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What are the pros and cons of headless CMS vs. other CMS architecture approaches?

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Learn the difference between headless CMS, decoupled CMS and traditional CMS architecture, as well as the pros and cons for each.

In the past few years, there has been a significant surge in the popularity of decoupled and headless CMS platforms. The debate on whether a headless CMS architecture is the way forward or if the traditional CMS architecture is still the best approach has been ongoing.

Gone are the days when the traditional coupled CMS architecture was the standard method of managing content. Nowadays, companies are embracing the benefits of faster and more innovative content publishing that decoupled and headless CMS solutions offer. The agility and flexibility of these solutions are proving to be invaluable in today's fast-paced digital landscape.

If you're considering a redesign of your digital properties, it's imperative to understand the differences between coupled, decoupled and headless CMS architectures. You also need to weigh the pros and cons of each option and determine when a headless CMS is the right choice for you. By selecting the best structure for your organization, you'll not only get what you want but what's best for your entire team鈥攅ditors, developers and marketers alike.

Headless CMS graphic

In summary

What are the advantages of headless CMS?

Because headless CMS architecture is a subset of decoupled CMS, it shares almost all of the benefits. However, without a designated front end, a headless CMS provides the greatest flexibility to publish content on different platforms. Also, unlike decoupled, headless allows you to publish dynamic content to any device connected via IoT. Of all three CMS architectures, headless CMS offers the most control regarding how and where your content appears.

What are the disadvantages of headless CMS?

On the other hand, headless鈥 lack of content presentation functionality, OOTB templates, or themes means you鈥檒l be seeking additional technologies to serve as the 鈥渉ead.鈥 Headless CMS platforms typically do not come with a user interface, therefore seeing an accurate live preview can prove more difficult than decoupled. For these reasons, headless platforms are best suited for companies with a robust team of developers who prefer to use their favorite frameworks and tools.

Is headless CMS worth it?

The answer to this depends on a variety of factors, but in many cases, yes, a headless CMS can help cut costs. If you're starting from scratch, you may need to invest more up front to make sure you have both the back-end and front-end developers you need, depending on the size and number of sites, along with a technical manager. That said, the up-front cost for a new app is about the same, and a headless CMS can save on long-term maintenance costs because you don't have to worry about changing the back end every time you add a channel. So, if you expect that you'll continue to expand your support for different audiences, headless is more cost-effective in the long term.

Is headless CMS faster?

With a headless CMS, you can publish your content to multiple platforms and devices quickly, making immediate delivery choices depending on the brand experience required. The ability to produce content and make front-end changes simultaneously saves you time and money鈥攚hich can accelerate projects by weeks or even months.

Your content teams can work faster, freed from time spent formatting content for different platforms and devices. Your developers can make rapid enhancements and updates, improving productivity and allowing for more effective use of stored data without risk of instability or performance issues. Your users will have a smoother and more interactive experience due to boosted load speeds and streamlined connectivity.

To start, it's first important to understand the definitions of the three distinct types of CMS architectures.

What is a traditional CMS?

In a traditional or coupled CMS, the back end and front end are tightly linked through the traditional CMS architecture. All content, along with digital assets, is created, managed and stored in the back end. Additionally, website design and customization applications are also stored in the back end. With this approach, the content management back end and database are tied together with the system that presents content to devices and end-users on the front end. So, in a traditional CMS, editors write and publish content in the same system that website visitors view. Examples of traditional CMS architecture include popular blogging platforms such as WordPress, Squarespace and Wix.

To sum it up, a traditional CMS is made up of a database where content and digital assets are stored, a content management back end where content is created, an application where publishers and designers create and apply design schemas and a front end that displays published content on HTML pages.

traditional cms illustration diagram

What is a decoupled CMS?

Decoupled CMS architecture is like splitting your website's brain in two: one part is in charge of creating and storing content, while the other is responsible for delivering that content to users on their devices. The beauty of this approach is that it allows for lightning-fast content delivery and flexibility in how the content is presented.

