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The pros and cons of coupled, decoupled and headless CMS architecture

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Learn the difference between traditional (or coupled), decoupled, and headless CMS architecture, as well as the pros and cons for each.

In the last couple of years, decoupled and headless CMS platforms have been rising in popularity. Some argue that a headless CMS architecture 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 CMS solutions.

If it’s time to redesign your digital properties, it’s important to know the difference between coupled, decoupled, and headless CMS 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.

What is a Traditional CMS?

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
infographic illustrating how traditional CMS architecture works

What is a Decoupled CMS?

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 CMS 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 platform 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
infographic illustrating how decoupled CMS architecture works

What is a Headless CMS?

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 architecture. 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 a decoupled CMS, a headless CMS does not have a defined front-end system or presentation environment.

Headless vs Decoupled CMS Architecture

An easy way to understand the difference between headless vs decoupled CMS architecture is to think of decoupled as proactive and headless as reactive. Decoupled architecture 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 implementation 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
infographic illustrating how headless CMS architecture connects with different channels

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 Coupled vs Decoupled vs Headless CMS Architecture

Each type of 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 types of CMS architectures.

Pros & Cons of a Traditional CMS

Traditional CMS architectures are 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.

Pros & Cons of 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 architecture 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 platform, but you have the flexibility of a headless CMS 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.

Pros & Cons of Headless CMS Architecture

Because headless third-party integrations 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 CMS
Decoupled CMS
Headless CMS
  • Simple; ideal for text-based content
  • Built-in themes and templates
  • Customize your front end
  • Fast and flexible content delivery with a specified delivery environment
  • Rapid design iterations and simpler deployments
  • Easy and secure third-party integrations
  • Fewer dependencies on IT
  • The best of both worlds in a CMS (structured BE & flexible FE)
  • Future-proof (integrates easily with new technology and innovations)
  • Fast content delivery
  • Provides complete control over how and where your content appears
  • Easy and secure third-party integrations
  • Allows developers to use their favorite tools and frameworks
  • Future-proof (integrates easily with new technology and innovations)

Cons

Traditional CMS
Decoupled CMS
Headless
  • Content types and delivery channels are limited
  • Limited programming framework
  • More time and money required for customization, maintenance and enhancements
  • More complex than traditional to configure and deploy
  • Front end development work required for design
  • No presentation functionality
  • Impossible to see an accurate live preview
  • Reliant on additional technologies for its “head”

The New Age of Content Management Systems

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

At Brightspot 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 demo to learn more about the options available and which is best for your company.

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