10 min read
by Radi Danchev
December 17, 2019
A traditional content management system (CMS) is responsible for both the frontend presentation of a website and the backend business logic, meaning the frontend and the backend are inexorably connected.
On the other hand, a modern headless CMS is decoupled from the frontend presentation layer of the website, meaning changes can easily be made to the frontend of a website, without the need to edit complex backend infrastructure.
In this decoupled environment, developers are able to quickly develop excellent user experiences, using the latest tech, free from the worry of its impact on the backend business logic.
The benefits of a headless approach are wide-ranging (read more in our ultimate guide to headless eCommerce) — from faster development times and quicker speed to market to faster website performance and improved SEO.
Through the use of APIs and source plugins, developers can integrate JAMstack technologies quickly and easily with a wide range of content management systems that support a headless approach.
Also, a headless CMS allows writers to create content and publish content, while developers receive structured data that can be presented as required on one or more frontends.
In 2013, Contentful was founded in Germany as a response to monolithic and web-focused CMSes. Today, hundreds of businesses and brands around the world use Contentful.
The founders at Contentful realized that content was becoming increasingly fast-moving and omnichannel. They set out to build a new type of CMS which aided developers to keep up with this fast-paced environment.
Developers get full programmatic contact via Contentful’s RESTful API and it also has the capability to display JSON snippets, a rich-text editor and content modules such as text, images and calendars.
As well as being feature-packed, Contentful is affordable. There’s a free plan for starters, freelancers, and small businesses, as well as paid plans when you’re ready to scale.
Also founded in 2013, Netlify is a San Francisco-based company offering web hosting and serverless CMSes for static websites.
With high-profile customers including Google, Facebook, Verizon, NBC, Samsung, Cisco, Atlassian, Vue.js, Citrix, Peloton and Kubernetes, and a recent investment of $30 million, Netlify is definitely one of the better known headless CMSes on the list.
Netlify CMS works with any flat-file site generator to provide the markup data. Users enter their content through Netlify’s interface which gets saved markdown in the applications GitHub repo and used for the appropriate pages of the website.
WIth NetlifyCMS, you can create:
Using WordPress as your headless CMS offers a kind of hybrid solution between a traditional CMS and a headless CMS.
When you use WordPress as a headless CMS, not only does it have a REST API already built-in, but it also has the backend administration to easily manage the content.
Of course, there’s a wealth of headless CMS platforms out there each with its own benefits, but WordPress has two clear advantages.
First, WordPress’s strength lies in its familiarity. With a massive 30% of active websites running on WordPress, it’s well-known and trusted. The switch for businesses is far easier, as their business logic can remain in the same CMS.
Founded by Sadek Drobi and Guillaume Bort, Prismic is yet another headless CMS launched in 2013.
It’s an easy-to-use and intuitive CMS with a variety of value-added features included. For instance, there’s a built-in project management system which allows you to manage past, present and future projects easily.
Unlike most other headless CMSes, Prismic offers a custom type builder (use components and blocks to build pages without developers), content previews and scheduled publishing, and multi-language capabilities to localize content to reach foreign markets.
The pricing ranges from a freemium plan right the way up to an enterprise plan with managed services like backups, recovery plans, on-boarding, exclusive features and additional support.
If you’re considering a headless approach for an eCommerce store, Shopify is definitely one of the CMSes you should consider. In fact, we’re so confident in this approach, we’ve built our own flagship headless Shopify eCommerce store BrewPlus.com.
Shopify’s Storefront API allows eCommerce stores to use Shopify outside of the standard channels, such as via apps, headless storefronts and games.
With a headless approach, you can use the power of the Shopify admin (order management, inventory management, payment processing) and a frontend (or multiple frontends) of your choice.
If you opt for this approach, the storefront API (using GraphQL) allows store owners to get data, create a cart, allow product configuration and then create the checkout for the user to checkout.
One of the benefits of this approach is you can use the power of Shopify, for the relatively low monthly fee of $9 (instead of the usual $29 to $79 per month).
Built upon Node.js, Strapi is a highly customisable open-source solution. A French company, founded in 2016, it’s currently one of the better known headless CMS systems on the market today.
It is easy to adapt — developers can add, edit, and delete media files easily. It also gives developers the flexibility to organise and structure using any type of data field.
The content is delivered to the frontend presentation via a secure API, accessed with authentication rules and permission levels based on various roles.
However, some users have claimed the CMS is buggy. For instance, fields that couldn’t be updated correctly) and issues with updates.
In Strapi’s defense, until very recently the system was still in alpha testing and there is plenty of available support documentation in the event you do hit issues.
Founded in 2014, ButterCMS is a Chicago-based headless CMS which can be bundled or used as a standalone blog engine.
Originally designed to be an alternative blogging platform to WordPress, it’s now a fully-fledged CMS in its own right.
Unlike many other headless CMS options, ButterCMS offers a testing environment, content previews and a WYSIWYG editor.
It isn’t the cheapest option on the market, with pricing more suited to established enterprises and while the user interface is clean, there’s room for improvement.
Released in 2006, Directus is a free, self-hosted and open-source headless CMS framework. Built with Backbone.js and made for managing custom SQL-based databases.
As one of the older headless CMS options available, it's user interface is simple and intuitive, meaning content managers and writers can easily navigate it without any training.
As well as being easy-to-use, Directus provides some of the finest permission control among all of the headless CMSes. Because “Directus makes no assumptions about how you might use it, and therefore imposes no limitations.”
This makes it perfect for highly customised databases. From adapting the CMS style to triggering custom code by event hooks, you can modify everything inside the admin application.
Founded in Germany in 2016, GraphCMS is a headless CMS based on GraphQL.
The backend is intuitive and easy-to-use, even for non-technical website owners. The controls are simple and there’s even a drag and drop tool to create a schema.
You can add parameters to your media’s URL to resize or crop images, you can add webhooks to trigger custom code as soon as content changes, and you manage multiple projects with up to 50 users per account.
One drawback is the lack of advanced field types (only basic fields like string, integer and date are included) and you can’t set limitations on fields like the length, for instance.
Further, the design isn’t overly beautiful and unless you need less than 3.3K API operations per day and 10GB asset traffic, you will need to upgrade to the expensive paid plans.
Founded in Germany, Cockpit is a free, open-source and self-hosted headless CMS based on PHP.
It’s a simple solution, claiming to be a “content provider” and not a “website builder. In practice, this means that it’s a backend solution to store and deliver content, but it doesn’t offer any editing features.
In this sense, it is a pure headless CMS and its simplicity isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s one of the most bug-free solutions available.
It also comes with permission control and field types (albeit less than both Strapi and Directus), but the offering is a little let down is the lack of documentation, so non-technical website owners may struggle.
If that’s left you wanting more, here is the complete list of headless CMSes available today:
Developers are in no doubt about the benefits of a headless approach, so it’s not surprising to more than 60 headless CMSes available today. You’ve certainly got plenty of options.
What’s the best headless CMS? The short answer is, it depends.
The best choice for you will depend on the type of website you’re building, the coding language used on your existing tech stack, your skillset and your willingness to master a new kind of CMS.
For less technical website owners, WordPress or Shopify as a headless CMS is a great place to start. You can stick with your existing backend, but benefit from (nearly) everything a headless approach offers.
Alternatively, if you’d prefer a pure-play CMS and comfortable learning a new approach, consider Prismic, Contentful or GraphCMS.