A headless CMS is a content management system (CMS) that provides backend-only functionalities, making content accessible through a GraphQL or REST API and displayable on any device possible.
A headless CMS completely separates the backend (creation and storage) from the frontend (design and deployment). It doesn't manage the frontend presentation layer.
A traditional CMS (often described as monolithic) couples the frontend (the design of a website and its content) and the backend (the interface used to create content) bundled into a single application that is web-first.
CMS providers like Wix, WordPress, and Squarespace are good examples of the traditional model. They usually require the use of a specific framework or language with everything tied into a specific application.
A decoupled CMS has a backend where content is prepared for presentation and a frontend that can be separated from that. The content itself can either be pushed for delivery via an API or an integrated frontend.
The data from the backend is always published somewhere, regardless of whether calls are being made to the API or not. Headless WordPress and Drupal with REST APIs are good examples of the decoupled model.
The design and the architecture of headless CMS ensure content connects to any medium, building into 4 main pillars: flexibility, performance, security, and cost.
Everything comes back to the architecture. Headless CMS is not a new form of technology, it’s a new way of thinking about the architecture of web development.
Every actor of this architecture, from databases to Content Delivery Networks (CDNs), is independent and separated from each other. APIs then connect everything, playing the role of a universal adapter. With this model, the same data can be used and deployed across multiple platforms rather than needing different processes for different platforms. Any device, any outlet, any technology can be ready to serve content in minutes. All that’s needed is an API.
Any use case and any future innovation will work with headless CMS. The design behind the architecture provides infinite flexibility for all data.
The fastest route between two points is a straight line and the simplest way to speed up performance is a direct path to deployment. Headless CMS does exactly that with the flexibility that allows for every component to function independently.
Reducing the number of steps, API requests, and other moving parts simplifies the whole process and allows for lighting fast performance. For a clearer look at how exactly a headless architecture can speed up content, take a look at static site generators. A headless CMS creates an API that allows the static site generator to gather all the relevant data and build the website. Compared to traditional architecture, it drastically improves performance because its tiers are reduced.
The trick is having a centralized content management system that can serve the appropriate information whether someone is using a desktop browser, a mobile device, a smart assistant, or anything else, that responses to requests go through fewer tiers and are faster. The resources and time that would go into maintaining additional tiers in traditional architectures are invested in optimizing the remaining tiers.
Since web pages are pre-rendered, no building happens for each request. The potential for failures to occur is greatly reduced because of pre-deployment building and the minimized surface area of the architecture. Pre-building pages ensure that any errors can be detected early enough and fixed before users get to interact with the site.
Simpler and clearer systems of headless architecture do more than boost performance, they also provide better security by reducing the number of exposed elements end-users can access. When only parts of the stack are activated, entry points for malicious actors are limited. The built-in security gets even stronger when using a static site on a CDN (Content Delivery Network).
The only component accessible to end-users is two layers removed from anything that could cause harm. The steps from creating content to deployment involve a lot of movement behind the scenes. In traditional models of monolithic websites, that often meant leaving a vulnerable hole into the backend.
With a headless CMS, content creation and content delivery are always separated, making it nearly impossible for end-users to access the back-end. The flexibility of headless architecture also allows for stronger security through easier updates. When every part of the stack isn’t needed all the time, it’s possible to schedule updates and maintenance with little to no downtime at all.
For open-source options like Strapi, it’s also possible to self-host everything, giving users complete control over the server layer and adding to the built-in security. Headless CMS reduces vulnerability and make the entire stack more secure.
Maintenance and management become easier and cheaper with a headless CMS. The changes in structure that allow for lightning-fast performance, stronger security, and a ton of flexibility also reduce costs. Picking and choosing every component of the stack opens up an adaptable budget in selecting the best options for databases, CDNs, static site generators, and anything else your use case needs. As a simple example, choosing to have the final deployment handled by a CDN removes the burden of warehouses and server farms, while also handling traffic spikes by automatically scaling the workload as needed.
On top of that, with content creation and distribution separated, departmental silos break down as it becomes easier to cooperate and coordinate. Teams no longer have to work independently to adapt a campaign for different formats. Everyone can work together on the content, automatically adapting it to wherever it’s displayed with an API. The pain associated with retrofitting campaigns onto mobile screens that were originally planned for desktop browsers is still fresh in the minds of many developers.
Headless CMS can deliver content through an API to anywhere you need it, and in many different ways:
Historically, the most popular CMS has always been open-source. There is no doubt that the success of WordPress and Drupal is largely due to this open-source license and vibrant community. With open-source, businesses and contributors always have an open and free line of communication with those building the solution.
That transparency translates into more possibilities for highly customized solutions for specific industries and verifiable reassurances that aren’t hiding behind opaque walls.
Being self-hosted brings similar guarantees and assurances. All projects are fully and completely under the user’s control by design. Anyone looking to create an in-house solution can do just that without needing to worry about who is handling the data or where systems may need to eventually migrate.
On the other end, SaaS solutions are getting more and more popular as businesses migrate most of their applications to the cloud. Ideally, a CMS should provide both options to give individuals and businesses alike to choose what makes sense to them depending on timing and the expertise available internally.
With an open-source option, anyone can customize the code to anything they want. Specific use-cases can be developed in-house and used however the user needs. That level of customization is included in the structure of open-source itself, giving developers the power to experiment and test new ideas for any innovative technology on the horizon.
The flexibility that comes with a headless CMS starts with embracing the separation of the frontend and backend. Each part of the stack needs to be thought of as an independent component. Each part of the stack should be managed to fit the needs of the project. In more common web architectures, a web page is built using resources like data from a database, templates, and other content every time it is requested from a server and the resultant output is returned to the client.
Headless CMS architecture is different from these in that a site can be pre-built into static assets before deployment, and these assets are distributed through a CDN.
A headless CMS handles content as data providing an API. The data can then be displayed on anything the API can plug into. Understanding these core principles of how content is data, and all devices are accessible via an API is important when working with a headless model. The APIs are distinct reusable services that provide specific functionality like payments, authentication, search, image uploads, comment management, etc. They could be created in-house or provided by vendors.
The decoupling of the frontend from the backend has created opportunities to use a wide range of APIs with the frontend. The limiting factor is never the content itself when it’s handled by an API, easily working with third-party providers, all digital mediums, and any future connected devices. Making the most of these ideas allows for the best user experience, giving developers the power to create structures, manage content, and create APIs.
When dealing with content, creators and developers tend to have an understanding of the best way to present their ideas. By default, a headless CMS provides all the data for a given piece of content. Sometimes it is a bit more information than needed for a specific use case. Optimizing data for different devices is the best strategy for a smoother and often faster experience. There is a near-infinite number of possible applications and by using a tool like GraphQL, developers can choose the exact data they want to include in the API.
When content is optimized for a particular device, there are fewer data in the API, and apps work better and faster.