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What is a Headless CMS?

What is a Headless CMS?

Headless systems decouple the backend functionality from the front-end, allowing teams to leverage multiple backend platforms or change backend services without having to completely rebuild the front end. Headless provides high implementation control for the systems you use and makes it future-proof when you upgrade. Because the content is not tied up in the presentation layer, you also have the flexibility to apply it to multiple channels and apply it seamlessly.

Terms to Know

  • Content Management Software (CMS): A CMS provides a graphical user interface with tools to create, edit and publish web content without the need to write code from scratch.
  • Decoupled: Decoupled architecture leverages two different frameworks to separate the presentation layer from the administration layer. 
  • Application Programming Interface (API): An API It is a type of software interface that allows one computer service to talk to another.

Headless vs. Monolithic

A traditional, or monolithic, CMS is a single interface where the backend and front-end are tied together. Because the front-end and back end are combined into a single interface, the functionality and flexibility of both the content administration and the front-end presentation are limited. On the other hand, a headless CMS is a content management system that is only responsible for the content administration, the front-end presentation is handled by a separate system. Many popular headless CMS solutions are SaaS, software as a service, platforms that manage the hosting of a best-in-class content management solution, and giving you the power to control the entire presentation layer.

Advantages of a Headless CMS

Website speed, improved user experience, and optimized administrative control are among the top advantages of using a headless CMS. A monolithic CMS has to manage the presentation, management, and output all in one process which creates a bottleneck as the system processes all of the information to output the requested page. It also has to provide an interface for both developers and content administrators as either could be using the tool with different objectives. Whereas with a headless CMS, the backend and frontend are separated. The systems can be optimized independently, and the page display can happen concurrently from the content loading. It lets developers focus on developing while providing an optimized administrative experience for content managers.

Types of Headless CMS

There are two types of headless CMS: open source and SaaS. An open source CMS allows you to run the platform on your own server while a SaaS CMS is managed by another company. Though an open-source CMS provides more customization and cost savings than a SaaS CMS, it also requires more time and responsibility, specifically when it comes to security. Managing a headless CMS tends to be attacked less than a traditional CMS website as most bots are not sophisticated enough to sniff it out, but security and platform updates are still a factor. SaaS content management systems can provide an improved experience for admins and developers, if the price is right for your organization.

Headless Pros and Cons

Before you decide to go headless, you should be aware of the pros and cons that come with a headless CMS. One of the biggest benefits to headless is reusable, consolidated content for omnichannel output. Previously, we’ve discussed how to automate GatsbyJS and Contentful on Google Cloud and the benefits of building a serverless website with Contentful and Gatsby.

Unlike a monolithic system that only delivers content to a website, a headless framework can also deliver it to any app or device by centralizing data into one place. Another benefit to headless is that, if you decide to go with a SaaS solution, many of the repetitive tasks associated with managing your own website will no longer be your responsibility. Going headless also helps lower the learning curve for developers and marketing teams, making it easier to collaborate with one another to publish content so that every change doesn’t have to go through development.


Headless Pros Headless Cons

✅ Flexibility to integrate with other systems

❌ More effort to build initially

✅Better collaboration

❌ No external support for your front end development

✅Reusable content for omnichannel output

❌ Could be more expensive depending on solution

✅ Improve website performance


✅Future-proof development

✅Offload CMS security and management

Despite the many benefits to going headless, it’s important to be aware of the obstacles too. Even though the learning curve is shorter than coding, it can still be difficult for non-technical users. Another obstacle to going headless can be the expenses. IT support and security depend on the hosted platform’s team instead of your own, but they need to be paid, which might be difficult for smaller teams and startups with tight budgets. The third-party tech support might also be an obstacle if it’s difficult to reach them or they don’t offer 24/7 access to the IT department. Lastly, going headless means starting your design from scratch. While most teams have design departments to handle this, it could be a tedious obstacle for teams with little resources.

Examples of a Headless CMS

There are many opportunities to explore the right headless CMSs for you with hundreds on the market. Many of them have free versions which is a great way to get familiar with them and see which one is right for you. Below are some examples of headless CMSs we think are great for people to try out! 

  • Agility CMS

    The Headless CMS that combines the best of both worlds: Fast Flexible API-based Development and Familiar Authoring Tools like Page Management, Sitemaps, and URL Management for content editors and marketing teams. Agility CMS is a headless CMS platform born in Canada in 2003: Content-first, Jamstack-ready, API-based headless CMS with hybrid features like Page Management, Sitemap, and URL Management. In the world of pure headless CMS and traditional CMSs, it is designed to offer the best of both worlds: fast and flexible for developers as well as easy and powerful for marketers. Learn More >

  • Prismic

    Prismic is the Website Builder that helps you grow through your website. Your developer chooses their favorite technology (Next.js, Nuxt.js, etc) and delivers a headless website builder for your content team. Learn More >

  • Contentful

    One of our favorites, Contentful's API-first platform helps teams assemble content and deliver digital experiences faster. Learn More >

  • Strapi.js

    Strapi is the leading open-source Headless CMS: 100% JavaScript, extensible, and fully customizable. Strapi enables developers to build projects faster by providing a customizable API out of the box and giving them the freedom to use their favorite tools. Content teams use Strapi to autonomously manage all types of content and distribute it from one CMS to any channel be it websites, mobile apps, or connected devices. Learn More >

  • Cosmic.js

    Cosmic is a headless CMS that enables teams to build content-powered apps faster, together.  Sign up to store your content in the cloud and deliver it anywhere. Learn More >

  • Storyblok

    Storyblok helps your team to tell your story and manage content for every use-case: corporate websites, e-commerce, helpdesks, mobile apps, and screen displays. Learn More >

  • Contentstack

    Contentstack – the pioneer in API-first, headless CMS technology – accelerates and simplifies content management across today's and tomorrow's digital channels, including web, mobile, and IoT. From desktops to smartphones, from kiosks to smartwatches, from billboards to jumbotrons, from dashboards to VR headsets, content is delivered with the push of a button and optimized for every screen, device, and channel. Learn More >

Resources to Learn More About Headless CMS