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Headless vs. Traditional: Different Architectures

The term ‘headless CMS’ has entered into conversations at most organizations at this point.  There’s no short supply of articles recommending the adoption of headless CMS solutions over traditional CMS platforms. 

However, truly understanding the differences between the architectures of a traditional CMS (WordPress, Squarespace, Kentico XPerience, etc.) and a headless CMS (Kentico Kontent, Contentful, Contentstack, etc.) is vital when deciding which is best for your organization.  Below, I’ve put together a high-level look at the differences between traditional and headless, their common use-cases, and their pros and cons. 

What is the difference between a Headless CMS and a Traditional CMS?

A traditional CMS is designed to be an all-in-one, out-of-the-box solution for a website’s content and design, providing both a joined back-end (database, content, content management interface) and front-end (the external presentation of your content to users)  as a singular, unified platform. 

traditional CMS diagram separating back end from front end

A headless CMS is designed to focus on managing content, providing a robust back-end (database, content, content management interface, content modeling) alongside an API that allows you to deliver your content to the front-end(s) of your choice, completely decoupling content from your front-end. 

headless cms architecture model

What are the common use-cases for a Headless CMS and a Traditional CMS?

A traditional CMS is a one-size-fits-all solution for content management designed for organizations with limited back-end and front-end developer resources.  Traditional CMS’s are ideal for:

  • Basic company websites
  • Blogs
  • Personal sites
  • Microsites.

A headless CMS provides organizations control over how their content is stored, managed and absolute flexibility on how it is presented on the front-end.  Headless CMS’s are ideal for:

  • Organizations with back-end and front-end developer resources
  • Simultaneous Omnichannel distribution of their content (website, mobile app, IoT, etc.)
  • Larger websites, apps, or e-commerce engines
  • Agile organizations that are utilizing various front-end architectures
  • Larger content teams or when governance is needed for content

Traditional CMS Pros and Cons

                             Traditional CMS Pros                           Traditional CMS Cons

Simple to manage. The back-end is connected with the front-end.

Built-in front-end templates.

Simplified codebase to maintain.

Easily preview content.

Manage back-end and front-end from the same platform.

Lower technical requirements for implementation.

Content and design are intermingled and difficult to separate.

Restricted content delivery (website only)

Reduced customization, maintenance, and enhancement options.

Reliant on an integrated framework, not the best available framework.

Difficult to scale as technologies, integrations, and content-delivery evolve.

Design-first approach to content creation.

Security is reliant on the platform.

Headless CMS Pros & Cons

                            Headless CMS Pros                             Headless CMS Cons

Deeply customizable. The back-end is completely independent of the front-end.

Omnichannel content delivery.

Flexible Front End framework options for developers and marketers.

Scalable adapts to new front-end technology.

Future-proof due to limitless 3rd-party integration potential.

Content-First approach to design.

Takes full advantage of content modeling.

Easier control of security

Higher technical requirements for implementation.

The Front-end client must be built separately and is not included.

Previewing content requires a separate front-end.

Limitless potential for integrated technologies can cause issues without a strategic approach.

Requires back-end and front-end developer resources to implement and maintain.

It can require changes in processes, training, and resources if moving from a traditional CMS.

Want to learn more about headless CMS? Check out Why a Headless CMS Might be the Real Winner or The Most Important Factor for Achieve your Headless CMS Strategy.