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Should Your CMS Be Headless or a Hybrid? Here's What to Know

Headless CMS or Hybrid

If you're exploring changes to your content management system, then you've probably heard about the trend toward headless CMS architecture. On a headless system, the CMS is solely responsible for storing and managing content, with no predetermined framework for presenting the content.

Headless is a variation on a decoupled architecture, where the back end and front end are separated. A headless CMS can be an excellent way to support multiple channels with maximum flexibility, but it also has some limitations. As companies sift through the pros and cons of coupled, decoupled and headless CMS platforms, one of the most common questions that comes up is: Do I have to choose?

Not necessarily. One option would be to combine decoupled and headless architecture styles into a hybrid approach. In a recent webinar on identifying the right CMS, speaker Melissa Webster of the research firm International Data Corporation (IDC) discussed both headless and hybrid approaches, along with the benefits and disadvantages of each.

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"When web content management first arose, really it was about authoring and website administration," Webster says. It has since evolved into platforms influenced by developers, which has given rise to the decoupled architectures becoming more common today. With headless, content is modeled first and then "born" on different channels, offering great scalability and elasticity.

"We think these are an important influence and evolution of content management today," Webster says of headless options, "but they don't replace everything else you're doing with your web content management system."

A headless CMS is terrific for the Ubers and Airbnbs of the world that are building huge microservices platforms in the cloud and need content services as well, Webster says, adding that they are also a good option for media companies that want to migrate content from a custom CMS and use it as the basis for custom apps. However, headless also has limitations.

"We think the ultimate solution is really a hybrid approach that brings forward all the benefits of web content management that we've accumulated over the last 25 years and adds to it the ability to support developers building headless applications," Webster says.

A hybrid system on Brightspot could take shape in a few different ways. If you're running multiple sites, you could take a headless approach with some sites but specify a front end for others. Or perhaps you retain a front end for your website while going headless for mobile apps, rendering them with downstream systems. It all depends on your organization's team and business goals.

Headless-Only Advantages

  • Having lightweight intuitive APIs in JSON or XML, for example, lets developers use any language. They're freed from learning a complex CMS, and they benefit from modern tooling and standards like GraphQL.
  • A "content-first" approach facilitates content reuse across different experiences and channels.
  • Separation of content and presentation lets authors and developers work independently, accelerating time to market.
  • It’s easily integrated with other applications as a service.
  • The platform is generally cloud-based or cloud-ready.
  • A headless CMS can be lower cost, particularly if you already have a strong internal development team.

Headless-Only Disadvantages

  • Solutions generally lack capability for WYSIWYG authoring, presentation, website navigation, multi-site management, responsive design, accessibility, compliance, SEO, link checking, version management and admin, and workflow. The result is custom code or the need to manage multiple CMSs. There's a learning curve for marketers.
  • The developer focus of headless systems can leave business users out of the loop. (Some do offer single-page application (SPA) editors, limited site navigation and other features.)
  • Emerging vendors are reliant on venture capital.

Hybrid Advantages

  • A hybrid system has the advantages of decoupled and headless, offering both application and platform.
  • Like headless, a hybrid system promotes content reuse.
  • It’s generally cloud-based or cloud-ready.
  • You can achieve WYSIWYG authoring, template management, website navigation, multisite management, accessibility, compliance, SEO, link checking, version management and admin, and workflow.
  • A hybrid leverages a huge JavaScript talent pool and widely available skill sets by offering modern interfaces for JavaScript developers.
  • It fosters collaboration between marketing and the development team on a full array of digital experiences.

Hybrid Disadvantages

The success of a hybrid system depends on the vendor's implementation and ability to execute the following:

  • Feature set.
  • Architecture.
  • Technical team.
  • Capital.
  • Customer base.
  • Partnerships.
  • Support.

Still have questions about headless CMS architecture? Check out our answers to top questions here, watch our informative webinars or contact us.

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