The Pros and Cons of Coupled, Decoupled and Headless CMS Platforms

In the last couple of years, headless CMS platforms have been rising in popularity. Some argue that a headless CMS is better for everyone, while others believe the traditional CMS architecture is far less cumbersome.

While traditional (also known as coupled) CMS architecture used to be the standard approach, the rewards of faster and more innovative content publishing have grown. Companies are now pursuing the agility and flexibility provided by decoupled and headless solutions.

If it’s time to redesign your digital properties, it’s important to know the difference between these architectures, the pros and cons of each, and how to know when headless is the right choice for you. Selecting the best structure for your organization will ensure you not only get what you want, but what is best for your entire team—editors, developers, designers, and marketers alike.

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Traditional CMS Architecture

In a traditional or coupled CMS, the traditional CMS architecture tightly links the back end to the front end. Content is created, managed, and stored—along with all digital assets—on the site’s back end. The back end is also where website design and customization applications are stored. This content management back end and database is bound within the same system that delivers and presents content to devices and end users (front end).

So, with a traditional CMS, your editors are writing and publishing on the back end of the same system your website visitors are viewing. Blogging platforms, such as WordPress, Squarespace, and Wix, are examples of traditional CMS architecture.

To recap, a traditional CMS is comprised of:

  • A database where content and digital assets are stored (back end)
  • A content management back end where content is created (back end)
  • An application where publishers and designers create and apply design schemas (back end)
  • A front end that displays published content on HTML pages
Traditional CMS

Decoupled CMS Architecture

Decoupled CMS architecture separates—or decouples—the back-end and front-end management of a website into two different systems: one for content creation and storage, and another system, one or more, are responsible for consuming that data and presenting it to the user through some interface. In a decoupled CMS, these two systems are housed separately. Once content is created and edited in the back end, this front-end agnostic approach takes advantage of flexible and fast web services and APIs to deliver the raw content to any front-end design on any device or channel.

Even though the back end and the front-end application function independently of one another, the front-end architecture is predetermined with a specified delivery environment (for example, React or React Native). Thus, the two systems are tightly linked and can function as one.

From a technical standpoint, a decoupled CMS is comprised of:

  • A database where content and digital assets are stored (back end)
  • A content management back end where content is created (back end)
  • An API that connects the content management back end with the front end
  • A default content publishing front end
Decoupled CMS

Headless CMS Architecture

What is a headless CMS? Well when defining headless CMS architecture, it’s important to understand how it relates to decoupled. Headless architecture is actually a subset of decoupled. Both have a content management and storage back ends and deliver content from that database through a web service or API. But the key difference is the presentation layer: unlike decoupled, headless does not have a defined front-end system or presentation environment.

An easy way to understand the difference is to think of decoupled as proactive and headless as reactive. Decoupled prepares the content on the back end and then can proactively deliver and present formatted content to various channels. Headless, on the other hand, is a content-only data source and has no functionality within the CMS to present content to an end user on it’s own. Content is created and managed, but it just sits there, available and waiting to be called upon by an API and delivered to applications and systems.

This means that headless is “API only, UI anything”; it can push content to any device or channel with internet access. It can publish the same content to a website, an app, a wearable device or any device connected via Internet of Things (IoT) because the content isn’t bound by a predetermined user interface.

Of course, “headless” doesn’t stay headless assuming, that is, that you want to actually publish the content you create and manage. Something must serve as the “head” for content presentation– but it’s simply not attached, by default.

From a technical standpoint, a headless CMS is comprised of:

  • A database where content and digital assets are stored (back end)
  • A content management back end where content is created (back end)
  • An API that connects the content management back end to any device or channel
  • The ability to connect to any publishing front end, allowing organizations to have the front-end technology of their choosing
Headless CMS Architecture Diagram

Some traditional CMS platforms will claim to be headless, but they became headless through acquisitions and the cobbling together of existing solutions. Be wary, because these solutions aren’t truly headless, and often lack a friendly way of publishing to different channels, such as phones and tablets. In some cases, users can end up multiplying their workload by creating distinct versions of every piece of content for each channel.

