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What is a cloud-first headless CMS?

Always wondered what “cloud-first headless CMS” is all about? Is it just recent hype or is it the future of CMS? Learn more about the evolution of CMS architecture and decide whether you need a cloud-first headless CMS or not.


Zaneta StyblovaJan 2, 2022

In this article, we will look at the evolution of CMS architecture and why today’s digital world has created the need for a headless approach.

Most traditional CMS products were built as a coupled CMS

The coupled architecture combines everything in a single application: the content repository, back-end user interface for editors, templating system, as well as your custom code. 

This approach is very popular as it only requires a single environment, and it’s easy to set up and manage.

However, the coupled architecture brings a number of issues

  • The CMS code is tightly connected with your templates and custom code. It means you need to take care of your own code as well as the CMS code during the whole application life cycle (installation, upgrades, hotfixes, code versioning, continuous deployment, etc.).
  • The CMS code is exposed on the public server, which increases security risks.
  • The load on your website impacts the performance of your content management back end and vice versa. 
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Decoupled CMS for a better separation of concerns

In order to address the limitations of the coupled CMS, some vendors introduced decoupled architecture. In this case, you make all the modifications in the content management environment (typically behind the firewall) and synchronize the published content with the content delivery environment. This model provides better security, higher (though not full) separation of your custom code, and easier scalability. 

However, it still comes with some drawbacks

  • You have to manage several environments, which multiplies the costs of infrastructure, ongoing maintenance, and software licenses.
  • The synchronization of content introduces potential issues, especially if your website enables members to contribute their own content that needs to be synchronized back.
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Headless CMS: No head, no limits

The traditional CMS systems were built for websites. However, it’s no longer enough. With the mobile revolution, in the past 15 years, we have started to consume content through mobile applications. 

The new era of virtual reality, bots, digital assistants, and the Internet of Things has made it even more complex—suddenly, the content can be displayed on any device using any format. That requires a completely new approach to how we manage and publish content.

And here enters the concept of Headless CMS. It makes the presentation layer much more flexible as it eliminates the front-end part: it provides the content through its Application Programming Interface (API)

Benefits of the headless CMS architecture

If you ask why Headless CMS is better, here are some of the benefits:

  • The API makes the content available through any channel and on any device.
  • You can write your websites or mobile applications using any programming language, with your favorite tools and your own development process.
  • You have full control over the application lifecycle without any interference with CMS code.
  • It provides higher security and much easier scalability.
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On a side note: You may have heard the term “API-first CMS.” It’s usually used in the same context as “Headless CMS.” Still, some people may use the term API-first CMS to point out that the (headless) CMS was built with an API approach in mind, unlike some traditional CMS systems that added an API layer just to be able to claim they support the headless approach.

Cloud-first headless CMS: The best of cloud and headless

While you can use the headless approach with an installed/on-premise CMS, you will gain the biggest benefits if you use a headless CMS provided in the Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) model. In fact, it was the headless approach that enabled CMS vendors to provide content management as a true multi-tenant SaaS service

We use the term “cloud-first” to emphasize that the CMS was built for the cloud from the very beginning. That’s very different from traditional CMS products where the cloud was an afterthought. 

The cloud-first headless CMS brings the best of headless plus the benefits of the cloud. You can focus on your website or mobile app and have the CMS vendor take care of everything else:

  • All the underlying infrastructure, database, storage, content delivery network, etc.
  • Installation
  • Upgrades and hotfixes
  • Backups
  • Availability
  • Performance
  • Security
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It’s fair to say that you still need to take care of your website, but that is now much easier:

  • There is no CMS code in your environment.
  • You don’t need to update your code every time there’s a new release of the CMS (provided the API is backward compatible).
  • It’s much easier to secure your own code, which you know, and understand it without worrying about CMS security.
  • The main workload remains on the cloud CMS service, which means you can handle huge traffic with a relatively modest web server configuration.

Headless CMS fits most scenarios

The headless CMS offers many benefits, and there are very few reasons not to use it. For example, if a simple website based on a stock template might be all you need, website builders such as Wix or Squarespace could be a better option. For everything else, a headless CMS is a clear winner.

The main value of a headless CMS is the ability to deliver content to multiple channels and devices. In addition, it helps you overcome issues that arise when you have to manage different versions of the same content across different channels. Having a single source of truth enables marketers and content editors to maintain consistency, improve their productivity, and avoid costly mistakes.

Some vendors have added Content-as-a-Service capabilities to their products to make it even easier for creators to produce content. Editorial calendars, customizable workflows, comments, and suggestions are just a few of the features that modern headless CMSs such as Kontent.ai offer out of the box:

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How Kontent.ai enables marketers

Cloud-first headless CMS is the future

As you can see, using a cloud-first headless CMS provides many benefits. Feel free to check out some of the other materials we created to explain this approach:

Or you can schedule your guided tour to see how Kontent.ai will enable you to manage your content from creation through publishing to optimization.

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Written by

Zaneta Styblova

As Content Manager, I create and repurpose content in various forms to communicate with a global audience of clients, agencies, partners, and employees. I could be described as a bookworm and language enthusiast who never stops learning.

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