Blog / Content Management

What Is a Cloud-first Headless CMS?


by Petr Palas

Dec 2, 2016

Always wondered what "cloud-first headless CMS" is all about? Is it just recent hype or is it the future of CMS? Learn more about the evolution of CMS architecture and decide whether you need a cloud-first headless CMS or not.

In the first part of this series, we explained why digital agencies and their clients benefit from a cloud-first CMS. Today, we will look at the evolution of CMS architecture and why today's digital world has created the need for a headless approach.

Most traditional CMS products were built as a coupled CMS

The coupled architecture combines everything in a single application: the content repository, back-end user interface for editors, templating system, as well as your custom code. 

This approach is very popular as it only requires a single environment, and it's easy to set up and manage.

However, it brings a number of issues

  • The CMS code is tightly connected with your templates and custom code. It means you need to take care of your own code as well as the CMS code during the whole application life cycle (installation, upgrades, hotfixes, code versioning, continuous deployment, etc.).
  • The CMS code is exposed on the public server which increases security risks.
  • The load on your website impacts the performance of your content management back end, and vice versa. 
Coupled CMS


Decoupled CMS for a better separation of concerns

In order to address the limitations of the coupled CMS, some vendors introduced decoupled architecture. In this case, you make all modifications in the content management environment (typically behind the firewall) and synchronize the published content with the content delivery environment. This model provides better security, higher (though not full) separation of your custom code, and easier scalability. 

However, it still comes with some drawbacks

  • You have to manage several environments, which multiplies the costs of infrastructure, ongoing maintenance, and software licenses.
  • The synchronization of content introduces potential issues, especially if your website enables members to contribute their own content that needs to be synchronized back.


Decoupled CMS


Headless CMS: no head, no limits

The traditional CMS systems were built for websites. However, it's no longer enough. With the mobile revolution, in the past 10 years, we have started to consume content through mobile applications. 

The new era of virtual reality, bots, digital assistants, and Internet of Things has made it even more complex—suddenly, the content can be displayed on any device using any format. That requires a completely new approach to how we manage and publish content.

And here enters the concept of headless CMS. It makes the presentation layer much more flexible as it eliminates the front-end part: it only provides the content through its application programming interface (API)

Benefits of the headless CMS architecture

If you ask why headless CMS is better, here are some of the benefits:

  • The API makes the content available through any channel and on any device.
  • You can write your websites or mobile applications using any programming language, with your favorite tools and your own development process.
  • You have full control over the application lifecycle without any interference of CMS code.
  • It provides higher security and much easier scalability.


Headless CMS


On a side note: You may have heard the term "API-first CMS". It's usually used in the same context as "headless CMS". Still, some people may use the term API-first CMS to point out that the (headless) CMS was built with an API approach in mind, unlike some traditional CMS systems that added an API layer just to be able to claim they support the headless approach.

Cloud-first headless CMS: the best of cloud and headless

While you can use the headless approach with an installed/on-premise CMS, you will gain the biggest benefits if you use a headless CMS provided in the Software as a Service (SaaS) model. In fact, it was the headless approach that enabled CMS vendors to provide content management as a true multi-tenant SaaS service

We use the term "cloud-first" to emphasize that the CMS was built for the cloud from the very beginning. That's very different to traditional CMS products where the cloud was an afterthought. 

The cloud-first headless CMS brings the best of headless plus the benefits of the Cloud. You can focus on your website or mobile app and have the CMS vendor take care of everything else:

  • all the underlying infrastructure, database, storage, content delivery network, etc.
  • installation
  • upgrades and hotfixes
  • backups
  • availability
  • performance
  • security


Cloud-first headless CMS


It's fair to say that you still need to take care of your website, but that is now much easier:

  • There is no CMS code in your environment.
  • You don't need to update your code every time there's a new release of the CMS (provided the API is backward compatible).
  • It's much easier to secure your own code, which you know, and understand it without worrying about CMS security.
  • The main workload remains on the cloud CMS service, which means you can handle huge traffic with a relatively modest web server configuration.

Headless CMS fits most scenarios

The headless CMS offers many benefits, and there are very few reasons not to use it:

  • You need a simple website based on a stock template without investing into a custom design. In this case, website builders such as Wix or Squarespace may be a better option.
  • Your content editors insist on using the page-oriented approach, or they want to be able to heavily customize the page layouts by themselves.

For everything else, a headless CMS is a clear winner.

Cloud-first headless CMS is the future

As you can see, the cloud-first headless CMS provides many benefits. In the next blog post, we will focus on what this technology shift means to digital agencies, and why they need to adopt the cloud-first headless CMS to stay competitive.

In the meantime, check out some of the other materials we created explaining the headless CMS approach—video, presentation, and infographic—or you can try Kentico Cloud and see why we are so excited about the cloud-first headless CMS model.