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Hybrid or headless – where to go?

Vegard Ottervig on

What should you choose between hybrid and headless CMS? It all depends on your needs and use cases.

The growth of headless CMS has boomed in the past few years, spawning countless gospels and startups. We're witnessing a sort of paradigm shift—where "everyone" wants in, regardless of their knowledge of the matter.

If you're working with internal stakeholders or clients who have been smitten by the headless craze, you're probably in a somewhat pressed situation. Should you advise to scrap the current traditional CMS to open up for the world of headless and digital experiences across a multitude of platforms and devices, or should you remain calm and consider all the options?

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Exactly what do you need?

The first question you have to ask yourself is whether a solution or technology fits into your customer's existing architecture. What are the real customer needs? Maybe you shouldn't throw out the baby with the bathwater and instead opt in for something called "hybrid CMS."

Now let's take a look at what this means and get straight to the point:

  • If your project just requires a basic website, the good old traditional CMS is probably everything you need.
  • If your project is focused on an app or IoT, with limited editorial requirements—a cloud native headless CMS might fulfill your needs.
  • If your project involves rich web content, URL handling, extensive editorial requirements, special hosting needs, and reuse across different channels, a hybrid CMS might be the solution you're looking for.

This simple flowchart illustrates the essential needs and corresponding solutions:

headless-hybrid-traditional-cms-flow-chart

Traditional CMS for websites

In a traditional CMS there is a tight connection between features for the editors and features for the developers, between the content layer and the presentation layer.

The editors have access to full preview, landing page editing, URL handling, detailed access control, and media repository, while the developers can code, test, and deploy both editorial and end user functionality bundled together. This is made possible by a tight coupling between the delivery layer and the CMS, hence its alternative name "coupled CMS."

Disadvantages with the tight coupling of a traditional CMS includes troublesome multi channel presence. A standard desktop web browser, a mobile app, and an Internet of Things (IoT) device cannot equally read and present the content when the presentation layer is made exclusively for the web. That's where headless CMS enters the scene.

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Headless CMS for apps

The rise of mobile apps, social media, smart watches, digital signage, self-service machines, robots, and countless IoT devices is changing the way we consume digital content. All these platforms have unique properties and different methods of presenting and handling content, which is what a headless CMS targets.

With a headless CMS the content stays the same, while each client—an app, a device, or a browser—is responsible for how the content is presented. Developers usually do not code in the headless CMS itself, but use the API and code in some other framework.

Disadvantages of a headless CMS include most of them being "cloud native," meaning they are only available as cloud services and not software. The headless-as-a-service approach simplifies scaling, monitoring, backups, and so on, but sacrifices flexibility and control.

Also, for each new client and device the developer must handle several issues, including:

  • URL handling (internally and externally)
  • Formatting issues and templating
  • Caching and lazy loading
  • Permissions
  • Error handling
  • Synchronisation between CMS and clients
  • "Forced" updates from the cloud vendor
  • No native previewing for editors
  • No tree structure
  • No inherent landing page editor

Hybrid CMS for mixes

With the astonishing rise of headless CMS, several traditional CMS vendors have added web-based content APIs to meet the competition from the pure headless vendors. Thus the hybrid CMS was born. A hybrid CMS comes with a presentation layer, but using it is optional.

Even if a vendor claims to deliver a hybrid CMS, the differences in the offerings are huge. Simply having an API does not make a properly hybrid CMS. Essential aspects you should be looking for in a high quality hybrid CMS are:

  • Content oriented, rather than web-page oriented. This means you should stay away from solutions that focus on building pages rather than managing structured content.
  • Supports rich media handling, such as serving images in custom sizes and formats.
  • Rich and documented APIs with support for many different programming languages and access to the entire data model.

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Side-by-side comparison

Below is a comparison that outlines the typical features of the different CMS types. There might be systems that deviate from this, but this is a general overview.

Content management

Traditional

Headless

Hybrid

Content types

Maybe

Yes

Yes

Rich text editor

Yes

Depends

Yes

Image service

No

Yes

Yes

Web APIs

No

Yes

Yes

Tree structures

Yes

No

Yes

Content level access control

No

No

Yes

Workflow

Yes

Yes

Yes

Web and presentation

Traditional

Headless

Hybrid

Presentation layer

Yes

No

Yes

Landing Page editor

Yes

No

Yes

Page Templates

Yes

No

Yes

Preview

Yes

No

Yes

URL handling

Yes

No

Yes

SEO

Yes

No

Yes

Hosting

Traditional

Headless

Hybrid

Software

Yes

Maybe

Yes

Cloud hosting

Optional

Yes

Optional

Content delivery network

Optional

Yes

Optional

Autoscaling

Optional

Yes

Optional

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Topics: 
headless cms
hybrid cms