The Pros and Cons of Traditional, Decoupled, and Headless CMS

Each CMS architecture has its pros and cons and is more appropriate in specific environments than others. There is no one superior approach and the architecture that will work best for you depends on the needs of your business. Here is our breakdown of the pros and cons of the three architectures.

Traditional CMS

Traditional CMS architectures is ideal for blogs, personal sites, and very basic company websites. Because everything is all together, it is easy to develop, manage, and publish text-based content quickly. Design is also simplified within a traditional CMS platform, with built-in themes and templates and a front-end that can be edited and customized as needed.

But while traditional architecture is great for simpler sites, it isn’t ideal for those that are more complex. A traditional CMS restricts the type of content (i.e. video, audio, and advanced imagery) editors can publish and where that content can appear. Since the front end and back end are locked together, the programming framework can quickly become limited and for developers this means customization is slower and less agile. The front-end and back-end interdependence also translates to more time and money required for maintenance and enhancements.

Decoupled CMS Architecture

In a decoupled CMS, the back end (where content is created) and front end (where content is displayed) are housed separately. Decoupled CMS is front-end agnostic and takes advantage of web services and API’s to deliver content in its raw form to any front-end design, anywhere. Many consider decoupled to be the best of both worlds: you have templates to work with like in a traditional CMS, but you have the flexibility of a headless implementation.

There are many benefits associated with decoupling your CMS including:

  • Faster and more flexible content delivery than traditional CMS
  • Resiliency in the face of changes on the user interface side (future-proof)
  • Rapid design iterations
  • Enhanced security
  • Fewer publisher and developer dependencies
  • Simpler deployment
  • Easy third-party integrations that are less disruptive to development

A decoupled CMS is more complicated than traditional and does require extra development work compared to headless—especially around building the front end.

Headless CMS Architecture

Because headless architecture is a subset of decoupled, it shares almost all of the benefits. However, without a designated front end, a headless CMS provides the greatest flexibility to publish content on different platforms. Also, unlike decoupled, headless allows you to publish dynamic content to any device connected via IoT. Of all three CMS architectures, headless CMS offers the most control regarding how and where your content appears.

On the other hand, headless’ lack of content presentation functionality, OOTB templates, or themes means you’ll be seeking additional technologies to serve as the “head.” Headless CMS platforms typically do not come with a user interface, therefore seeing an accurate live preview can prove more difficult than decoupled. For these reasons, headless platforms are best suited for companies with a robust team of developers who prefer to use their favorite frameworks and tools.

Here is a “cheat sheet” of the pros and cons:

Pros

Traditional
Decoupled
Headless
Simple; ideal for text-based contentBuilt-in themes and templatesCustomizable front endFast and flexible content delivery with a specified delivery environmentRapid design iterations and simpler deploymentsEasy and secure third-party integrationsFewer dependencies on ITThe best of both worlds in a CMS (structured BE & flexible FE)Future-proof (integrates easily with new technology and innovations)Fast content deliveryProvides complete control over how and where your content appearsEasy and secure third-party integrationsAllows developers to use their favorite tools and frameworksFuture-proof (integrates easily with new technology and innovations)

Cons

Traditional
Decoupled
Headless
Content types and delivery channels are limitedLimited programming frameworkMore time and money required for customization, maintenance and enhancementsMore complex than traditional to configure and deployFront end development work required for designNo presentation functionalityImpossible to see an accurate live previewReliant on additional technologies for its “head”

The New Age of Content Management

Today's modern CMS revolution is driving up demand for more flexible, scalable, customizable systems that deliver the experience you want, and your customers expect. Separating your front and back ends, with either a headless or decoupled implementation, enables organizations to increase delivery times while iterating faster.

At Perfect Sense, we believe in front-end freedom of choice. That’s why we’ve designed our Brightspot CMS to operate as traditional, decoupled, or headless–depending on the specific needs of each customer. Natively multi-site and omni-channel, Brightspot makes it simple to publish content once with a single authoring point and deploy it anywhere you want with less stress and mess.

Want to learn more? Schedule a consult to learn more about the options available and which is best for your company.