three light bulbs on a line before a cloudy sky
Will 2017 be the year when cloud-first headless CMS starts going mainstream? PHOTO: Pixabay

(Ed. Note: Forrester's latest Wave for web content management emphasized the cloud and headless deployments. 

But what's the big deal with headless platforms — and what can we anticipate happening next? 

In this two-part series, two industry experts — Petr Palas, founder and CEO of Kentico, and Greg Luciano, director of services at Built.io —  will explain why they think headless is the way to go.)

When Steve Jobs saw the graphical user interface in Xerox laboratories for the first time, he knew it was the future.

"It was so obvious once you saw it... You can argue about how long it's going to take, who the winners and losers are going to be, but I don't think a rational person will debate its significance," he later commented.

We're now facing a similar disruption in content management. It may take a few years, but we will eventually get there as the cloud-first headless CMS model provides very tangible benefits for the customers. By best estimates, 2017 is the year when cloud-first headless CMS will start going mainstream.

Climbing the Ladder to the Cloud

Today, we see customers increasingly choosing the cloud as an environment for running their website and their CMS. Driven by this demand, a growing number of CMS vendors offer their products in the cloud.

So it seems our industry is finally moving to the cloud. But are we climbing the right ladder?

When you ask customers how they use CMS in the cloud, you will most often hear "we run it in Amazon Web Services." Many customers choose the Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) model, which means they don't need to worry about the infrastructure.

However, they still have to install the CMS and take care of upgrades, hotfixes, security, performance, backups, etc. That means more time and money wasted on technology instead of your business.

Some vendors followed the demand from customers who no longer want to babysit their CMS and started offering managed cloud hosting. While your first reaction may be "Great, I don't have to take care of the CMS any longer," the reality is that you're just hiring an expensive babysitter and moving the inefficiencies to someone else while you pay for all of it.

PaaS Is Often Limiting

To address the inefficiencies of managed hosting, some vendors started offering their CMS in the Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) model.

However, their products weren't designed for that model, so the vendors had to create standardized “one-size-fits-all” CMS packages. These can be easily deployed and managed with automated procedures, but they leave little space for your specific needs.

Need an extra plug-in or a specific network configuration? You’re quickly back at one of the previous models.

SaaS: The Holy Grail of the Cloud

When you look at other related markets, such as CRM or marketing automation, you can see that the Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) model is the clear winner. It provides the biggest benefits for both customers and vendors.

Surprisingly, you won't find many true multitenant SaaS CMS vendors. This model requires a very different architecture.

It means most traditional vendors need to rewrite their CMS from the ground up to provide all the benefits of the cloud. So they will often claim something like "you don't need to worry about multitenancy, it's our problem how we manage the CMS."

Actually, the customers should care about what happens in the background. When the cloud CMS offering isn't multitenant and fully automated, it may take extra time for you to get upgraded to the new version.

You may need to wait for the vendor to apply a critical security hotfix to your CMS installation. Or, in the case of managed hosting, you may wait for the vendor every time you want to deploy an updated version of your website.

At the end of the day, it's the customer who pays for any inefficiencies.

Headless = A True Cloud-First CMS

In the past, the SaaS model was limited to website builders. They allowed you to create a website based on a predefined template, but you couldn't customize it with your own code.

The traditional CMS systems couldn't be deployed that way. The customers needed more customization options, but the vendors couldn't give them more control in a multitenant model as the CMS was tightly coupled with the customer's code.

The headless approach, however, breaks down that barrier. It decouples the content and the presentation. Now the content can be stored in a centralized cloud-based repository and provided as a service to any application on any platform through an API.

Your presentation layer is completely separate from the CMS, so it may be anything from a website to a virtual reality application. You keep full control of your code while the vendor takes care of everything related to content management and delivery.

This Is Not Your Traditional CMS

Now, you may argue that "I can run my CMS in the cloud and it provides a REST API, so I can do all of this."

Yes, you can. But the devil is in the detail.

I would compare your experience to driving a traditional car that the maker turned into a plug-in hybrid versus driving a Tesla. It just misses the elegance of a product built for the future, leveraging all the advancements in technology.

The cloud-first CMS can be configured in a matter of minutes, and it doesn't require any maintenance. It was built to leverage all the power and scalability of the cloud. Its content model and API were built for multichannel scenarios from the very beginning, not as an afterthought. These are all details that together make a huge difference to your agility and productivity.

Cloud-First Headless CMS Will Disrupt the Industry

The whole CMS industry is facing a huge change, whether we like it or not. Today, the industry is still in the denial phase of the change as traditional vendors are caught unprepared.

They try to catch up by adding headless functionality and offering managed or PaaS cloud hosting, but the results look like using duct tape to fix your bumper.

At the same time, however, most cloud-first CMS offerings aren't anywhere near the level of sophistication of the traditional CMS products, so the customers need to make sure they choose a product that is ready for their level of content management maturity.

It still makes perfect sense to go with a traditional CMS today. However, in the upcoming years, the new cloud-first CMS products will become a viable alternative, disrupting the traditional CMS market.

(Also read What’s Next for Headless CMS in 2017?)