Headless or Traditional CMS? Schemes, Use Cases, Pros and Cons

In this article, we will cover how headless and traditional CMS work, explain the main differences between headless and traditional CMS and compare their pros and cons in the context of specific use cases.

July 2, 2021

7 min read


Content management systems (CMSs) have been in use for more than 20 years, but the term 'headless CMS' gained ground in the CMS ecosystem only in the last 2-3 years. While a traditional (also known as coupled) CMS architecture used to be the standard approach, the amount of content publishing has dramatically grown.

As the content is becoming richer and more innovative and captures new formats, companies are now pursuing new solutions providing more agility and flexibility. These expectations have put a new demand on how content should be managed digitally, and leading web developers are choosing a headless content management system.

But is a headless CMS the best solution for every project? If you plan to redesign your digital properties, it's important to know the difference between traditional and headless CMS architectures, the pros and cons of each, and how to know when a headless CMS is a right choice for you. We do believe that our article will help you with that.

How Traditional CMS Works

Traditional CMS is also called regular, coupled, or most often monolithic. This is because the first CMSs were developed to support one type of channel: websites. As a result, many of the industry’s first vendor-driven CMSs are designed as monolithic applications where the user interface and data access code are connected into one program to create a single platform. 

In this case, the frontend (layout and design) and backend (content database and code) are tightly linked and inseparable. The frontend of monolithic CMS gets access to the content from a backend database, and later this content is used within the layout of one channel: the website. In a predefined manner, regarding a layout and presentation perspective, all content is transferred to the platform. 

During the many years of usage, monolithic CMS showed itself as an effective digital system, given its numerous advantages. At the same time, this type of architecture also has certain disadvantages that must be considered. Let’s look at them in a more detailed way. 

Advantages of a Traditional CMS

  1. Traditional CMS requires fewer maintenance charges. It is easy to deploy, manage, and test because it's formed into a single platform.
  2. There is a low threshold for developers and content creators.
  3. Less cross-cutting concerns.
  4. Due to the local character of calls instead of API calls, traditional CMS has boosted performance.

Main Traditional CMS Disadvantages 

  1. Monolithic CMS has a lack of modularity. As a result, it becomes difficult to reuse an application code and maintain it without disrupting application usage. Moreover, it is unable to accommodate new channels and business models (e.g., single-page applications or progressive web applications).
  2. Traditional CMS has on-premises as the predominant model. It led to the failure in supporting go to market in a cloud or SaaS environment.
  3. It is mainly designed for developers. Therefore, it may decrease the leverage of these systems by non-technical users. It also creates challenges in agility for hindered companies while responding to market demands. 
  4. Website-only content. Delivery channels and content types are very limited without an API. It is not possible to seamlessly use the same content for mobile or IoT devices.

Among the most popular traditional CMS are WordPress, Shopify, Joomla, Drupal, and others. 

What Is a Headless CMS and How It Works

The term ‘headless’ comes from the concept of chopping the ‘head’ (the front end, i.e., the website or app) off the ‘body’ (the back end, i.e., the content repository, database, etc.). So a headless CMS is a back-end-only CMS built from the ground up as a content repository that delivers content from databases (SQL and NoSQL) and files to any platform or device via API. 

A headless CMS remains with an interface to manage content and a RESTful or GraphQL API to deliver content wherever you need it. The main focus of a headless CMS is on storing and delivering structured content and allowing content editors to collaborate on new content.

In a headless CMS, the responsibility of content presentation and layout is given to the delivery channels. Due to this approach, a headless CMS does not care about how and where your content is displayed. It enables each channel to represent the content in its own individual way. 

Most often, a headless CMS doesn’t generate any frontend code; content here is provided as a service. Therefore headless CMS sometimes can be called ‘Content-as-a-Service’ (CaaS). It creates the best user experience since frontend developers can continue developing new functionality and add new features for any channel without dependence on the core/backend part. 

Headless CMS can be very advantageous, although it also has some disadvantages. Let’s have a look at them in order to choose the best fit CMS for your project.

