What is a headless CMS?
Headless content-management systems are backend driven, ditching traditional interfaces in favor of granular control. The “head,” or visual front end, is stripped away from the CMS. That head allows developers to directly manipulate the content database, via a graphical user interface (GUI). Popular systems like WordPress and Drupal grant developers access to a user dashboard. From here, administrators can make code changes, content edits, and tweak layouts as required. Once these changes are confirmed and saved, they’re pushed live for public consumption.
Though options like WordPress are making meaningful strides to become decoupled – via REST API bundling – we don’t think they’ve quite arrived yet. However, it’s encouraging to see the headless approach gaining steam. At Manifold, we strongly believe that headless is the future, especially given the flexibility it offers with other services.
Prioritizing the Backend
Being backend centric, headless systems handle things a little differently. Before diving in, we want to distinguish the headless approach from the decoupled approach. While a decoupled CMS may include accessible WYSIWYG editing tools, a purely-headless CMS does not. Accordingly, decoupled content-management systems are often considered hybrid systems.
RESTful APIs are the lifeblood of the headless CMS. There’s no visual layer for you to manipulate, thus data must be accessed another way. Content is stored on a server in a headless configuration. These APIs communicate between your chosen front-end stack and that content server, allowing you to transmit data back and forth. These requests make it easy to create and deliver content. Both JSON and XML are commonly used to make this development magic happen.
What are the benefits of going headless?
Thankfully, choosing a headless CMS will grant your team an immense level of control over its development process. A regular CMS is built upon a pre-determined technology stack. While convenient in many cases, that one-size-fits-all approach may force you to compromise in certain situations. Instead of making concessions, it might be worth considering a headless approach.
Bring Your own Stack (BYOS)
Technological preferences are certainly subjective – you’d be hard pressed to find a developer without strong opinions. A headless CMS allows you to select your own technology stack and adapt it to your projects. This is especially important for creating a coherent development environment. If your team invests its creative energy and expertise in a front-end framework, they’ll want to port it over to their new ventures. PHP may notbe the best choice for every project. If specific frameworks are essential cogs in your development machine, feel free to let loose.
A headless CMS can handle a variety of projects:
Multi-platform mobile apps
Remote content updates
Consider the plethora of technologies at play there! iOS, Android, Windows, VueJS, React, Angular, and more are available resources in a headless environment. Developers can take advantage of a flexible platform without the learning curve. This keeps teams agile and shortens production time.
Headless content-management systems play well with static-site generators. Gatsby, Jekyll, and Hugo (to name a few) will work harmoniously with your preferred CMS. Not every website needs to be dynamic or complex. If you’re framework or command line savvy, rejoice. Popular CMS options also leverage global content-delivery networks (CDNs) to ensure brisk load times and better user experiences.
After settling on a technology stack, you may get started. Mastery of a certain framework is extremely beneficial – you can work rapidly and produce numerous lines of code in short order.
Projects swell, as does the need to streamline their foundations wherever possible. This culling of superfluous code improves performance and keeps components manageable. Now more than ever, optimization is a key consideration. If you have command of your stack, these improvements become easier to make. Since you’re writing the majority of the code yourself, tweaking even the smallest of minutiae is simple. Conversely, a traditional CMS makes it more challenging to micromanage your applications.
Front-end code handles crucial duties in a headless environment, especially when making changes to dynamic content. The driving force of the headless CMS is the backend – shifting strain away from that component will result in easy performance wins. Templating isn’t managed on the server side for dynamic content, freeing up resources for you and your users.
Update and Modify Components Independently
Teams and individuals have granular administrative controls with a headless CMS. Since APIs provide highly-configurable GET and POST requests, developers can modify portions of their databases at a time. This programming can be done on the fly by altering data endpoints. Communication between your CMS components is rapid and efficient in a headless environment.
Harnessing tools like the Content Delivery API simplifies content revisions, presentations, and ultimately renderings for your end users. Just ensure your solution integrates a caching protocol to reduce extraneous requests and boost performance on repeat visits.
Furthermore, you can push these changes out for websites and even native apps. Additional layout customizations are easily made based on device type, resolution, screen size, and operating system. You can establish a content strategy based on what your project needs – and your project only. This mitigates compromise. Database structures and design structures aren’t closely tied together. A headless CMS allows you to circumvent this coupling to avoid overlap and regain flexibility.
Swifter Development and Deployment
We’ve touched on some benefits of choosing your own technology stack, but those aren’t all. The headless world is predicated on future proofing, both for projects and development teams. It’s no secret that technology evolves daily. Established technologies are continually updated - and some discontinued - alongside the rise of new frameworks. Although your stack is suitable for your current goals, those goals may shift at a later date. Thankfully, a headless CMS gives individuals and teams the opportunity to adapt at warp speed.
