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Directus and the Open Data Platform Concept: A Q&A with Directus Founder and CEO, Ben Haynes

By Michelle Maddox on March 7, 2022

Nearly two decades in the making, Directus has undergone a lot of change and growth in just the last six months. After hitting a 10 million Docker download milestone in October 2021 (we’re closing in on 18M now!), formally launching Directus 9, and introducing its tiered Directus Cloud offering, the company is now generating a lot of buzz in the developer community.

In a recent interview, Ben Haynes, Founder and CEO of Directus, provided some insight into how Directus evolved from a small headless CMS project to an Open Data Platform that democratizes data across organizations, powering data-driven apps and experiences that deliver rapid time to value. Here’s what he had to say.

Q. How was Directus started?

Haynes: Directus was created in 2004, a decade before the term "headless CMS" was coined. We've spent that time iterating through versions, carefully crafting an ideal user experience, and honing in on the “perfect” data platform. As the agency grew, we formalized the company as RANGER studio. We were a team of developers assigned to work on the Directus project. Over the next several years, we worked on creating the first proper version of the platform.

Following a whirlwind of mergers and acquisition, I ended up in a leadership position at Verizon/AOL in 2015. However, I continued to work on Directus on the side. At the time, there was a surge of interest in headless CMS – the core use case for Directus – and I couldn’t deny the opportunity. I decided to leave Verizon and focus my efforts on Directus. I partnered with Rijk van Zanten, who wanted to modernize the Directus framework to better support his master's program work. And the rest is history!

Q. Tell us about the evolution of the platform.

Haynes: There were many iterations. Directus 6 was rebuilt from the original version using a PHP-based API and the Zend library for database abstraction. Our App was written in Backbone.js. Six years later, we developed Directus 7, decoupling the App from the API. That ensured that all the platform’s features were available programmatically. We departed from Backbone.js, built the new App in Vue.js, and refactored the API in PHP with Slim and Zend.

For Directus 8, we honed the App's user experience and user interfaces. We adopted a continuous integration approach and began to release patches and minor updates frequently. That was great, but we knew we needed to take a bigger step forward and do a full ecosystem refresh for the next version.

Our current version, Directus 9, has been completely rebuilt from the ground up. The App was rewritten in Vue.js 3, finally perfecting the design system after 16 years of iterations. In parallel, two API refactors were started: one in PHP-Laravel and the other in Node.js. Since the Node API was faster and higher-performing, we decided to focus exclusively on the JavaScript version. At that time, we also developed documentation and video tutorials, and fully defined our cloud offerings.

Q. How did the introduction of Directus 9 impact the direction of the company?

Haynes: Directus 9 propelled us into growth mode. We secured our first round of funding from Handshake Ventures and bolstered our core team. In the past six months, we have grown substantially, refined our brand messaging, and officially announced Directus 9 and Directus Cloud to the public.

Q. What is an Open Data Platform, and why would an organization need one?

Haynes: Today, only 14% of enterprises make data broadly accessible to employees. If a team, such as Sales, Marketing, Data Science or HR want to create a solution for managing data specific to their function, they have to ask IT for help. An engineer has to design a solution for that specific use case before they can use it. Or, a team may purchase an off-the-shelf solution which must then be integrated with an existing database. Either of these approaches can take months, requiring highly skilled (and high-paid) engineers to devote their time to the project. Meanwhile the team waiting for the solution can’t get started using the data until the engineers make it available. Creating and maintaining purpose-built solutions is also time-consuming and expensive, and results in data silos.

As the first-ever Open Data Platform, Directus solves these challenges, democratizing data across organizations. It changes the game with standardized APIs that abstract the complexity of connecting relational database content, enabling both technical and non-technical users to quickly and securely access company data and content using a simple no-code App. The App supports “Citizen IT,” enabling non-technical business users with tools that help to distribute the engineering lift across the organization. Through the App, users can browse, manage and visualize data, and use it to power any number of projects, without having to be engineers or experts in data management. Directus eliminates data silos, speeds time to market for new data-driven apps and experiences, and opens up endless possibilities for organizations to derive additional value – rapidly – from the vast amounts of data they already have.

Q. How does Directus work?

Haynes: Directus installs on top of new or existing SQL databases, pulling everything it needs from the database’s schema and content – a process called “mirroring.” The data remains unaltered and pristine, but becomes available for connecting, browsing, managing and visualizing through a data backbone that includes the REST and GraphQL APIs, ETL workflows, the no-code App and flexible authentication options. Of course, this is just a high overview, and anyone interested in learning more can visit our Documentation page, where they’ll find Comprehensive tutorials, references, example code, and more. They can also check out our YouTube channel to watch video tutorials.

Q. What are the primary use cases for Directus?

Haynes: When used as a Headless CMS, Directus enables users to create omnichannel digital experiences such as a blog, website or digital advertising. The platform is perfect for developing internal apps for a variety of functions, such as customer data management, project management, inventory management, knowledge bases or recruiting. Directus can be used to power SaaS offerings, as well, or to help data science teams visualize and analyze complex datasets across disparate data sources. Just like the databases Directus layers on top of, the possibilities are endless and only limited by your imagination.

Q. What drives innovation at Directus?

Haynes: Our community of users. From the beginning, Directus has been completely free and open-source, so we rely on the members of the thriving Directus community to help us shape the platform roadmap. We leverage the continuous development model, so we release platform updates and fixes frequently – sometimes daily – based on real-world feedback we receive from our users. Our goal is to continually improve the developer experience, and evolve the platform to meet developers’ changing needs and expectations.

As a way to give back, we just released the latest version of our Cloud offering: Community Cloud, which enables anyone to use the platform to spin up a proof-of-concept, hobby project or small project for free. Our Community Cloud provides access to a full-featured version of Directus along with many of the perks of the Standard and Enterprise Cloud tiers, such as community support through our Discord channel, 24X7 system monitoring, asset storage and a global CDN. Our goal is to inspire innovation without strings, and bring the spirit of open-source to the cloud.

Q. What’s next for Directus?

Next up, we’ll be working on providing real-time data access and data subscriptions, as well as fully customizing our no-code data workflows and alerting. We’ll also be introducing some amazing cloud-exclusive features and extensions for our Directus Cloud customers. And, to support our growing community of users, we’ll be developing additional core documentation, integration guides and new video tutorials. We’re excited for the future of the Directus platform, and can’t wait to see where 2022 takes us.

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