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Headless CMS

Should I use an open source headless content management system?

There are benefits and challenges to using an open source headless CMS. Let's explore whether this tool would be the best fit for your organisation.

What is a headless CMS?

One of the newest buzzwords in technology is “headless,” and it’s honestly hard to understand why people are so excited about a term that seems more appropriate for a horror movie than a piece of software. Unlike most trends in human history that involve the word “headless”, this trend is a good one. Headless content management systems (CMSs), in particular, offer opportunities for organisations to make a wise long-term technology investments.

Before we go into what those opportunities are, let’s explore the main difference between a traditional CMS and a headless CMS. In a traditional CMS, a backend (the code that manages all your content and data) is strongly connected to a frontend (the code that powers how the people sees your content) and all the code that powers your project lives on a single server.

In a headless CMS, the backend and the frontend are still connected, but they’re connected by an application programming interface (API) instead. The frontend, whether it’s a website, a mobile phone app, or a smartwatch app, can collect content from the same backend using the API and display it specifically for a particular device or app.

Why choose an open source headless CMS?

There are many high-quality CMSs available currently. Some, like Adobe Experience Manager or Contentful, are proprietary, while others, like Wagtail, are open source. Choosing an open source headless CMS will give your organisation more options for building the features you need as well as hiring developers, agencies, and other technology partners to work on your projects.  You'll make the most of your budget over time with an open source headless CMS.

In addition to saving money on the licensing fee, open source CMSs don’t require expensive certifications for developers to learn the code. That means more developers can learn about the underlying software and you’ll have more options when you need to hire outside help. Choosing an open source headless technology also means the source code is yours to keep. Even if you decide to switch technology partners, the code will go with you.

What are the benefits of an open source headless CMS?

1) You can reach more people on more devices

The average American household now has around 25 connected devices, such as smartphones, fitness trackers, and tablets. In the UK, the average number of connected devices is currently around 10. A headless CMS can help because it gives you options for pushing the same content to multiple devices from one source. You would still have to decide which devices or platforms are the best for your organisation to target, but with the API of a headless CMS, there are almost no limits to how you can broadcast your content.

2) You can reach more people on more devices

Many organisations find themselves spending time and effort on reformatting the same content for many different formats and platforms. Having a headless CMS won’t necessarily remove the need to make posts on individual platforms (although there are integrations that can help). The beauty of a headless CMS is what happens when someone discovers a typo in a board member’s name. Rather than having to update the post individually on all of those different platforms, a headless CMS lets you create once and publish everywhere. A good example of this is the CHUNKS approach used by the National Health Service, which aims to distribute content across multiple apps through APIs.

3) You don’t have to stress as much about scaling up

The media landscape has shifted drastically, and new technology (especially frontend technology) continues to evolve at a very rapid pace. You may have to re-evaluate hosting options or the public-facing parts of your web presence regularly, but one big advantage of a headless CMS is that you can try new technologies to serve larger audiences without having to switch to a new CMS too.

What are the challenges of an open source headless CMS?

1) You'll need developers with strong API skills

You’ll need at least one developer who has experience with API versioning and you’ll need to be willing to manage a development version of the API for your developers to interact with locally. You’ll also need strong communication between the people managing your CMS and your frontend because adding new features will be more complicated. Previewing how content will display as well as personalisation features are also a bit more complex with a headless CMS.

2) Costs can be higher

Currently, launching a website with an open source headless CMS is going to have higher initial costs because the technology is newer and requires more resources to set up. It might balance out for your organisation over the long-term, but if you have a tight budget for starting up your project, you might want to consider choosing an open source CMS technology with a strong API like Wagtail that can be converted gradually to a headless CMS over time. That way, you can always choose to go headless later if you want to.

3) You'll have to manage more vendors and services

Unlike a traditional content management system, the different pieces of a headless CMS are distributed across different services and vendors. You could have a Gatsby.js frontend that is hosted on one cloud platform and a Wagtail backend that is hosted on another cloud platform, and an authentication service that is hosted on yet another platform. While it's nice to mix and match different technologies, you'll also have to keep track of different bills, manage different vendors, and put a lot more work into integrations. If you don't have resources to keep track all of the moving pieces that a headless CMS involves, you might want to go with a traditional content management system.

Can Wagtail be used as a headless CMS?

Technically, yes. Wagtail can be run as an open source Python CMS, and there are currently headless Wagtail websites in operation. Headless Wagtail is still relatively new though, so there are many things that work well and other things that are still being worked out. For more details about what's working well and what's still being developed, have a look at our website Are We Headless Yet?

How do I figure out if an open source headless CMS is a good fit for my organisation?

We have a set of questions that organisations use to figure out if Headless Wagtail is a good choice for them. A lot of those questions apply to other open source CMSs, so feel free to use them as a starting point for a discussion with your favourite developer or technology partner.