Headless CMS. To chop or not to chop?

Wali Naderi
27 Jan 2022
6 min read
Headless CMS. To chop or not to chop?
The adoption of the headless content management system (CMS) is growing by leaps and bounds. According to a recent study, the global headless CMS software market will expand about 5x over 2020-2027, rising from US$328.5m in 2019 to a value of US$1.6bn by 2027. Other reports confidently foresee the future of content management as ‘headless’ or ‘decoupled’ (while these terms are often used interchangeably, there is a difference in the two architectures that we'll take a more detailed look at later).
 
So what lies behind the growing popularity of headless or decoupled CMS architectures?

Background: when coupled was cool

In the early days of the internet, browser-based website visits through desktops or laptops constituted the vast majority of online consumption. Most CMS solutions were anchored to a coupled architecture, where the back end was tightly linked with the consumer-facing front end (known as the 'presentation layer' or the 'head'). This facilitated seamless content authoring and publishing on websites for the predominant method of access.

Rise of the omnichannel challenge

Over time – and particularly over the last decade – dramatic technology shifts have created a multichannel environment, with content now consumed heavily through a host of devices beyond the desktop/laptop, including tablets, smartphones, wearables, gaming consoles and voice assistants. Traditional CMS architectures, which were template-centric and anchored to predefined layouts, no longer fit the bill. Their design restricted their ability to deliver the same content across multiple formats. Consequently, the need of the hour was to reinvent CMS architecture to allow multichannel publishing from a single back-end content system.
 

Headless CMS

Source: CMS Connected

Enter the headless CMS: the good and the not-so-good

This led to the advent of the headless CMS, where instead of including a predefined front end ('head'), the CMS would use REST APIs (representational state transfer application programming interfaces) or GraphQL (a query language for APIs) to attach the back end to multiple heads, as required. As well as enabling publishing to different devices, channels or formats, the headless CMS also usually offers better scalability, security, and reusability of content.

Despite its many pros, a pure headless CMS architecture has some inherent disadvantages. From a marketer’s point of view, one of the biggest drawbacks is its lack of preview functionality, typically supported by traditional CMSs with tools such as WYSIWYG editors and standard templates. Moreover, headless CMS solutions lean heavily on developers with the technical expertise to manage the back end. This limits the ability of other business functions (marketing, for instance) to make changes.

For mid- and large-scale organizations, choosing between the merits and demerits of traditional and (pure) headless CMS technology can be tricky.

Advantages of a decoupled CMS

This is where decoupled CMS solutions, such as the RWS intelligent content platform, Tridion, enter the fray. A decoupled CMS addresses many of the negatives of a pure headless solution. In particular, it offers the best of both the traditional and headless worlds with integrated front-end functionality that is nevertheless independent of the back end. As highlighted by research and advisory firm Digital Clarity Group, “a decoupled CMS is essentially a regular full stack of content management, delivery, and presentation solution, but allows for content stored within it to be leveraged by other systems.”

Comparison of Pure Headless CMS and Decoupled CMS

 

Headless CMS

Decoupled CMS

Architecture

Back-end +
API

Back end +
API +
Front end

Content management

Content creation, editing, organization, storage

Content creation, editing, organization, storage

Content delivery

Only via API to delivery applications and systems

Directly via its own front-end +
Via API to other applications and systems

Content presentation

None (no templates, themes, etc.)

Can present formatted content to various channels

Source: Digital Clarity Group (and desk research)

Our CMS solution – the Tridion intelligent content platform – is often cited as a leading example of a decoupled CMS. Given our publishing software roots, we've adopted a decoupled approach from the outset; cognizant of the need to keep content management and content publishing as independent functions to support omnichannel publishing, without losing all the positives of traditional CMS solutions. Here are some key strengths of the RWS solution:

  • BluePrinting®. This is the foundational technology that lets you reuse content for different channels without duplication, while benefiting from having a single source of truth and great content governance.
  • GraphQL. While traditional CMSs play catchup, our decoupled architecture and headless delivery capabilities use GraphQL, giving it an edge over many competing CMS vendors.
  • Translation. Conscious of the needs of global enterprises, RWS is among the few vendors that offers a range of built-in translation management functions, helping to eliminate delays in getting quality content to all of your markets.
  • Tridion accelerators. These let you take advantage of prebuilt connectors, sample code and documentation to embed Tridion into your larger digital ecosystem quickly and efficiently.

As a parting note, I would like to add that RWS has always advocated that your actual use cases should be the primary factor determining whether your choice of CMS should be traditional, headless, or (for the flexibility to pursue either approach) a decoupled solution like Tridion.