What is headless cms

Serving content to IoT devices with a headless CMS

Need a way to serve the same content to a growing range of platforms? Headless content management systems are your answer.

Emmanuel Tissera

By Emmanuel Tissera, 10 October 20194 minute read

Cars, watches, home assistants and smart fridges are just some of the ways that end-users will soon be (and currently are) receiving information on a daily basis. It is predicted that by 2020 there will be 26 billion IoT (Internet of Things) devices connected to the internet and many of them will require the content to be personalised. Headless content management systems are the key to thriving in this ever-changing environment.

To understand the headless CMS, it is helpful to have a look at how content management systems have evolved.

Content Management Systems: A timeline

As the way we consume information has changed, so has the way we serve content. And in turn, so has the CMS.

Traditional CMS

Traditional Content Management System

The traditional CMS was not simple to maintain. The infrastructure, database and web server needed to be self-managed. The CMS backoffice, custom back-end code and front-end templates were all tightly coupled and sat on a single web server. This technology was limiting and very hard to use. Forget about doing upgrades and maintenance work without taking your website offline!

Decoupled CMS

Decoupled content management system

To solve the problem of taking the website offline for maintenance, we moved on to an era of the decoupled CMS. Even though the infrastructure, web server, and database were still self-managed, the front-end and back-end were now separated. Changes could be made to the website while it was still up and running. However, information was now being communicated through different channels which required unique displays (mobiles, smartwatches, etc). While work in the back-end remained constant, efforts in the front-end continued to multiply to keep up with this new demand. 

Headless CMS

Headless content management system

Hence began the era of headless CMS, where content is retrieved via an application programming interface (API) which can distribute the content across different channels. The CMS no longer dictated how the front-end should function and the content could be distributed wherever it needed to go.

Content as a Service (CaaS)

Content as a Service (CaaS)

Finally, we moved on to Content as a Service (CaaS), a headless CMS which is cloud-based. A CaaS vendor now managed the infrastructure, web server and database for the CMS back-office as well as the delivery API.

The benefits of Content as a Service

CaaS allows any authorised individual to manage and make changes to content, all from one centralised place. Other advantages include:

  • No upgrades or maintenance – this is taken care of by the service provider
  • Low operating costs – since you don’t specifically pay for any infrastructure and you only pay for what you consume
  • Cloud scalability – the service providers are able to easily scale up to align with your consumption and needs and give you the performance levels you are looking for
  • System security – once again, taken care of by the service provider
  • Most importantly, it reduces time to market.

Before CaaS, delivering content was usually a waterfall-like process. The last thing you would do in a project was scramble to gather content and test it on the production system. Then you would cross your fingers and hope it went well. With CaaS, as soon as your wireframes and information architecture are locked down, you are able to start creating content models and gathering content. This agile approach allows you to drastically cut down the time to market and get your content in front of your customers as soon as possible.

Traditional Project Workflow

Traditional waterfall project workflow not using content as a service

CaaS project workflow

Agile project workflow using content as a service (CaaS)

Benefits for developers

CaaS holds plenty of benefits for those specifically on the technical side:

  • Dynamic API – CaaS providers offer a very dynamic and versatile API to retrieve content and some also offer GraphQL as the query language. This means that as soon as you create a content model and populate it, you can retrieve content from an API without any further coding. 
  • Platform/technology independence – Windows, Linux or a Mac; Javascript, .NET,  or PHP. Use your favourite platform and tech to deliver content to end-users.
  • Code simplicity – you and your team are using the technology you are comfortable with, so the code is clean and simple. It does not have to deal with content creation, just the delivery.

What does CaaS look like?

All you have to do is create your content in this one place for it to be automatically served to your end-users through all of your chosen device types.

Content as a Service (CaaS) headless content management system serving the same content to different content platforms: laptop, mobile, smart watch

Getting started with CaaS

The following vendors are a great starting point for your journey with CaaS. 

CaaS vendors

Vendors whose main product is a CaaS platform

Specific product vendors

The following are WCM/DXP/PIM vendors supporting CaaS with a specific product

Luminary has experience working with Contentful, Prismic, Acoustic, Kentico Kontent and Umbraco Headless.

This blog is an adaptation of my presentation on Headless CMS and Content as a Service (CaaS) at DDD Melbourne 2019 at the Melbourne Convention Centre. View the slides from the event.

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