Headless CMS. Identifying Ideal Use Cases and Speeding Up Time-to-Market

Andrey Stepanov
CTO at ByteMinds

What is a Headless CMS?

A headless CMS is a flexible content management system with a convenient editing interface. It enables omnichannel content display via API, such as on websites, mobile applications, email newsletters, and voice assistants.
Headless CMS
Headless CMS
Unlike traditional CMS, a headless CMS works with various frontends and supports all interface and device types. This way we get a unified source of "truth" and don't have to worry about transferring content between different systems.

In a Headless CMS we only create an interface for editing content. By default, the system is focused on well-structured content, resulting in formats that are effortlessly readable across different devices.

In contrast, in a traditional CMS, we edit content, which is then displayed only on a website. Displaying content elsewhere, like in a mobile app, requires developers to implement additional data export procedures or APIs. It often turns out that the original data format is not easily reusable, necessitating rewriting or manual transfer.
Traditional CMS
Traditional CMS
Headless CMS solutions are available as cloud-based or on-premise systems. They can be installed on your own infrastructure (servers and databases). If the CMS is cloud-based, it provides a scalable system for editing and delivering content eliminating the need for infrastructure support and administration. This makes it highly convenient. In contrast, on-premise CMS is better suited for scenarios where cloud usage is impractical or prohibited, such as due to specific organizational data storage policies.
Famous Headless CMS
Famous Headless CMS and their typification

Similar Solutions to Headless CMS

The first and closest to Headless CMS are admin panel generators for various programming languages and platforms, like Django for Python and Laravel Nova for PHP. They are ideal in situations, where you are already developing an application in one of these languages and need to quickly incorporate administrative functionalities for specific components. However, they do not offer the same level of editor-friendliness as Headless CMS.

The second is the Backend-as-service. For example, Firebase, Supabase, or Amazon Amplify, which are usually used in mobile development. These services allow developers to use an existing platform instead of crafting a separate backend. They provide APIs for standard operations such as saving and managing user data, handling logins and registrations, and sending push notifications. However, they do not provide an interface for administration.

Backend-as-service is particularly suitable in scenarios such as developing a task management application (to-do list) where users need the ability to register and synchronize their tasks across different devices. This is because the service does not require a complex administrator interface; all data is user-generated.

Third are full-fledged no-code/low-code platforms designed for application development. They can be used for the visual creation of admin panels, and web and mobile applications. Some of these platforms (for example, Retool) are similar to Headless CMS in that they allow you to create a custom admin interface and provide data via an API to other users.

Benefits of Headless CMS

  • Omnichannel distribution. Minimal time costs for distributing content, since it is already well structured and available for applications.

  • A clean architecture for developers: the distinct separation between the backend (content management) and the frontend (content presentation) simplifies the development process, allowing focus on specialized areas.

  • For managers, there is an organizational advantage: the distinct separation between backend (content management) and frontend (content presentation) simplifies the development process, allowing focus on specialized areas.

  • Headless CMS can be easily integrated with other platforms. For example, during tje development of an e-commerce project on a headless CMS, we utilized Shopify for the catalog and sales components. Shopify, known for its user-friendly interface, is a leading e-commerce platform. As a result, our customer received an enhanced content management interface along with improved interfaces for order processing and catalog management.

  • Simplicity of content editing. Many headless CMS solutions (like Ghost or Kontent.ai) offer outstanding UX for quick and easy content editing, ideal for online media or frequent article and visual content creation.

What Headless CMS is not suitable for

Firstly, implementing complex business processes, workflows, and interfaces that extend beyond content publishing is not the forte of Headless CMS. While it excels in scenarios involving content creation, editing, publishing, and managing access rights for different content types (including content approval and translation),it is not designed to create custom CRM systems tailored to specific business needs. For such tasks, exploring no-code platforms or opting for the traditional route of developing a large self-written system is advised, especially if you predict great development for the project.

Headless CMS are not suitable for storing and managing huge amounts of data. For example, we had a project where the headless CMS had an archive of 600+ thousand articles. But you shouldn't consider headless CMS as a replacement for a regular database and try to store some frequently updated information such as user transactions or stock quotes.

Risks of Headless CMS

The main concern with Headless CMS is dependency on the CMS vendor and their product development direction. This is especially true for cloud CMS: they can change the interface and make it overloaded and inconvenient, change the tariffs, or close down altogether.

How to protect yourself from this risk? Since all your data is provided through the API, you can download it at any time in a structured form and store it in a safe place. You can also set up regular data backups if you are concerned about safety.

This same method helps answer the question: "What if in the future the CMS capabilities become insufficient for me and I want to switch to my own platform?" You can develop your own platform, transfer structured data from the API to it, and even save the API structure! This means you won't have to redesign applications that use the content.

You can protect yourself from changes in product functionality by using not cloud-based but on-premise platforms. The trade-off, however, is the need for self-managed infrastructure. Platforms like Strapi, Ghost, and Umbraco provide the flexibility to start with a cloud-based model and later transition to an open-source version deployable on personal infrastructure.
Author: Andrey Stepanov
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