What is a headless CMS and when should you consider using one?

The headless Content Management System (CMS) approach isn’t anything new and has been around for quite some time. 

Open source CMS’ like WordPress and Drupal have made it possible to generate content and show this in a separate web application or even in the same application. For example, you may want a widget contact container which contains data being generated by your CMS and this could be created with standard JavaScript or some frontend framework. 

This approach is used to create lightning fast web applications using a combination of software, new and older.

What does headless CMS mean?

It’s like a shop with no front window. There are customers inside and cashiers processing orders but you can’t see that from the outside. That’s how a headless CMS works. It's a traditional CMS (such as Drupal or Wordpress) without a frontend. The page designs are built using a frontend framework and the data from these headless CMS systems is exposed so that the frontend can grab the data and use it there instead.

Why are headless CMS used?

Because they’re really fast. 

And there is normally an interface already available to the developers and users to extend and use. For example, WordPress ships with its own admin panel, article writing section and user management amongst a plethora of other useful tools. This saves both time and money and lots of individuals in this space are already accustomed to using well-known CMS’. Most of the focus will be on creating a polished experience for your customers and some time spent on extending the CMS’ functionality for any purpose needed. Also, organisations gain immense levels of flexibility by having the option to take their amazing frontend and choose to use another backend in the future if needed. 

What are the benefits of a headless CMS?

If you have a website built purely with a CMS, every request has to load all of the assets of every page you visit. You can alleviate some of the strain on your server by optimising images, caching CSS and JavaScript and making some additional server changes but it is unlikely to be as good an experience or as fast as a Single Page Application.

By using a frontend framework like React or Vue, the application doesn’t have to load any structural assets after initially loading. Any data which shows on a page within the frontend will come through via a request or a bunch of requests made to the endpoints on offer from the headless CMS. And you can usually add additional endpoints for extra data or alternative functionality. There may be a business requirement in the future where you need to move to another backend for efficiency or for some other reason:

  • You could have the new CMS send out the same Application Programming Interface (API) endpoints as the current system and your frontend will still work the same as it did before albeit perhaps a bit faster depending on what was done. 
  • For instance, you may have wanted a custom CMS created with a React-powered backend interface which makes changes to a database hosted with Amazon Web Services (AWS). 

Other benefits include being able to reduce your server costs as headless CMS application’s tend to scale better with lots of traffic.

Is a headless CMS right for me and my business?

It depends. As previously mentioned, if you have large swathes of traffic regularly hitting your website, it could be the right way to go. If you care mostly about User Experience (UX) then you may only need a redesign for your website. However, there is the case that having a fast application which doesn’t need to make a request (loads) every time a user changes a page or wants to read a post is itself improving UX. 

Our current website is using WordPress, what would happen to our content? 

Absolutely nothing. All of your posts and other data would be available to the frontend which would be built and that data would be passed to that. 

There may be additional information provided on how to add new posts or additional content to your WordPress website once it has become headless.

Data and freedom

What if you required multiple applications for your business operation? Well now we don’t need multiple backends, we can extend the one we already have. And there’s no limit on how many applications we could build from that. The data is available.

You could have a front-end application which is customer facing, your company website. You could also have another frontend application which is only accessed internally but has access to the same data. Suddenly, you have a network of applications all being fuelled with data from a single source. You could even have multiple headless systems which communicate with each other powering a multitude of frontend applications. 

This approach offers businesses the freedom to overcome many digital challenges they are facing, your digital assets can now scale with your business using current, powerful technologies. 

A headless CMS can improve your customers' experience and allows more freedom technically for your business. It’s a current, relevant approach to building web applications and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. 

We’ve learnt that they can save you money, improve your users experience and how they are able to scale with your business as it grows.

If this article has piqued your interest and you have any questions on how we can help you, why not get in touch with the team?

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