The benefits of headless CMSes
Learn how a headless CMS improves on conventional approaches, and whether it's the right choice for your business.
When content management systems (CMS) initially hit the internet, they were revolutionary. For the first time, non-technical users could manage their own dynamic website. Anyone could create blog posts, update product listings, and even design the site itself without needing to write code.
We’ve come a long way since traditional CMS structures. Today’s next generation of content management systems is the headless CMS. Unlike its predecessor, this innovative software architecture decouples the source of web content (the back end) from its presentation (the front end). This decoupling makes for faster, safer, and more flexible sites that can handle rapid scaling and pivoting.
But is a headless CMS right for your project? Read on to learn what sets them apart and whether they’re a good fit for your use case.
To understand the benefits of a headless CMS, it’s helpful to take a trip back in time. In a traditional CMS, the back end is joined to the front end via a monolithic, tightly-coupled architecture.
Traditional CMS architectures are still popular today. Here’s why:
- Setting up and deploying a site is quick and easy, since front and back end are hosted in the same stack.
- Users without development experience can play a hands-on role in site administration, editing and publishing content and managing access to the back end. This reduces expenses and expands the amount of people that can perform basic site maintenance.
- Community themes, templates, and support are plentiful, which gives beginners plenty of options to get started.
Since the traditional CMS came out, the internet has matured and user expectations have raised the bar for UX. Here’s why some people now find the traditional architecture stifling:
- As they grow, sites become slower and harder to work, because the architecture is not designed with long-term flexibility in mind.
- Exporting the site's content to new channels such as mobile apps and IoT devices is time-consuming and costly.
- Future-proofing content is difficult, because you're locked into the technical decisions made when the architecture was built.
For simple projects, such as no-frills sites for local businesses and hobbyist blogs, the benefits of conventional CMS architectures can outweigh the drawbacks. For more complex sites, however, these issues can become downright maddening. The headless CMS was invented specifically to address those challenges.
By decoupling the front-end (the "head") from the back-end, a headless CMS mitigates problems with the traditional approach. The front-end can be reworked or replaced at will and multiple different front-ends can easily consume the same content. Additionally, the entire architecture is safer, since the content resides on its own server far away from any front-end presentation, reducing its "attack surface" (or the number of places an attacker could penetrate the system).
By decoupling the stack, a headless CMS can easily connect to an unlimited number of presentation layers. That means the same data can be sent to any number of front-ends: websites, mobile apps, smart TVs, IoT devices, electronic billboards–anything. This enables more agile marketing approaches and saves time and money when the business needs to perform a course correction.
In conventional structures, developers are tied to preset technology choices. Whenever they want to customize a site, they must work against their tools. By contrast, when developers can choose the front-end tools they're most comfortable with, code gets written faster and developers are happier.
In systems where the front end is tightly coupled with the back end, the entire web site becomes an attack vector. By breaking through security systems on the presentation layer, threat actors can easily gain access to the back end and all its sensitive data. In headless architectures, one vulnerability does not necessarily cause a domino effect that compromises the entire site. A modular, compartmentalized architecture is much safer.
A headless CMS makes it much simpler to leave behind an old-school toolchain for an exciting new technology. Because content is served API-first, swapping out front ends requires no significant changes to back end configuration. Migration headaches are a thing of the past.
Thanks to the JAMStack architecture, headless CMSes pair well with static-site generators (SSGs), which build a new version of your dynamic website every time you deploy an update. SSGs usually come with easy ways to pull in data from external sources when constructing their pages at build time, complementing the decoupled way in which headless CMSes serve their content via API. Static sites are often much faster than their counterparts, since they're mostly simple HTML and CSS.
With a headless CMS, errors cause fewer problems. The front-end has fewer points of contact with the back-end, so both are more fault-tolerant when problems occur in the other domain.
While headless CMSes are a huge improvement on their predecessors, nothing's perfect. This is what you will need to be ready for a headless CMS:
- Because there's no front end built into the architecture, headless CMS sites usually require front end development skills, though some come with beginner-friendly starters.
- Conventional CMS sites can easily create live previews of unpublished content, but this is sometimes harder with headless CMS systems., However, some providers have prioritized live preview functionality.
Who benefits from switching to a headless CMS?
- Enterprise businesses with lots of content, especially those that want the ability to target an entirely new presentation layer or medium with limited effort and maximum agility.
- Startups looking to grow fast and test their content's performance, which are well-positioned to take advantage of the flexibility and speed that going headless affords
- Anyone with access to a front end developer who has the time to build a website and doesn't mind occasional maintenance.
- A headless CMS separates front end and back end, granting developers more freedom to serve content in different ways.
- Traditional CMS architectures, while still useful for simpler sites, cannot easily adjust to change and can cause painful vendor lock-in.
- A headless CMS connects to any channel and radically improves speed, developer experience, and security, future-proofs your content, and mitigates mistakes; its major drawback is that it doesn't come with a front end out of the box.
- Headless architectures work well for large businesses, lean start-ups hoping to move and grow quickly, and anyone with development experience and the desire to build and maintain their own front end.
Ready to go headless?
Sanity's content platform provides the most robust, developer-friendly headless architecture in the space today. Sanity’s structured data approach takes the platform beyond a headless CMS, enabling you to unlock the full potential of your content by treating content as data for the most complex use cases that require a content database.