What is a Headless CMS?

Find out the definition of Headless CMS, the benefits, possible tradeoffs, and other information.
To understand what a Headless CMS is, let's understand why we needed to reinvent the CMS in the first place.

History of CMS

CMS 1.0

One CMS, one website

Content management systems have been around for a while. Back when the web was young, and there weren’t any smart devices, content management systems (CMS) only needed to power content for a single location: a website. So in the early 2000s, content management systems sprang up to offer you the ability to manage content for your website.

Some of these early CMS options included open source solutions like WordPress, Drupal, and Joomla. And in the Enterprise commercial space Sitecore and OpenText among many others.

These CMS solutions were designed to manage content for a single website and came coupled with a front end presentation layer powered by a specific technology stack, and they worked fine. Until they didn't.

We’ll call these systems CMS 1.0.

Rise of Headless CMS

One CMS, unlimited delivery locations

Fast forward a decade. In the 2010s we saw a boom of digital devices correlated with an increase in different ways to consume content from smart phones, to tablets, to IOT, and more.

Digital teams needed a better way to manage content in these new formats, to reach their audience where they consumed content, and be better prepared for future devices and content formats.

Enter Headless CMS.

Headless CMS Definition

A Headless CMS is simply a web dashboard to create content and API tools to deliver content. Nothing more, nothing less. No presentation layer (head). No opinionated technology stack.

πŸ› οΈ βž• πŸš€
Build and deliver content faster

With Headless CMS, your content management and delivery system is decoupled from your code. Unlike CMS 1.0 which combines your website content and your presentation layer into one system, with Headless CMS, your content is free to be delivered wherever it needs to go: website, native mobile app, IOT, AR, VR, and more. It is the scalable solution for delivering content in our new multi-platform digital age.

But what if you just need to manage content for your website? Even for a single website, Headless CMS is a great choice because it allows you to bring your own optimized presentation layer. By keeping your content separate from your code, you get the benefit of a light-weight, optimized technology stack.

It is the content management strategy optimized for our present diverse digital ecosystem, and built to scale to any future content delivery needs.

What are the Benefits?

  1. Less technology to maintain πŸ’‘

    With CMS 1.0, at minimum you have to maintain a database, your CMS code, your server side website code, and front end website code.

    With Headless CMS, your stack can be much more light-weight. You just need to manage the presentation layer and you can let API services do the rest: Headless CMS for managing content and other API services for business logic.

  2. Faster content creation cycles πŸ”₯

    By not having to manage several layers of technology, your team can move much faster to achieve your project deployment goals. Developers and content creators already have what they need out-of-the-box. Now they can focus on what really matters: building great content and user experiences.

  3. Greater flexibility πŸ–₯πŸ’»πŸ“±

    With CMS 1.0 you only have the capability to deliver your content to your website. Any other API layers on top of the CMS requires extra work. With Headless CMS, because of the API-first nature, this delivery flexibility comes included. You can deliver your content to any connected device or application via a Headless CMS REST or GraphQL API.

  4. More scalability πŸ’ͺ

    With CMS 1.0 you are stuck with a 1:1 CMS to website ratio. If you need another project set up, it requires lots of heavy lifting to create a new database, install and configure a new CMS, etc.

    With Headless CMS, you have a single login to manage unlimited projects. Similar to the way AWS allows you to spin up a new virtual server in minutes, Headless CMS makes it possible to spin up a new CMS for your project in minutes. It is the fastest way to scale content management projects.

What are the Tradeoffs?

  1. You will need a developer πŸ€“

    The promise of CMS 1.0, is that non-technical marketers could manage a new website themselves without needing a developer. A promise that is often misguided.

    With a Headless CMS, you will need a developer. Headless CMS is only a good fit if you have developers on your team as you will need to build your own application / presentation layer.

  2. Cost πŸ’΅

    Because most Headless CMS services run in the cloud, you will need to pay cloud usage costs as your usage grows. But the value of time saved and team efficiency easily outweighs the costs.

CMS screenshot by Webaroo.com.au on Unsplash.

Helpful Resources

Was this article helpful?

Share this article to help others understand what a Headless CMS is and why it is.

Get Started with Cosmic

Build personal projects for free. Add your team at unbeatable prices.
Start Building Talk to Sales