Advantages of a Headless CMS

  1. Omnichannel experience that allows you to distribute content across various platforms from a single backend.
  2. Headless CMS provides its users with flexibility. Developers can choose their favorite tools and frameworks to build different frontends. It creates a unique user experience.
  3. Content-first approach.  The main focus is on creating, storage, and collaboration on new content without thinking of presentation. 
  4. Scalability and easy redesign. Since the backend and frontend are detached, there’s no need to redesign the whole system to make changes and upgrades. You can make customized digital assets and upgrade them without affecting the performance of the entire system.
  5. Secure third-party integrations.
  6. It is time-efficient due to the fast content delivery.
  7. Future-proof. APIs make it easy for headless CMS to integrate with existing technologies, like apps, kiosks, virtual reality, and technologies that will appear in the future. 

Disadvantages of a Headless CMS

  1. High costs for implementation and maintenance because of the fragmented technological stack.
  2. There is no possibility to preview content without using third-party tools.
  3. Dependency on additional technologies for the frontend and, as a consequence, close collaboration with developers.

The most popular headless CMSs are Strapi, Contentful, Netlify, Forestry, and others. 

Traditional Vs. Headless CMS: Comparison and Use Cases

Above, we analyzed how headless and traditional content management systems work and defined their pros and cons. For more clarity and to make it easier for you to decide which one will be the best fit for your project, we have compiled their main characteristics and features into a comparative table. 

Now, after making a detailed comparison of traditional and headless CMS, we are coming to the main question: which type of the content management system is the best choice for your project and business? Your decision should be based on the three most important considerations:

  • product specifications;
  • technical abilities of the team;
  • the needs of end-users.

Below, we gathered most characteristic use cases where headless CMS outstands the traditional one and vice versa. 

When to Use a Headless CMS 

  1. When separating your content from the tech stack of your website to increase the platform's speed.
  2. For websites and web apps that use JavaScript frameworks (Ember.js, React, Angular or Vue.js).
  3. For websites created with static site generators such as Jekyll, Gatsby, or Middleman.
  4. For Native Mobile Apps (iOS, Android, Windows Phone).
  5. When you want to enrich your e-commerce Stack (BigCommerce, Commercetools, Hybris, Magento 2, or others) with a proper CMS for your marketing team.
  6. For feature flags of your own product to schedule releases of new features.
  7. For use as a configuration interface for your home automation solution.
  8. For communication with users via multiple touchpoints.

When to Use a Traditional CMS

  1. When your website is simple and out-of-the-box templates will be sufficient. 
  2. When you don’t have a large team of developers, it will be easy for developers and content creators to communicate and collaborate within one platform.
  3. When your budget is limited.
  4. When you have only one channel for delivering content (i.e., your website or mobile app).
  5. When you want to have full control over the content, from creation to displaying with the similar content presentation.

Concluding Thoughts 

There is no doubt that headless and traditional CMSs will continue to be a feature in the CMS ecosystem since they both can be very advantageous for different businesses. Headless CMS provides a more advanced and captivating solution, especially now when companies are looking for multichannel interactions with customers. Headless CMS ensures flexibility, scalability, and quicker integration with multiple platforms. At the same time, it is quite pricey and requires more upfront integration and configuration, and therefore developers who are well-versed in modern programming languages and frameworks. Traditional CMS is easier to use and manage because it's formed into a single platform. Although, it can be hard to scale and accommodate new channels. The decision on which content management system to choose depends on the business goals and project requirements.

At Upsilon, we believe that chopping off the presentation layer of your content and making it accessible for more than just one platform if needed is the approach we should aim for! Leveraging headless CMS is the perfect way to future-proof your business and prepare for the new omnichannel era, where accessibility and reusability are a must. Our team of developers keeps an eye on a headless CMS and constantly broadens their knowledge and skills, so you can count on professional web development services and custom mobile app development using one of the top headless CMSs.

If you have and ideas or questions, feel free to contact our business development team for a consultation. 


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