with more than 100 server locations worldwide. Oxygen ensures your customers will always enjoy lightning-speed store loading irrespective of their locations. This upcoming infrastructure enhances fast communication between dynamic storefront content and commerce structures, completely getting rid of the speed and scalability issues.

Shopify asserts that Oxygen is the quickest way to make use of Shopify-backed commerce experiences. The combination of Hydrogen and Oxygen is giving room for modern headless commerce soon. 

  1.  Gives Freedom For More Design

Since Hydrogen follows a headless approach that separates the storefront of your Shopify site from the backend holding all data and site functionality, it displays additional flexibility and freedom to build and customize your storefront the way you want. The design ability with Shopify Hydrogen is endless, and you can build unique UX/UI designs to deliver a personalized and dynamic shopping experience for visitors. 

Making use of  a page builder tool specializing in Hydrogen storefronts can lead to the design processing capability being faster and smoother. All the Shopify merchants need to do is simply drag and drop the layout from scratch, or easily use premade templates and blocks to build pages without any coding or design skills involved.   

Better still, as the front and back ends of your Shopify site connect through API, you can make modifications on the frontend design freely without worrying about worsening or breaking the backend functions, which in most cases happens with traditional commerce.

  1.  Provision of excellent commerce experience

Even though personalized marketing for eCommerce business is not uncommon to online marketers (take Amazon product recommendations as a popular hint), it is not a general approach that non-headless stores can easily adopt. 

Shopify Hydrogen with frontend flexibilities and separate CMS has come up with an easy, lightweight solution that any Shopify store can make use of. You possess overall control over storefront design and content management to effectively customize personalized storefronts to give the best to your customers. In addition, mixing Hydrogen with Oxygen results in a millisecond page loading speed while still at the same time maintaining stable web performance. 

A great commerce experience should painstakingly balance customer experience and store capability. Shopify Hydrogen makes it easier for you to create an outstanding commerce experience that can satisfy both store performance and customer experience at the same time. 

  1.  Ensures increased development

By making effective use of the foundational framework and ready-to-use UI components, Shopify Hydrogen could quicken the front-end development while equally giving merchants endless design strength. Besides, Hydrogen lowers all the complexity that often comes with third-party integrations and software required to build a custom storefront in the past.   

Therefore, Shopify Hydrogen is one of the quickest routes that Shopify stores can make use of to achieve the best headless commerce features without the long, tedious, and highly expensive development process. 

Shopify Hydrogen shortcomings

The perfection of Shopify Hydrogen is still far from being realized at this initial stage of its development.

Whereas Shopify will leave no stone unturned as far as the improvement of Shopify Hydrogen is concerned over time, there are still a few noticeable shortcomings of diving in with it now.

  • Existence of a developer-rigid workflow that you have to build from scratch: As a code-heavy initiative, although this Shopify framework equips you with the benefits of going headless, the developers have to hustle and bustle to build all that needs to be used in the hydrogen. What this means is that your non-technical team members won’t have access to the frontend layer of the site to make changes. Besides, there’s no short or long-term drag-and-drop tooling available on the 2022 roadmap. In conclusion, this solution may be very convenient for e-commerce teams with already existing (and considerable) developer resources. 
  •    It still lacks a store preview. Only if you personally want to build a preview environment, or use one of the new page-building solutions, you are unable to see a real-time preview of the Hydrogen-powered store you’re building. This makes it very tricky to implement with your non-technical eCommerce team members.
  • Still relies on React Server Components to effectively execute its functions: what this means is that Hydrogen’s output isn’t going to be a static progressive web app (PWA). So, your developers will be forced to develop the Shopify server. As a sidebar, React Server Components are very fashionable and updated (consider it “in beta”). Whereas it’s a very ideal idea, it isn’t been fully adopted by the majority of developers yet.
  • You have to connect your personal CMS to use it: admittedly, Shopify works with Sanity to bring CMS functionality to Hydrogen storefronts. Sanity is a third-party, developer-oriented CMS making it possible for teams to create schemas of content data (images, text, videos) for a degree of low-code content management.
  • The app support is not widespread yet:  Even though Shopify has shown a sign of providing sufficient app support eventually, it’s still in the very early stages in their third-party app ecosystem. There aren’t APIs available to effectively perform everything just yet. You’ll therefore still need to create middleware yourself for every Shopify app that you want to use.‍

Its services are limited to only supporting web storefronts. At this early stage, Hydrogen is unable to be used to create other types of custom storefronts, like smart devices, mobile apps, and video games.