A development team’s success relies on the mastery of its craft and the ability to move forward. Traditional content management systems are locked into one technology stack. While sometimes suitable, this means you have to build teams around a single, specialized technology. This can be both challenging and restrictive. Accordingly, fixed-stack developers do have a ceiling of expertise they may reach. Once you and your teams can’t learn new skills, pursuing alternative technologies may become enticing.
We know that a headless CMS gives you the pick of the framework litter. However, what if your project outgrows your current stack? Perhaps specialized components are required. Maybe your development team wants to start fresh with a rising technology. Going headless allows you to rapidly explore and experiment with new stacks. This keeps your teams on their toes. It also opens the door for growth, which solidifies your development team for the long haul.
Security, Cost, and Maintenance
Since you and your team understand your chosen technology well, designing proper components and APIs will be that much easier. Frameworks like Angular and React (for example) come with their own best practices. Of these, security plays a key role. Having the fastest, most-beautiful app or website in the world means little if it isn’t galvanized against malicious attacks. Additionally, vulnerabilities are discovered by accident – many times by end users. This isn’t preferable.
Designing API structures allows you complete control over quality and security. Following best practices with a headless CMS will help avoid consequences. As long as your endpoints and user feedback are sufficient, you’ll avoid revealing key portions of your technology stack. Code audits and easy management of your code base, monolithic or otherwise, makes teams proactive. When a traditional CMS provider updates its entire platform, that can introduce breaking changes and bugs.
Since these providers have compatibility to worry about for all users, they tend to move slowly. Having an intimate knowledge and control over your headless CMS means quicker elimination of bugs. This is especially important, considering undiscovered bugs become increasingly expensive while moving from testing to release.
Early testing is cheaper. Regarding sensitive user data, correcting a late-stage issue can deeply impact your company’s bottom line. If your team’s in its infancy, such financial repercussions can be detrimental. Properly configuring your programs will help your team succeed. For this reason, headless content management systems are extremely powerful – however, your team must keep abreast of potential problems.
Headless options also reduce development fees, particularly those pertaining to licensing. Granting your team access to software tools can be expensive. Choosing a headless CMS - especially one that allows you to repurpose cross-platform content – will cut down on these costs. That money can be saved or reallocated to other demands.
Headless and Software as a Service (SaaS)
A truly-headless CMS lives in the cloud, with databases and content hosted on servers of your choosing. Many of these are hosted solutions, shifting the burden of server management away from your team. For this backend component, your hosting provider will help with security updates and maintenance. That also allows developers to concentrate their efforts on front-end content delivery.
However, let’s say you really want to scale your products via development of robust REST APIs. With these link structures in place, you’ll be able to access data at an impressive rate.
Consider an app like Reddit, with millions of active users in a given day. Users access content stored on servers, presented visually as posts and comments. This includes text, images, GIFs, and videos. These are all viewable thanks to protocols which connect people to the platform. This user base accounts for an innumerable quantity of concurrent sessions. That’s an immense activity rate, one which demands speed, security, and robustness. This is provided through a carefully-crafted assortment of APIs.
Headless systems are perfect for native apps, as well as high-traffic websites. They allow you to scale effectively, should you wish to distribute a service to many users. With access to both the front and backend, a team can accomplish this fairly easily. Your services may also require custom solutions. Finely-tuned data access via a headless CMS can help expand your global reach.
What are some headless CMS examples?
Manifold’s integrated cloud services pair well with Elegant CMS, a headless CMS with a focus on application management. Elegant comes packaged with JSON, a powerful data container. This allows you to update your content easily across platforms, without needing to continually consult your develop team. Interestingly, the CMS provides a GUI for content management, a user-friendly approach. Elegant CMS is well-regarded for its speed, API integration, and role-based access control (RBAC).
Contentful is a popular option which provides great flexibility across all product types. If it’s digital, Contentful can help you transform it into something beautiful. It provides a custom structure for your content. It also plays incredibly well with other services, which you can import. The Contentful web app gives editors control over content, ensuring your entire team is in the loop.
Prismic bills itself as a top choice for marketers, by virtue of its content-driven APIs. Developers and others can take advantage of its capable backend. No database installation is required. Prismic integrates readily with external services and content-management systems, and even provides an SDK. The service even offers detailed author tools, making content creation a breeze. It’s used by over 3,000 companies, including Google, eBay, and Ford.
With this information at your disposal, we hope getting started with your own headless CMS will be that much easier.