CMS architecture
Headless CMS

What is a headless CMS?

Find out everything you need to know about headless CMS architecture and the questions decision makers need to ask when considering headless CMS for their organizations.

The upward incline of headless CMS adoption started in 2015: the year that the public GraphQL CMS specification was developed, opening up headless CMS architecture to a wider audience. GraphQL has since become an open standard and is an important part of what makes headless such an attractive option for CMS applications today.

From a broader industry standpoint, headless CMSs started to gain traction as businesses needed a better solution to engage people in personalized ways. Not only that, organizations and publishers sought to be able to reach these existing and prospective customers on multiple channels across the entire buyer journey—and they needed the flexibility to do it in the ways they wanted. From traditional web-based applications to emerging technologies like VR or smart-home devices, headless CMS offers an adaptable solution for future-proofing a business’ ability to deliver the best possible experience regardless of device.

Headless CMS graphic

Headless CMS FAQ

Here are some common questions about headless CMS—and how Brightspot helps solve them.

What is headless CMS?

A headless CMS platform provides organizations with an architecture with front-end flexibility, whether that is a website, mobile application, TV or any end-point that uses APIs to connect with the content repository.

What does headless CMS mean?

Headless CMS solutions are a subset of decoupled CMS architecture. With a headless CMS platform, there is no fixed front end—instead, the solution acts as a content-only data source. This allows developers to use a combination of their favorite tools and frameworks to determine where and how content appears.

Why choose headless CMS?

Headless CMS is a modern architecture that allows technical teams to be digitally nimble and adapt to the evolving demands of new technology, devices and content formats. An open-ended front end can also clear your business runway when new opportunities or goals arise that require a shift in your distribution strategy.

How does a headless CMS work?

A headless CMS works by connecting the place where contributors author content—the content management system—to the chosen front-end framework through APIs. In the case of Brightspot, two APIs support a headless CMS implementation: a Content Delivery API and a Content Management API. An important part of understanding how headless CMS integrations work to provide ultimate flexibility for businesses is GraphQL. Known as the querying language that enables flexible connection with APIs to support headless CMS integrations, GraphQL enables content management and delivery to external systems, including third-party syndication.

What is GraphQL? And why does it matter for headless CMS?

GraphQL is a query language for APIs and a runtime for fulfilling those queries with existing data, providing an alternative to the traditional RESTful style of web services. Whereas RESTful style tends to have looser guidelines for how an API should be structured, GraphQL strictly structures the communication between the client and the server, irrespective of the specific data models used. GraphQL’s self-describing type system enables automation in the case of changes to the content data model.

What are the benefits of headless CMS for technical teams?

A headless-only approach tends to be the best option for organizations with robust development teams that know their way around additional technologies required to establish the front end. With the right team in place—and with the architecture implemented correctly—organizations will quickly start to reap the benefits of a headless CMS. What kind of benefits? With the decoupling of back-end and front-end needs, implementations can be quicker and development teams can accommodate changing business requirements more easily. The front end can change completely without impacting what’s happening in the back end, making it simpler and faster to integrate new designs. Businesses with multi-national sites or a network of multisites, for example, can benefit from the ability to centralize content management within a headless CMS, which is then published via APIs to back-end-agnostic sites, applications or distribution channels. Developers can also tap into their favorite tools and frameworks to determine where and how content appears, providing freedom and flexibility to pave their own way forward.

How does a headless CMS help content teams?

Apart from happy developers? A headless CMS doesn’t intrinsically deliver editors to publishing Nirvana in and of itself (although we do think Brightspot CMS’ publisherinformed UI has got you covered on that front), the benefits accrue by removing front-end obstacles to getting content published and delivered wherever your audiences are through API-connected endpoints. With the content management framework separated from the content delivery side, editors and publishers can focus on what they do best: storytelling and audience engagement. Other benefits include protection from unhelpful outages and changes downstream on the front end, plus the ability to manage editorial content types, workflows, templates, and more all from within the CMS ecosystem without being reliant on development support or front-end changes.

When should I use a headless CMS?