It will still take a fortune to use Hydrogen in replacing Liquid: A massive number of merchants have invested in Shopify themes. Therefore, it’s an uphill task to shift attention away from Shopify Liquid themes and the non-technical audience these themes currently serve. If you’re looking at Hydrogen as a headless solution, equally consider that it may not outpace Liquid for some time.

How Can I Effectively Upgrade My Business to Headless Commerce?

What prompts businesses to upgrade to Headless Commerce  is its flexibility. Since the customer's side is decoupled from the technical side, headless commerce offers businesses an unparalleled level of flexibility, which is very crucial in today's market. It is due to this flexibility that brands can create a unique customer experience on the frontend. But then, which is the best means for brands to upgrade to Headless Commerce?

Step 1: Determine What Platform Resonates Well with Your Needs

It is hardly ever easy to get a one-size-fits-all e-commerce platform for your business.

Making a choice will depend on the size of your business. For instance, a relatively small business can opt for an application programming interface (API) from a platform like Shopify Plus to get used to headless solutions with no need of migrating.

A medium-sized market or enterprise company may opt for a service-oriented architecture that provides more enhanced flexibility and scalability as your business continues to grow.

Step 2: Choose a  suitable Headless Content Management System

You have a headless solution, right? The next step is to make a good choice of a headless content management system (CMS), especially if you aim to deliver content to multiple presentation channels.

It is needless to point out that In a traditional CMS, you’ll be required to have multiple platforms to effectively send your content to different channels. Nevertheless, a headless CMS merges all its operations into a single platform to create content optimized for each channel, and the APIs spread the content across a range of touchpoints.

There are two types of headless CMS solutions you can use:

Open-source solution: This type needs a more modified level of technical knowledge yet offers access to the software’s codebase and ensures maximum customization.

Software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution: This solution conveys powerful customization abilities and makes it possible for you to set up your headless CMS quicker with no technical difficulties.

Step 3: Sync Your APIs With the Headless CMS

You are almost done with your upgrading processes to the amazing headless store platform. All you need to do now is to sync your APIs with the headless CMS. This results in an easier and smoother data flow.

Headless APIs then connect new components to your current site’s architecture to keep off any disruptions to your customer experience. We strongly recommend integrating a ready-to-use headless commerce API from a reputable SaaS provider.

As was once quoted by Dan Close, the founder, and CEO, of Buy Houses in Kentucky, “APIs power headless eCommerce solutions, making them far easier to integrate with new and current systems than other solutions. For example, a headless e-commerce website can simply be integrated with marketing automation systems such as a CMS or CRM. If you don’t use an API, you’ll have to rely on a plugin, which requires frequent upgrades and security patches. An API integration ensures that your data is sent fast and efficiently, and these solutions typically don’t require modifications after the initial connection is established.”

Also note that in case you’re migrating from a monolith platform, you are free to divide the migration into phases and replace your legacy system piece by piece.

Wrap Up

There we go, we have come to an end. We believe you have gathered enough information about this highly converting platform, Shopify Hydrogen.

While there exist numerous approaches to headless commerce, Shopify Hydrogen is undoubtedly a game-changer that we can surely expect a lot more shortly. It is pointless to say that it won't replace Liquid any time soon. Nevertheless, following the latest unfoldings of  technology trends, can take you a step higher than your competitors.

In case you are dreaming of enjoying a boundless design, a super-fast page speed, and possessing full control over the storefront to deliver an outstanding commerce experience, Shopify Headless is the path to go.


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