With a decoupled CMS, the content management system (CMS) and the front-end application are housed separately, and communicate through an API. This means that once content is created and edited in the back end, it can be delivered to any front-end design on any device or channel.

While the back-end and front-end applications function independently of one another, they are still tightly linked. The front-end CMS architecture is predetermined with a specified delivery environment (such as React or React Native), but it can still be customized to fit your needs.

So, in summary, a decoupled CMS platform is made up of:

  • A database to store content and digital assets (back end)
  • A content management back end where content is created and edited (back end)
  • An API that connects the content management back end with the front end
  • A default content publishing front end (which can be customized to your liking)
decoupled cms graphic

What is a headless CMS?

To grasp the concept of headless CMS architecture, it's essential to start by understanding its connection with decoupled CMS. Headless architecture is actually a part of decoupled architecture, as both have a content management and storage back end that delivers content through a web service or API. However, what sets them apart is the presentation layer: a headless CMS doesn't have a defined front-end system or presentation environment, unlike its decoupled counterpart.

headless cms promo graphic

What are the differences between headless CMS vs. decoupled CMS?

An easy way to understand the difference between headless CMS versus decoupled CMS architecture is to think of decoupled as proactive and headless CMS as reactive. Decoupled architecture prepares the content on the back end and then can proactively deliver and present formatted content to various channels. Headless CMS, on the other hand, is a content-only data source and has no functionality within the CMS to present content to an end user on it鈥檚 own. Content is created and managed, but it just sits there, available and waiting to be called upon by an API and delivered to applications and systems.

This means that a headless CMS implementation is 鈥API only, UI anything鈥; it can push content to any device or channel with internet access. It can publish the same content to a website, an app, a wearable device or any device connected via Internet of Things (IoT) because the content isn鈥檛 bound by a predetermined user interface.

Of course, "headless" doesn鈥檛 stay headless assuming, that is, that you want to actually publish the content you create and manage. Something must serve as the 鈥渉ead鈥 for content presentation鈥 but it鈥檚 simply not attached, by default.

From a technical standpoint, a headless CMS is comprised of:

  • A database where content and digital assets are stored (back end);
  • A content management back end where content is created (back end);
  • An API that connects the content management back end to any device or channel;
  • The ability to connect to any publishing front end, allowing organizations to have the front-end technology of their choosing.

Some traditional CMS platforms will claim to be headless, but they became headless through acquisitions and the cobbling together of existing solutions. Be wary, because these solutions aren鈥檛 truly headless, and often lack a friendly way of publishing to different channels, such as phones and tablets. In some cases, users can end up multiplying their workload by creating distinct versions of every piece of content for each channel.

Headless cms vs traditional cms

What are the pros and cons of coupled vs. decoupled vs. headless CMS architecture?

Each type of CMS architecture has its pros and cons and is more appropriate in specific environments than others. There is no one superior approach and the architecture that will work best for you depends on the needs of your business. Here is our breakdown of the pros and cons of the three types of CMS architectures.

Pros of traditional CMS, decoupled CMS & headless CMS

Traditional CMS
  • Simple; ideal for text-based content
  • Built-in themes and templates
  • Customize your front end
Decoupled CMS
  • Fast and flexible content delivery with a specified delivery environment
  • Rapid design iterations and simpler deployments
  • Easy and secure third-party integrations
  • Fewer dependencies on IT
  • The best of both worlds in a CMS (structured BE & flexible FE)
  • Future-proof (integrates easily with new technology and innovations)
Headless CMS
  • Fast content delivery
  • Provides complete control over how and where your content appears
  • Secure third-party integrations
  • Allows developers to use their favorite tools and frameworks
  • Future-proof (integrates easily with new technology and innovations)

Cons of traditional CMS, decoupled CMS & headless CMS

Traditional CMS
  • Content types and delivery channels are limited
  • Limited programming framework
  • More time and money required for customization, maintenance and enhancements
Decoupled CMS
  • More complex than traditional to configure and deploy
  • Front-end development work required for design
Headless CMS
  • No built-in presentation functionality
  • Difficult to see a live preview without significant development assistance
  • Reliant on additional technologies for its 鈥渉ead鈥