Despite the popularity and front-end freedom of a headless CMS, it is not for everyone. Let us explain. The best way to think about a headless CMS approach is as a management system that solely looks after your data, and allows you to access that data. Other architecture types that are not headless involve a system that will also render a webpage—or front end. This is explained well by looking at the four main components that make up headless CMS:
  • 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.
How technical teams approach headless architecture and which hurdles they’ll run into depend on various factors. What type of web application is being built? What are the dynamics and skill sets on the team? What use cases and requirements need to be implemented? These are all important questions and considerations each team needs to assess and address before taking the leap in choosing which architecture best suits their business needs. If headless CMS architecture is a fit, it needs to be implemented correctly (of course) to bring to life its intended benefits. This requires an experienced team to ensure the back end and front end are well planned from the beginning, so they can sync up seamlessly later. Keep in mind, the freedom that teams enjoy when using these systems means that they are responsible for writing, debugging and maintaining everything that their rendering systems require.

What is a decoupled CMS?

In a decoupled CMS environment, the back end and front end of a website are split—hence “decoupled”—into two unique systems that are managed separately. One system handles content creation and storage, while the other is responsible for taking that input and presenting it to the user through a chosen interface. What is a traditional CMS? A traditional—or coupled—CMS tightly links the back end to the front end. Content is created, managed and stored, along with all associated 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 the end users’ respective devices.

What is meant by hybrid CMS?

Decoupled and headless architectures have paved the way for the hybrid model. With a hybrid CMS architecture, organizations and publishers have the ability to mix presentation or front-end choices. The hybrid approach offers an environment that allows users to deliver different experiences to a browser window or a device, where both decoupled and headless CMS architectures can be combined.

Is Brightspot a headless CMS platform?

Yes, Brightspot is headless, but that's not the end of the answer. At Brightspot, we believe in front-end freedom of choice—to be able to choose the architecture that best suits each individual organization’s unique needs. Meaning? Brightspot CMS is naturally headless, but users determine how they want to use the platform to create digital content experiences. Brightspot provides the only evolved CMS platform that is front-end agnostic with an extensible architecture that is API-first so that users can publish how they want—headless or decoupled—all within the same environment.

Are other headless providers an API-first CMS platform?

No, most headless CMS platforms on the market are API-only platforms. This means that the burden of developing the features and capabilities to create, develop and publish content rest squarely with the user. In today’s digital economy, Brightspot recognizes that all businesses are content businesses—all organizations must communicate and reach audiences by creating and publishing unique content. In that sense, while not all businesses may see themselves yet as a content business, all businesses leverage content as a vehicle for communicating and engaging with their stakeholders—customers, partners, employees, and shareholders.

Will going headless lower my project costs?

The answer to that depends on a variety of factors, but in many cases, yes, a headless CMS can help cut costs. If you’re starting from scratch, you may need to invest more up front to make sure you have both the back-end and front-end developers you need, depending on the size and number of sites, along with a technical manager. That said, the up-front cost for a new app is about the same, and a headless CMS can save on long-term maintenance costs because you don’t have to worry about changing the back end every time you add a channel. So, if you expect that you’ll continue to expand your support for different audiences, headless is more cost effective in the long term.

How do I preview content with a headless CMS?

It’s a common concern: If my CMS isn’t rendering the content for final display, will I still be able to review how it looks before publishing? The short answer for Brightspot is yes. The notas-short answer is that some additional development may be required, depending on your front-end system (e.g. React, Angular) and the channel in question.


More headless CMS resources

Learn the difference between traditional (or coupled) CMS, decoupled CMS, and headless CMS architecture, as well as the pros and cons for each.
Learn what a headless content management system (CMS) is, how it differs from traditional CMS architectures and how the flexibility of Brightspot's hybrid-headless CMS approach can future-proof your business.
GraphQL is the programming language that enables flexible connection with programming APIs that support headless CMS integrations like the one offered through Brightspot.
In our work with clients and in webinars, we field lots of questions about headless and decoupled CMS architecture. Here are answers to some of the most common.