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How to choose between a headless or hybrid system architecture for your CMS

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If you're exploring changes to your content management system, then you've probably heard about the trend toward headless CMS architecture. Learn the pros and cons of a headless CMS implementation versus hybrid architecture style.

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.

Hybrid CMS system architecture is an option

Headless architecture 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, or is there a hybrid system architecture option?

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 system architecture approaches, along with the benefits and disadvantages of each.

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, but they don't replace everything else you're doing with your web content management system.
Melissa Webster, International Data Corporation

Who benefits from headless & hybrid CMS architecture design?

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 architecture 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.
Melissa Webster, International Data Corporation

Understanding the differences between headless CMS and hybrid CMS architectures

Understanding the differences between headless CMS and hybrid CMS architectures

What are the advantages of headless CMS?

  • Having lightweight intuitive APIs in JSON or XML 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 architecture can be lower cost, particularly if you already have a strong internal development team.

What are the disadvantages of headless CMS?

  • 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.

What are the advantages of hybrid CMS architecture?

  • A hybrid CMS system has the advantages of decoupled and headless, offering both application and platform.
  • Like headless, hybrid system architecture 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.

What are the disadvantages of hybrid CMS architecture?

The success of hybrid system architecture depends on the vendor's implementation and ability to execute the following:
  • Feature set
  • Architecture
  • Technical team
  • Capital
  • Customer base
  • Partnerships
  • Support

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