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Should we go with a headless content management system?

If you are involved with your organization’s content management system in any capacity, you have probably heard the term “headless CMS” bantered about and have wondered what the heck everyone was talking about. Here’s the answer: headless is a (not-so-new) “new” approach for architecting web content management that has roots in decoupled content management systems. (Note: decoupled systems are different from headless CMSs but are on the evolutionary path toward headless.) My colleague, Cathy McKnight, has done an excellent job describing and analyzing headless CMS technology in her blog post Headless CMS – just a fad? so I recommend it as a strong foundation for getting started.

The key concept for headless CMS is that content production is separate (or decoupled) from content delivery and is housed in two separate systems. These two systems can come from the same vendor or be supplied by different CMS vendors, giving buyers more sourcing options than a coupled or decoupled system provide.

The two major components of a headless CMS architecture are:

  1. Content production engine and database – together these components make up the “headless” part of the system. The content production engine is where the content is managed – content creation, editing, etc. The content database is the repository where the content – completed or in progress – resides. The content production/database system is connected to the CMS head using RESTful APIs, such as JSON.-
  2. Content delivery – (or the “head”) sends content to a wide and quickly expanding range of channels – mobile devices, web, social, wearables, electronic display boards, etc. – without ever getting involved in the managing or storage of content. Content delivery can be powered by a portal or a custom HTML front-end system, a mobile app, or other push channels.

Digital Clarity Group just published a comprehensive report that describes headless technology in more detail. The report describes the evolution of CMS architectures since the beginning of the product category, identifies the benefits of headless systems, and identifies likely use cases. Importantly, headless CMS is best suited for businesses with large CMS deployments and extensive delivery channels. Alternatively, coupled and decoupled systems may be better suited for mid-sized and smaller organizations with less complex content channel needs.  Interestingly, a special type of CMS, known as content-as-a-service (CaaS),  could either be considered the fourth CMS market segment or, equally valid, could be seen as a specialized type of headless CMS. Table 1 below provides insights into these four types of CMS architectures.

Although headless CMS is the buzzword du jour, this technology is not for all organizations. A simple way to analyze the differences is to think of coupled and decoupled systems as best suited for small sites that have no commerce on the site and keep social media separate from the CMS. In contrast, headless and content-as-a-service systems are best-suited for large sites that support multiple brands, multiple locations, and heterogeneous software such as globalization, ecommerce, and social media as part of the CMS.


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