1 Dec, 2017

Is the Headless CMS as Scary as it Sounds?

A straight up, head still attached content management system (CMS) has three key elements: a way to store data, a create, read, update and delete (CRUD) UI and a way to display the data so, what happens when you chop the head off?
Well, it’s no horror movie moment that’s for sure. As it turns out the CMS can cope quite well, some may even say thrive without its head but what are the pros and cons of the traditional CMS vs this new, headless version?
The traditional content management system is 20 years old, and that 20 years has seen a lot of innovation and change in the digital world. It’s now the age of mobile and the internet of things (IOT), robots, digital assistants and virtual reality. That means that today, users consume digital content on any device in any format and the traditional CMS is arguably struggling to cope.

This is in part, is why the headless CMS was created; to make content available through any channel, on any device in a secure and scalable way. A headless CMS essentially has no front end, it simply stores and delivers content.

So here are the pros and cons…

The Build

One: with the traditional CMS, websites must be built “on top” of the platform, which means you need have a working knowledge of that content management system’s rules and process. If you go headless, then you can simply pick and mix the CMS functionality throughout your solution, as and when you need it, sometimes with just a few lines of code.

However, a completely headless CMS will require lengthy implementation in the first instance, so if all you need is a CMS to manage for example a responsive website, then a headless CMS can actually increase development time and delay go live.

Moreover, the beauty of the traditional CMS is that is makes development and content creation and publication incredibly easy and quick, which can be a key benefit for fast paced businesses such as ecommerce sites.
Two: a traditional CMS has the CMS code and the website code working together which creates complex and at times hard to manage codebases, while the headless CMS keeps content separate from the website codebase. All the rendering is done through API calls.

This does tend to eliminate the waterfall approach that can occur with projects build on a traditional CMS because the design isn’t tied to the functionality of the CMS and equally the CMS isn’t restricted by the design.

Three: the traditional CMS will require a specific programming launching such as .NET whereas the headless CMS can integrate with any codebase, so you can pick and choose the development language you’re using. However, this also means that your internal team is responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of that solution, no matter how it’s programmed so if there are bugs or problems, it’s down to you to get them sorted. Most headless CMS vendors don’t support your implementation.

Four: it can be conceptually difficult to think of content separately from content presentation and that’s exactly what you need to get your head around if you are going to headless. Explaining this concept to clients can be even trickier too. It’s a highly abstracted way of thinking and depending on the number of applications for your content, you may need to beware of arduous and time consuming content architecture exercises.

Five: some specific pieces of functionality we take for granted with the traditional CMS such as multi-lingual implementations, third party integrations or even the basic site search function can become infinitely harder to implement in a headless environment and testing for these features can take days if not weeks.

The Hosting & Maintenance

This one’s really quite a straightforward difference: a traditional CMS requires a database and server hosting and a headless CMS doesn’t. When it comes to maintenance, the security upgrades, server monitoring and database backups that are needed to support a traditional CMS are no longer a problem with the headless CMS as it’s essentially software as a service (SaaS), so these features are all handled for you.

That being said, in highly regulated industries such as finance and healthcare, the very fact that the headless CMS is SaaS can be problematic because of security and privacy requirements.

Our Opinion

There are definitely certain cases where the headless CMS is the right solution, such as content first microsites and light weight websites that need to be built and launched in tight time frames for a limited duration. In this scenario the headless CMS offers a cost effective and time effective solution.

However, for many businesses the traditional CMS remains a practical solution, especially in circumstances where there are a large number of technical requirements such as integrations with stock management systems and CRMs, alongside complex ecommerce functionality.

So that being said, we don’t think the headless CMS will replace the traditional CMS. Instead we expect to see more traditional CMS providers offering headless options, giving developers more and more choice over how they meet a client’s brief.

One thing is for sure, this is definitely going to be a trend to watch as the digital revolution continues and we see more and more internet connected devices being launched on the market.