The Difference Between Headless, Decoupled, And Traditional CMS.

published on: December 20th 2019

You've decided to build a website for your business. As you research for a web designer to fulfill this endeavor, they each proclaim their choice for a CMS (content management system). They all sound the same. right? Headless CMS, Decoupled CMS, and the geriatric choice of the bunch...Traditional CMS (we will use WordPress throughout as it is the most popular). They are completely different and your choice will impact your business for years to come. Pardon our analogy here - it is the most apt one we could come up with. One choice makes you a slave, one an indentured servant, and they other a free person. Any website developer that tells you any different is lying, woefully negligent, or not very bright.

What a CMS does.

A CMS is the acronym for Content Management System. They allow us to store and access our content and data. We can Create, Read, Update, and Delete (C.R.U.D) our content as we see fit. All CMSs make this possible and are powerful tools.

Traditional CMS - Slavery

In a traditional CMS, everything is bound together in an architecture that dictates frontend (design and layout of the website) to the backend (data and content for the website). This means that WordPress dictates how you display your content, usually via a premade template. If the template declares your image is 500px wide and gets displayed in the top right corner, well it is getting displayed exactly that way whether you like that or not. Sure you can shop around for a template to your liking, but you will never find one that is perfect. Down the road if and when you decide your are bored with the design or it becomes stale - too bad & good luck.

The next must-have feature of WordPress is the data and schema(the structure in which data is stored for querying). WordPress uses MySQL and the WordPress Schema. If for any reason (we can name 400 hundred off the top of our heads) you find it necessary to change this schema you will have to manually change the database. What a hoot that is. Actually, we just misWrote, you won't manually change the database. You will pay a developer a lot more than the template, a year of hosting, & the initial cost combined to change the database to fit your needs. Why? Because the developer has to pretty much break the site and refactor everything you see and don't see. Then rebuild it and shoehorn it back into WordPress. It is messy ugly work that most developers don't enjoy doing.

This choice enslaves any artistic or creative choices you may have, or will ever have, to the will of the template creators and WordPress' archaic architecture (It was created in the 1990's for blogging) which in no way is based on modern technology or best practice. This also ensures that your website will look awfully familiar to any one visiting another site that uses the same template.

Decoupled CMS - Indentured Servitude

This choice is baffling. You are free to choose between Traditional or Headless. Freedom or Slavery. Our take is that the choice is binary as is. So this choice to choose is silly. We see the choices as so profoundly different that this makes zero sense to anyone with any conviction or a brain. We would love to hear a reason to choose this and look forward to anyone's explanation for this. Next.

Headless CMS - Freedom

Here you get the exact same C.R.U.D abilities, but with a few drastically different characteristics. First, this CMS does not dictate how you display the content it manages. That choice is left entirely up to you and your web designer. This is liberating and allows complete control. It is powerful, anytime you want to shuffle around a few images or change their apperance - no problem. Need to toss in a video hero on the home page during a sale? - no problem. Decide to add a "featured this week" page on the fly - no problem. Chef bought too much lamb and need a spontanious sale - no problem. This is our choice. Freedom.

Another extremely powerful feature of the Headless architecture is the freedom to decide the schema. Take Contentful, a popular headless CMS, it allows us to create our own schema and edit it as we see fit, anytime, in seconds. This is maddeningly powerful when coupled with a technologies like Gatsby and GraphQL. That stack of tech allows us to not only display as we choose, but also to be data agnostic in type and structure of the data we consume. Literally we can use any type of data from anywhere (MySQL, MondoDB, NoSQL, PHP, Hard Drives, our own Computer, anything) at anytime even combined. The definition of Freedom.