Headless CMS benefits

Headless CMS architecture, as a subset of decoupled, shares almost all the benefits, but with the advantage of greater flexibility to publish content on different platforms. Unlike decoupled, headless allows you to publish dynamic content to any device connected via IoT. Headless offers the most control over how and where your content appears, but requires additional technologies to serve as the "head" due to its lack of content presentation functionality, OOTB templates, or themes. Headless CMS platforms typically do not come with a user interface, which can make it difficult to see an accurate live preview. Therefore, headless platforms are best suited for companies with a skilled team of developers who prefer to use their favorite frameworks and tools.

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Advantages of headless CMS


  • Fast content delivery
  • Provides complete control over how and where your content appears
  • Secure third-party integrations
  • Allows developers to use their favorite tools and frameworks
  • Future-proof (integrates easily with new technology and innovations)
Shield Warning icon

Disadvantages of headless CMS


  • No built-in presentation functionality
  • Difficult to see a live preview without significant development assistance
  • Reliant on additional technologies for its "head

Decoupled CMS pros and cons

Decoupled CMS architecture separates the back end (content creation and storage) and front end (content display) into distinct systems. This front-end agnostic approach takes advantage of web services and APIs to deliver raw content to any front-end design, providing the flexibility of headless CMS while still allowing for the use of templates like in a traditional CMS platform.

Decoupling your CMS provides numerous benefits, such as faster and more flexible content delivery, resiliency against changes in the user interface, rapid design iterations, enhanced security, fewer dependencies for publishers and developers, simpler deployment and easy third-party integrations.

While a decoupled CMS offers advantages, it is more complex than traditional CMS and requires extra development work compared to headless implementations, especially in building the front end.

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Decoupled CMS advantages
  • Fast and flexible content delivery with a specified delivery environment
  • Rapid design iterations and simpler deployments
  • Easy and secure third-party integrations
  • Fewer dependencies on IT
  • The best of both worlds in a CMS (structured BE & flexible FE)
  • Future-proof (integrates easily with new technology and innovations)
Shield Warning icon
Decoupled CMS disadvantages
  • More complex than traditional to configure and deploy
  • Front-end development work required for design

What are the pros and cons of a traditional CMS?

Traditional CMS architectures work best for basic company websites, personal blogs and simple sites as they allow for the easy development, management and publishing of text-based content. With pre-designed themes and templates, the front end can be edited and customized according to the user's needs.

However, the traditional CMS architecture falls short when it comes to more complex websites. It constrains the editors' ability to publish various content types, such as video, audio and advanced imagery, and restricts where that content can appear. The tight coupling between the front and back ends of the system also limits the ability of developers to customize the programming framework, slowing down the process and making it less agile. As a result, more maintenance and enhancements are required, which translates to additional time and cost.

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Traditional CMS advantages
  • Simple; ideal for text-based content
  • Built-in themes and templates
  • Customize your front end
Shield Warning icon
Traditional CMS disadvantages
  • Content types and delivery channels are limited
  • Limited programming framework
  • More time and money required for customization, maintenance and enhancements

What's the right CMS choice for your business?

The demand for flexible, scalable and customizable content management systems is on the rise. With the modern CMS revolution, organizations need to meet the expectations of their customers by delivering a seamless experience. By separating the front and back ends through headless or decoupled CMS implementation, businesses can achieve faster delivery times and iterate more efficiently.

Brightspot understands the importance of front-end freedom of choice. Our CMS is designed to operate in traditional, decoupled or headless modes, based on the specific needs of our clients. With Brightspot's natively multisite and omnichannel capabilities, publishing content becomes effortless. You can easily deploy content anywhere with a single authoring point, eliminating the stress and mess.

Want to learn more? Schedule a demo to learn more about the options available and which is best for your company.

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