The Web CMS industry includes a difference of opinions on the right time to deploy a headless CMS model.
Headless CMS is attracting a lot of attention, but not everyone is convinced it is the best option. PHOTO: Steven Guzzardi

Forrester gave a big boost to headless content management systems (CMSs) in a recent wave that prioritized platforms that use modern storage, stateless interfaces, and cloud infrastructure to deliver internet-scale content experiences on any device.

This cloud-first headless CMS model provides tangible benefits because it decouples the content and the presentation, Kentico CMS CEO Petr Palas wrote in an article on CMSWire last month. “Now the content can be stored,” Palas wrote, “in a centralized cloud-based repository and provided as a service to any application on any platform through an API.”

But don't lose your head (pun intended) over this shift in approach to content management architecture. While headless is grabbing headlines and winning the hearts of some analysts, it's still provoking plenty of debate.

Piyush Patel
Piyush Patel

Companies that pursue a headless approach because it’s the latest trend in web CMS are wasting time and money, according to Piyush Patel, CEO and founder of Accelerating Digital, a Houston-based digital consultancy. Patel was formerly executive vice president of strategic alliances at Jahia Solutions, vice president of alliances strategy and marketing at OpenText and global head of CMS at SapientNitro

He told CMSWire headless has its merits, but is not the only consideration for a company's WCM technology ecosystem. Headless is just one of the avenues in CMS, not the avenue, Patel said.

“I don’t think it’s really just about headless and CMS pages layouts,” Patel said. “It goes beyond that. You need to look more at industry- or problem-related capabilities so you can move faster. ... The entire ecosystem of digital can be much more efficient.”

The headless approach — the idea of decoupling the front end and the back end of content delivery — is “missing the point,” Patel said, and a “bit late to be realized.”

Headless: Limited Application

Headless may meet requirements on the front-end but can be “very expensive” with a value proposition that is "only positive for a limited few,” Patel said. 

Rather than ask if a CMS is headless, Patel said it is better to ask if the CMS has a track record in your industry — and find out what other companies have used it to successfully address challenges like the ones you face.

“If you’re in oil or gas, find customers, partners and providers that have done those implementations,” Patel said. “You may be able to leverage common elements. The content models, templates and workflows are things that could be common.” 

Headless vs. Decoupled

Headless is getting more attention recently but it is not new. Josh Koenig, co-founder and head of developer experience at Pantheon, noted growing interest in headless website architecture way back in 2014. "Nearly every developer I’ve spoken to in the past six months is excited about the potential, and with good reason — this model allows breakthrough user-experiences and innovation," he wrote.

Before we go on it's important to point out the differences between headless and decoupled. As Carson Gibbons, co-founder of Cosmic JS, an API-first Content Management Platform, and President-Elect of the Dallas/Fort Worth Chapter of American Marketing Association, explained in a blog post

  • A headless CMS is reactive — it manages content, then just sits and waits for some process to ask for it.
  • A decoupled CMS is proactive, preparing content for presentation and pushing it into the specified delivery environment of your application. A decoupled system concerns itself with what happens in the delivery environment. It usually has some concept of a templating system with editorial tools.

Tony White
Tony White

Tony White, founder of Boston-based Ars Logica, a digital consultancy and advisory firm, said companies often use highly decoupled content management platforms as headless systems, even if they are not designed to be headless (i.e. best-of-breed platforms). 

"Decoupled, but optionally headless, platforms offer the most flexibility," White added. "In the end, there will have to be some sort of 'head,' or content will not be visible."

Boris Kraft, co-founder and chief visionary officer of Magnolia International, a Basel, Switzerland-based open source CMS vendor, wrote about the downside of headless CMS on CMSWire last year. "It's always tempting when you're facing a problem — in this case, the lack of agility in delivering content — to believe in a new wonder product that looks like a possible solution. Most of you know that if it seems too good to be true, it probably is."

“In many cases,” Kraft wrote, “you will end up writing and maintaining the better part of a full-blown CMS, adding multiple layers of complexity to gain the advanced features that you’ve lost by rejecting a full CMS.”

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