Headless CMS vs. Traditional CMS
Learn about the differences between headless CMSes and traditional CMSes and choose the best option for your business.
When CMSes first hit the internet, they provided a path-breaking solution: create easily installable, one-size-fits-all software that can run on a server, providing both a front-end website that developers could edit and configure on the back end.
This approach opened the internet up to non-technical users, offering a way to create rich, interactive experiences without expertise in web development. Simply log in to the admin panel of your website, write a post, and publish it in a matter of minutes.
Since then, however, the rise of mobile devices, omnichannel experiences, and Internet of Things (IoT) technologies have posed problems for the traditional CMS. Read on to learn how headless CMSes have elevated the development experience and whether they’re right for your use case.
Before content management systems, administering dynamic sites was a real challenge. A dynamic site changes frequently, with a constant influx of published and updated content. Think blogs, where authors frequently post new updates, or ecommerce sites, with product listings changing according to inventory.
Unless you were an experienced developer with a technical background, you had a few unappealing options for maintaining a dynamic site prior to CMSes. You could:
- Hire a technically-skilled developer to manually update your website every time you wanted to make a change.
- Hire a team of developers to build your own custom back end that allowed you to create and edit your own content.
- Learn to code the site yourself.
When they first arrived on the scene, traditional CMSes exploded in popularity. Plugins–small applications written by outside developers, which add functionality to your CMS–became a powerful, beginner-friendly way to customize your content management experience.
Soon, CMSes became even more widely-used by people who enjoyed their modular, open-source architecture. Many of these people used CMSes for much more than their original purposes. A CMS platform built for blogging, for example, might soon end up supporting an online store, a community forum, or an artist's portfolio. These design decisions often required compromises and hacky solutions.
Too many plug-ins could slow a website down and leave it vulnerable to security threats. As CMSes grew in size and complexity, it became harder for businesses to onboard new collaborators and understand what was going on. The internet began to outgrow traditional CMSes.
As the traditional CMS continued to spread across the internet, the rise of mobile devices and Internet of Things (IoT) technologies posed new challenges to the traditional CMS approach.
Having their entire website content in monolithic software, with only one place to present the published content, created extra work for anyone who wanted to publish their website's content on a mobile-first platform (like a company app), IoT device, or other medium.
Developers and content professionals began to wonder: how could they keep the benefits of a CMS, while avoiding the problems they were encountering at scale?
A headless CMS is built to address the drawbacks introduced above. It decouples the front-end presentation (the website your visitors see) from the back-end CMS (the user interface your site admins see, which they use to edit the site and publish content.)
What does it mean to decouple the front and back end? Imagine a computer factory. Under one roof, workers create the processors, chips, circuits, and every bit of hardware that goes into a functional computer. Then they assemble all those pieces into the computer itself.
When the computer leaves the factory, it's ready to be plugged in and used. This factory is like a conventional CMS, where the means of producing content are intertwined with the manner in which it's presented.
A decoupled approach, like the one employed by a headless CMS, is akin to splitting the computer factory in two. In one factory, you produce the chips, processors, and other building blocks that make computers work. Then you ship them to a second factory, which assembles those components into the computer. Both factories are optimized for speed and efficiency and can focus on what they're best at.
Better still, that same factory that makes the building blocks of the computer can ship its parts to other factories, which then assemble them into smart watches, home refrigerators, airplanes, and other complex modern electronics. The component factory doesn't need to do anything special to accomplish this; it simply sends out its product to more places. By decoupling, the business dramatically expands its efficiency and market surface.
This is very much how a headless CMS functions. The headless CMS removes the "head" (the website that visitors see and interact with) from the "body" (the admin user interface that controls site editing and content publishing.)
The result is a back end that is no less user-friendly than the original version of the traditional CMS but can support enterprise-level growth. Its unlimited front ends can be built with anything: a developer's favorite framework, a development kit for mobile apps or IoT, and so on. And the same content, edited and published within the headless back-end, can be shipped to numerous different complex presentation layers without additional strain.
What concrete solutions does a headless CMS offer over its predecessor?
- Omnichannel marketing strategies make it possible to spread your ad spend across as many different types of media as you'd like and test without duplicating your work.
- Developer experience (DX) improves dramatically, since software engineers have much more freedom to use their preferred tools, as well as optimized, coder-friendly systems to interact with on the back end.
- Editorial experience is significantly augmented. Bespoke workflows, input structures, and interfaces can be crafted without any front-end concerns.
- Your website is safer, since the site's nerve center is far away from its outward appearance.
- You can quickly adapt to changes in the marketplace, since you can easily swap out one front end presentation for another.
- You can take advantage of static site generation, an innovative approach to website-building that creates blazingly fast sites.
Thanks to their simplicity, traditional CMSes are the best choice for dynamic website builders looking for a quick, easy way to get up and running with little time or money. Popular templates and themes make it easy to carry out basic web design and myriad freelance developers are willing to provide affordable help.
The traditional approach is also great if you're willing to roll up your sleeves and take a DIY attitude. It's not too hard to learn how to administrate and design a site using a traditional CMS.
Finally, a traditional model is good for projects that are not expected to scale and will remain small and simple.
If you're leading a big project, you'll want something that can move and scale as fast as you do. A headless approach will enable you to swap out front ends and code new back end features faster and more effectively than with a traditional architecture.
Have you built a strategy around omnichannel marketing techniques? A headless CMS makes it possible to deliver the same content across multiple channels.
Want to make bespoke, interactive experiences for your site's visitors? Going headless dramatically expands the scope of what you can do, since you're free to choose from a wider variety of languages, frameworks, and tools.
The core limitation of a headless CMS is that it generally takes more effort to set up and configure and it requires some knowledge of web development, both on the front end and back end.
The headless approach has been so successful that the CMS landscape is beginning to adapt. Now there are tens, if not hundreds, of headless CMS platforms to choose from. Even traditional CMSes are beginning to change their software to enable more headless approaches. Industry-leading conventional CMS Wordpress recently announced it was releasing an API for use in decoupled front-end systems.
And headless CMS providers are beginning to see the worth in their rivals' structures, too: popular headless CMS Contentful now offers a page-builder, coupling front end design with its own headless back end.
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