Headless CMS vs. Traditional CMS

For years WordPress and other content management systems were the undisputed leaders when it came to web design. Many people that wanted to make their professional website live as quickly as possible often resorted to a classic CMS. But in recent years a new development has been gaining momentum. Headless CMSs have some advantages compared to their classic competition. Which system is right for you: headless CMS or traditional CMS?

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Market development of CMS

Content management systems (CMS) emerged with the development of Web 2.0. Static websites use to be created directly in HTML, but in the early 2000s more and more Internet surfers became content producers themselves. Classic CMSs like WordPress are perfectly suited for this. Because they don’t require coding knowhow, anyone can create content, e.g., in the form of a blog. Therefore, the amount of CMSs used in web development has gradually increased. While in 2011 more than three quarters of all websites were still static, 10 years later 65 percent of websites are created using a CMS.

But the Internet has changed again in recent years. For a long time, the World Wide Web and email were the only technologies users needed. With the growth of mobile Internet, usage has shifted so that a lot of information is accessed via apps on smartphones these days. Nevertheless, the classic web hasn’t lost any of its importance, but it means that content creators therefore face the challenge of performing on different channels at the same time.

This is where headless CMSs can be advantageous. The technology is built on rudimentary technologies and makes it therefore possible to quickly publish content to both a website and apps. In addition, the new types of CMS are also compatible with wearables and the Internet of Things, which will continue to become more important in the next few years.

Both systems presented

Headless CMS and traditional CMS are similar due to their ability to publish content fast. However, while the classic variant has a fixed frontend - usually a single website under a domain - headless CMSs are separated from the publishing portion for each architecture.

Classic CMS

Classic content management systems such as WordPress, Drupal, and Joomla have helped revolutionize the web. Once set up, even people without any coding skills can easily add new content to their website or blog. To make this possible, this technology (also known as “Monolithic CMS”) has a frontend (what visitors see) and a backend (where website operators work).

Once the frontend and thus the web design has been set up, new content can be added via the backend. With a classic CMS, the content is not available in the form of individual HTML documents. Instead, all content is stored in a database and loaded from there when the website is visited.

With WordPress and other CMSs, the frontend and backend are closely linked and precisely coordinated with each other. This is why it is so easy to use them. However, the content can only be transferred to the corresponding frontend.

Classic content management systems are often based on the principle of the LAMP stack:

  • Linux: The operating system is best suited for servers.
  • Apache: The web server technology is widely used on the Internet.
  • MySQL: The database management system is one of the most popular technologies on the web.
  • PHP: The scripting language enables the creation of dynamic websites.

LAMP stacks emerged in the early 2000s along with the first content management systems. A big driver for both was the open source community. All technologies of the LAMP stack can be used license-free.

Advantages Disadvantages
✔ easy to operate ✘ is firmly bound to a single frontend
✔ no programming knowledge necessary ✘ restrictive in design
✔ frontend can be designed via the backend ✘ performance losses with increasing scope
✔ self-contained system ✘ database queries and server-side rendering per user request

Headless CMS

With a headless CMS there is no fixed frontend and so it therefore only consists of a backend. Since more and more headless CMSs are equipped with a graphical user interface just like the classic versions, content creation is similarly simple. In many cases, headless CMSs are also offered as SaaS, which simplifies configuration.

With a headless CMS, the content is also stored in a database. However, the content is not only made available to a specific website. A wide variety of frontends can access the data via simple interfaces. This is possible because modern CMSs follow the Jamstack principle:

  • JavaScript: The scripting language can be used to keep websites dynamic. This allows images to be reloaded or user input to be evaluated.
  • APIs: Interfaces can be used to exchange content with different frontends. Usually, a REST API is used for this purpose, which is based on simple commands and is understood by different applications.
  • Markup: The HTML markup language is the cornerstone of the Web. The language is so standardized that practically every application can handle it.

These very simple and highly standardized technologies make it possible to pass on information to a wide variety of frontends. The design of the content is equally as free. While traditional CMSs usually create restrictive specifications when writing content in order to standardize publishing, this is not the case with headless CMSs.

Advantages Disadvantages
✔ compatible with different frontends ✘ less beginner friendly
✔ very lightweight ✘ frontends must be created separately
✔ freedom when designing content ✘ many offers only as SaaS / no open source

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Summary: Headless CMS or traditional CMS?

Deciding which is the right content management system depends a lot on your project. If you are just looking for a straightforward solution to implement a simple website or even just a blog, the classic CMS is still a good option. With WordPress especially, you have tons of helpful themes and plugins at your disposal, which allow you to build a professional website in a short time, even without prior web design skills.

However, if you are planning to fill more than just a single website with content, it is worth taking a look at the headless CMS. While it’s not as easy to use as WordPress, the possibilities are all the more diverse. Once set up, you can feed a wide variety of systems with your content.

When making your choice, think about the future. Maybe you want to start with a simple website, but later on you also want to use apps? In that case, you should opt for a headless CMS now, so that you don’t have to change systems later, which could be problematic. Even if you want to change your frontend technology at some point, you are on the safe side with a headless CMS. Decoupling the frontend and backend means a change is no problem.

By the way, you don’t necessarily have to use a CMS. With static site generators you can create lean and powerful websites. If you’re not that interested in publishing new content frequently, a solution like this could be the right choice for you. With the best static site generators you can create impressive websites from simple HTML documents.


If you decide to decouple the backend from the frontend and opt for a headless CMS, you will find Deploy Now from IONOS to be a helpful tool. It lets you publish new content very quickly and easily via GitHub. For more information, see the Deploy Now Documentation.

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