Headless CMS vs. Traditional CMS: What’s the Difference?

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For years, developers have traditionally operated their sites within large, monolithic content management systems (CMS) like WordPress. 

There’s a reason why WordPress remains the dominant CMS worldwide, powering an outsized proportion of the world’s websites. It allows anyone—even those with little to no coding knowledge—to create high-quality websites. With just a few clicks, users can create and manage pages and posts and host images, videos, and more digital content to be displayed on the web based on a preset theme or layout.

For developers, a traditional CMS like WordPress is powerful because it provides access to an admin environment to manage content, but the front-end experience can be lacking and oftentimes bloated. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a solution that combined the well maintained and developed admin interface of WordPress with the freedom of a complex front-end experience that web applications have today?

This is where a headless CMS approach comes into play. In this article, we’ll discuss the headless CMS vs. traditional CMS approach, and how headless WordPress is actually poised to offer developers the best of both worlds.

Headless CMS vs. traditional CMS architecture

In a traditional, monolithic CMS approach, the website content and front end are both stored within the same WordPress architecture. While this is convenient for users without development knowledge, it requires developers to use the languages and frameworks that WordPress defines: PHP, CSS, and JavaScript.

But with a headless WordPress approach, developers can use WordPress admin interfaces and content management without having to rely on WordPress’s bloated front-end design. You can hook into WordPress’s RESTful API endpoints from any application to develop rich web applications with ease. This allows users to leverage newer and popular web frameworks like React, Angular, Vue, Ruby, and more. No longer does a developer have to be crutched by WordPress requirements.

Headless still gives the user all the same power they had before vs. a traditional WordPress approach. You can still manage content, upload images, videos and more, but now you can access that information at anytime from anywhere.

A diagram illustrating a headless CMS vs. traditional CMS

Key differences between a headless CMS vs. traditional CMS

While developing in your preferred language is definitely a benefit if you’re making the leap to headless, there are several other differences as well. 

Security

A headless CMS allows you to better protect your site from security vulnerabilities that inherently exist with a traditional WordPress setup. You can throw your WordPress installation on a private server that the end user doesn’t access and hit the API from a completely separate whitelisted server that hosts your web application. This cuts down on many of the usual WordPress vulnerabilities, including brute force attacks, file inclusion exploits, SQL injections, cross-site scripting, and malware.

Scalability

A headless solution provides more opportunity to scale without bloat. For a rich user experience, users often lean on site generators like Elementor to create their WordPress front-end. However, over time these tools have become so massively large and resource heavy they cause large performance issues on load. We have observed desktop and mobile performance scores decrease recently as these plugins update.

With newer projects like React, you can manage smaller front-end builds, static site generation, and an overall lighter design infrastructure than the heavy front-end that exists with WordPress. 

Better DevOps

One of the large selling points of headless is a better DevOps experience. It’s easier to create and manage a continuous pipeline and git flow when working with a traditional web application. This allows you to keep the front-end managed easily and at most you merge databases between a testing and production environment for WordPress using something like WP Engine.

When not to go headless

Though a headless solution offers quite a few advantages, there are certain times when we look at a headless CMS vs. a traditional CMS, traditional wins out:

  • You plan to hand the project off to a non-technical user. If the site will be maintained by a non-tech user who plans to add content and change layouts over time, this is where WordPress shines on its own.
  • You are wary of managing twice the resources. Going headless means double everything: servers, resources and more. You must split a web server out and add a hosted instance of WordPress, which can be daunting and sometimes more complex than is needed.
  • You want to avoid the potential for more maintenance. WordPress has a diverse library of plugins for basic features that are necessary for a functioning visible site. When you decouple your front end from your CMS, you lose a lot of popular plugin support.  While some popular plugins have shifted support over to headless on top of their normal function and this looks promising for the future, it’s been a slow shift so far.

Is a headless CMS right for you?

Ultimately, the decision for going headless is up to the needs of the developer and the project.  If you want the ability to scale without performance restrictions (but need the ability to manage content in an already created and standard way), a headless CMS is a great option.

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