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Headless CMS: The Decoupled CMS Architecture

As new digital platforms and user needs arise, marketers are looking at choosing Headless CMS over traditional models.

Traditional CMS platforms have design and presentation elements baked in, making it difficult to vary content presentation and delivery. The solution? The headless or decoupled CMS.

Before exploring the differences between traditional and headless Content Management Systems, let’s review the benefits of a headless CMS:
  • Value: Redesign the site without re-implementing the CMS and future-proof your website implementation.
  • Freedom: Front-end developers are not bound by the conventions and structures of the backend and can gain full control over the user experience using their native tools.
  • Speed: By shifting display logic to the client side and streamlining the backend, site speeds can be dramatically increased. Applications focused on delivering content are more responsive than ones that assemble formatted responses based on complex rules.
  • Interactivity: Building true interactive experiences for users is possible with real-time, back-and-forth interaction happening between your backend and website right in the browser.
  • Creativity: Front-end developers are free to explore and create ways to deliver richer, faster, more responsive user experiences.

Traditional or Coupled CMS

In a traditional or coupled CMS, the back-end functions such as managing content, page layout, and design are coupled with the front-end function of rendering the final format on a screen. Everything is managed by one application layer, which is almost always page-based.

Users create and edit their content using a WYSIWYG or HTML editor, then the CMS displays the content according to the CSS used for layout.

Until recently, most websites were created using this architecture. If your goal is to make a relatively simple marketing site, a traditional CMS is still a good choice due to its simplicity. Some of the best known coupled systems include Wordpress, Drupal, Wix.

Traditional CMS Pros:

Simple setup and usage: Most traditional CMSs can be set up with very little dependency on developers. Using these systems is easy due to a relatively friendly user interface. 

Centralization: All components for content creation, publishing, and web design are centralized in one place.

Design flexibility at page level: Your container isn’t fixed – in terms of a desktop experience. It allows for customizable and resizable zones, and the ability to create unique presentations from dynamic content blocks.

Fast deployment: Any traditional coupled CMS offers a wide range of free and paid web design templates or themes, as well as the ability to customize the front-end design.

Pricing: Traditional CMS generally have a very low cost with very clear pricing structure.

Traditional CMS Cons:

Website-only content: you won’t be able to seamlessly use the same content for mobile or IoT devices without APIs.

Limited creativity/personalization: there's a limit to what kind of presentation and user experience you can provide, due to dependency on the display layer.

Decoupled or Headless CMS

In a headless CMS, the front-end and back-end functions are decoupled. The term “headless” comes from the concept of chopping the front end “head” off the “body” (the back end, i.e. the content repository). 

A headless CMS is a back-end only content management system (CMS) built as a content repository that makes content accessible via a RESTful API or GraphQL API for display on any type of front-end/device.

The headless CMS includes a Graphic User Interface (GUI) to manage content but does not have the functionality of a web-builder, as is the case for traditional CMSs.

Headless CMS Pros:

Content First: A headless CMS comes with its own well-defined API, so authors can focus on creating content rather than managing content.

Multi-channel content delivery: Since content and presentation are separated, content can be plugged into any device and across any platform from a single backend.

Programming Flexibility: Developers can choose their favorite tools and frameworks to build different frontends. This creates a unique user experience.

Scalability and easy redesign:  Since the backend and frontend are detached, there’s no need to redesign the whole system to make changes and upgrades. You can make customized digital assets and upgrade them without affecting the performance of the entire system. Conversely, you can redesign the front-end without affecting the content.

Future-proof: APIs make it easy for headless CMS to integrate with existing technologies, like apps, kiosks, virtual reality, as well as technologies that will appear in the future.

Headless CMS Cons:

No content previews: Since the backend and frontend are detached, there’s no opportunity to easily preview content and page design before it goes live. You can overcome this using third-party tools.

Dependency on developers: marketers have no visual tools for creating page layout by themselves, so they need to work closely with developers.

Diverse Knowledge: Since frontend rendering must be handled with separate software in a headless CMS, developers have to be familiar with multiple codebases.

High costs: Implementation and maintenance are expensive because of the fragmented technological stack, the need for developers, and additional infrastructure requirements. This also means that an accurate cost assessment may be more challenging.



Hybrid Headless CMS  vs. Traditional CMS

This is a relatively new trend. By 2022, 80% of digital experience platforms will be deployable in a hybrid headless fashion, according to Gartner. A hybrid CMS is a headless, decoupled CMS with a front-end. It is a traditional, monolithic CMS that also has a Content-as-a-Service (CaaS) API, through which content can be accessed and delivered to multiple devices or channels throughout the customer journey.

While decoupled from the backend, a hybrid CMS includes a presentation layer similar to a traditional or coupled CMS, at the same time using a headless architecture for delivery. A hybrid CMS may be considered as a “halfway” solution. A headless-only model comes with certain risks and a high level of digital maturity. Thus it is primarily used by businesses that focus on in-depth API skills to deliver streamlined digital experiences.

On the other hand, the hybrid headless CMS architecture allows a website to operate in two modes: in a pure headless mode or a traditional, coupled content delivery mode. 

When to Use a Headless CMS

Despite the many advantages of a decoupled CMS, there are some cases when it’s simply not needed. In the case of simple business websites with only a handful of static pages, an open source CMS like WordPress or Drupal is perfectly adequate.

A headless CMS is the best choice for rich web apps, highly customized layouts, and JavaScript MVC frameworks, which are limited by a traditional CMS that closely controls the appearance and presentation of content. Because a headless CMS typically deploys content through an API, it can deliver content anywhere, on any device from one back-end. This makes it especially well-suited for app-focused projects, like rich web apps or mobile apps. 

In short, a decoupled CMS is ideal for cross-platform publishing and custom user experiences. Agencies, organizations, and businesses who want to dominate the ever-changing face of digital content distribution should seriously evaluate changing to a decoupled content management system.

Get help from [A]’s CMS Implementation Experts

[A]’s CMS engineers are experts with years of experience in implementing Content Management Systems in large organizations. [A]’s expertise lies mainly but not exclusively in implementing headless component content management systems and Jamstack architectures. 

By taking a holistic approach to CMS solutions, [A] applied our content modeling and Content Engineering expertise, to assure companies have highly streamlined content supply chains. We look to improve every stage, from authoring to multi-channel publishing, while at the same time fostering personalized next-level Customer Experiences using a Content-as-a-Service model.

We assist organizations along this entire process assuring the journey is frustration-free and frictionless, and has a successful outcome for your organization.

Reach out today and take the next step on your content journey.
[A] Publication
[A] Guide to CMS Platform Selection