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casey vick headshot Posted by Casey Vick June 10, 2020

Decoupled or headless architecture: Which one is better?

The advent of the Headless Content Management System (CMS) several years ago was followed by a swift growth in the popularity of this architecture due, as we wrote at the time, to its simplicity and ability to isolate content authoring from page design.

Soon thereafter, decoupled architecture saw a resurgence in popularity. Whereas a headless CMS removes the front-end delivery layer, leaving the backend to store and manage content, a decoupled architecture maintains the front-end delivery layer with its website and layout templates, while also permitting headless content delivery as needed.

Now that we’re a few years down the road, let’s take another look at the advantages of each. The question of which one is better is a case of which one is a better fit for the needs of the particular marketing program where the architecture will be put to use. For some marketers, especially those with varied needs across a big marketing landscape, it actually makes perfect sense to deploy both.

The heads-up on headless architecture

Its advantages: Headless CMS was a big step forward for developers because it eliminated constraints and let them build and iterate faster. Back-end-focused developers appreciated it because it allowed them to escape the complexities of building on application frameworks, and front-end developers liked it because they could use whatever technologies they preferred without being constrained by the language of the CMS. On top of that, since most headless CMS solutions are SaaS, content delivery can be done using another platform.

This made them a good solution, at the time, for design and marketing agencies who wanted the flexibility to work with multiple delivery channels. Prior content management systems were designed to push content only to browser-based websites, but that’s too restrictive in an age of mobile apps, VR, IoT devices, and more.

This gave greater latitude to front-end developers, who could now have more control of user experiences using their native tools. Plus, by shifting display logic to the client-side, sites and other digital channels got faster, and in-browser applications could now provide a level of true interactivity that was entirely fresh to the game.

What might hold a user back from headless CMS? Since they lack a presentation functionality, it’s not possible to see an accurate, editable preview of how content will display. This means users need to depend on additional technologies to manage that side of the content publishing equation.

Another, at least in the early iterations of headless, was a lack of extensive access control list (ACL) and workflow tools that were features of traditional CMS. When there are multiple authors, these are vital to managing permissions and creating and editing content iteratively before publication. Another issue is with content silos, since many corporate sites are still built around a traditional CMS alongside project- or unit-specific headless implementations. This means headless content is often unusable across the entire site.

How decoupled architecture differs

Its advantages: The reason marketers have embraced decoupled architecture, in spite of the seeming flexibility offered by headless CMS, is because it solves the challenges caused by the lack of presentation control in headless. For many enterprises, maintaining that control, among other advantages, have made a CMS with decoupled architecture their platform of choice.

In decoupled, of course, the back end and front end are, well, decoupled. A decoupled architecture utilizes front-end code, templates, WYSIWYG controls and more to adjust presentation, and employs APIs, web services, and templates to deliver that content to any presentation channel, anywhere.

That’s a faster and more resilient solution than traditional CMS, certainly, and can be a best-of-both-worlds solution for users who would prefer to be served a little presentation control alongside their flexible delivery.

A decoupled architecture empowers more rapid design iteration, reduces publisher and developer dependencies, easier third-party integrations, simpler deployment, and enhanced security, while it’s future-proofed against UI changes.

Why wouldn’t a user adopt decoupled? From a developer’s standpoint, they may prefer the complete freedom that comes with an API-only approach and don’t need the flexibility that’s enjoyed with decoupled.

Which CMS is right for you? Maybe both...

We’ll go out on a limb here and say, with rock-solid certainty, that digital marketers increasingly need both of these architectures to serve the modern marketing landscape.

Headless architecture allows marketing teams and their developers to experiment; separating the frontend from backend means they can play with design concepts at will without having to rework a CMS. Plus, if you already have a robust developer team who are deeply attached to their tools and frameworks of choice, headless CMS can be the right choice for certain implementations.

Other contexts – established campaign or content channels – might not be a place where you want the freedom of headless, but the template-based approach of a decoupled architecture. For those needs, the CMS can combine the flexibility of headless with precise management of how content is delivered and displayed across multiple channels.

In either case, these architectures have spawned even more capable successors, platforms that can capably support either delivery model. Headless CMS has evolved into Headless 2.0, where content can be adapted to any endpoint, supporting various delivery configurations, localization and multi-language translation, in-context editing, and improved global governance.

Digital Experience Platforms (DXP) use a decoupled architecture with true headless capabilities for immersing audiences within seamless, device-agnostic omnichannel marketing engagements, supported by integrations to mitigate privacy and compliance risks and provide global quality control.

Which architecture best suits your needs is very much a matter of where you stand right now in the kinds of digital experiences you’re delivering, the markets and consumers you address, and where and how you want your digital marketing to evolve tomorrow. For a lot of global marketers, the right choice between headless and decoupled is to choose both.