The Difference Between Coupled, Decoupled, and Headless CMS Architecture


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.

If it’s time to redesign your digital properties, it’s important to know the difference between traditional (also known as coupled), decoupled, and headless architecture. Selecting the right structure will ensure you not only get what you want, but what is best for your entire team—editors, developers, designers, and marketers alike.

So how do you know which architecture is the best for your business? To help you answer this question, we’ll outline the distinct differences between the three.

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Traditional CMS Architecture

With a traditional or coupled CMS, the architecture tightly links the back-end to the frontend. 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 (frontend).

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 or Squarespace, are examples of traditional CMS architecture.

To recap, a traditional CMS is comprised of:

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

Decoupled CMS Architecture

Compared to traditional, decoupled CMS architecture separates—or decouples—the back-end and frontend management of a website into two different systems: one for content creation and storage, and another for content delivery and presentation. In a decoupled CMS, these two systems are housed separately. Once content is created and edited in the back-end, this approach takes advantage of flexible and fast web services and API’s to deliver the raw content to any frontend design on any device or channel.

Even though the back-end and the frontend application function independently of one another, the frontend 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 (backend)
  • A content management back-end where content is created (backend)
  • An API that connects the content management back-end with the frontend
  • A default content publishing frontend
Decoupled CMS

Headless CMS Architecture

To understand headless CMS architecture, it’s important to understand how it is connected to decoupled architecture. Headless architecture is actually a subset of decoupled. Both have a content management and storage back-end 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 frontend 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 a headless CMS 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.

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 backend to any device or channel
  • The ability to connect to any publishing frontend, allowing organizations to have the frontend technology of their choosing
Headless CMS

Each CMS architecture has its pros and cons and is more appropriate in specific environments than others. 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. To learn more about the benefits and tradeoffs of each, check out our blog The Pros and Cons of Coupled, Decoupled, and Headless CMS Platforms. and Is Headless CMS Right for Your Business? Top Things to Consider.

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. At Perfect Sense, we believe in frontend 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.

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