Headless CMS vs Decoupled CMS — What’s The ACTUAL Difference?

Julian Wallis
10 min read

Do you know the difference between a headless and a decoupled CMS? Unlike traditional CMS’s, decoupled and headless CMS’s use separate infrastructure for content creation and content delivery. Nonetheless, a few key differences make them distinct systems.


Before jumping into the differences between a decoupled” and a headless” CMS, let’s first understand what a CMS means.

CMS stands for Content Management System, where you can create content and customise the website’s functionalities by using templates and plugins. Due to its popularity and practical use, it’s no surprise that more than 50% of websites are built on a CMS.

Moreover, CMS platforms like WordPress, Drupal, and Joomla have been around for many years. These days you don’t just need an enterprise website but also mobile apps, interactive services, and digital displays are becoming more and more common in support of the website. So you need a better CMS that does more than just deliver content to the web, i.e., either a decoupled or a headless architecture.

This blog post will explain the key differences between decoupled and headless CMS systems and point out their advantages and disadvantages.

What is a “Decoupled” CMS?

As the name suggests, a decoupled CMS is where the front-end and back-end architectures are detached from each other — or they are simply “decoupled.”

The front end and back end are tightly integrated with a traditional CMS. However, the conventional CMS doesn’t do the job well when you need a front-end system that requires greater customisation to create an optimum user experience.

That’s why in a decoupled CMS two or more systems can interact without being connected. You can change the presentation layer (front end) or the codebase (back end) without the front-end changes affecting the back end. This way, you can control the look and feel of your website or app without necessarily changing the content.

What is a “Headless” CMS?

If you’re looking to distribute content beyond just your website —  with the back end detached from the presentation layer — you’re thinking about a headless CMS, an API-first version of a decoupled CMS.

These days businesses focus on engaging customers via various channels and platforms to help them through the buyer’s journey. As the content in a headless CMS is separated from the display layer, it can be propagated to present any device, from mobile phones to tablets to smartwatches. Also, from the developer’s perspective, a headless CMS gives them the flexibility to innovate and make the system future-proof.

Rather than providing a definite way of displaying the data, a headless CMS provides you with the following:

  • A method to store your content
  • A CRUD (Create, Read, Update, Delete) user interface
  • An API to the data

Refer to the long-form content we published a few months ago for a fuller understanding of a headless CMS and its use cases.

Decoupled CMS versus Headless CMS

The terms “decoupled” and “headless” are used interchangeably, although there is a significant difference in their architecture.

It’s true that a decoupled CMS separates the two layers of a website via an API and houses them independently. The API delivers the content from the back end to the front end. For instance, consider the traditional CMS WordPress, which can also be used as a decoupled system by introducing an API.

Even though the front-end and back-end areas are detached, the front-end CMS architecture is still predetermined due to a particular environment like React or React Native. That means the two systems are still interconnected. 

The headless CMS is a subset of a decoupled system, but the key difference is that a headless CMS is truly front-end agnostic, meaning headless does not have a defined presentation layer. A headless system lets you deliver your raw content anywhere, from wearable devices to mobile apps to billboards and kiosks.

Another way to understand the difference between headless and decoupled platforms is to extend the metaphor of “a headless body.” With a decoupled architecture, the “head” is not attached to the main “body” as it is with a traditional CMS, but the “head” is still there, and the CMS has front-end delivery tools if you want to use them.

Consider this: Unlike a headless CMS, the decoupled system comes with a “head,” but it is not necessarily mandatory to use that head. While a headless CMS takes no responsibility for displaying content, a decoupled CMS prepares content for presentation and pushes it to the application’s front end.

Advantages of a Decoupled CMS

Since the presentation and code layers are detached, the decoupled CMS offers some notable advantages.

Content creators can access pre-built templates easily configured for each unique channel when working with a decoupled CMS. So for companies with limited front-end resources, it is the best option as this CMS lowers the dependency on front-end engineers or designers to push the content out to different channels of distribution. The CMS gives content creators ready-made templates and easy-to-use tools for creating and publishing content.

Another advantage of a decoupled CMS is the infrastructure flexibility of using tools like content delivery networks (CDNs), proxies, and web application firewalls (WAFs) for better and more secure content delivery. While doing so, a decoupled CMS also combines the benefits of both legacy and headless CMSs. Thanks to the APIs, you can easily integrate a decoupled CMS with newer technologies, thereby making the architecture future-proof.

Disadvantages of a Decoupled CMS

Despite the easy use of templates and enhanced security, there are a few drawbacks to using a decoupled CMS.

When using the CMS for a custom or more complex use, you will have to build the front-end system. The pre-built templates might become limiting over time. That means the presentation layer has to be developed from scratch and then connected to the decoupled CMS. This initial complexity also demands more resources. Obviously, there will be a higher upfront cost when building out a new front end each time.

As a result, small companies or start-ups with limited technical support and financial resources — and those who are not ready for an omnichannel marketing approach — might not yet need a decoupled CMS.

Advantages of a Headless CMS

Compared to a decoupled system, a headless CMS offers greater flexibility, agility, and performance. Since it delivers content through an API, a headless CMS can provide your content to any device: an iOS or Android app, a kiosk, or a virtual reality (VR) headset.

With a headless CMS, your developers can also innovate, i.e., tweak the front end without touching the back end, saving your team time and money. Besides, your teams can work independently while creating content vis-a-vis a robust product. They can indeed build products for multiple platforms while drawing from a single repository.

Furthermore, going headless is also a great security measure that minimises the risks of distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks and malware threats.

Disadvantages of a Headless CMS

Despite the apparent advantages of a headless CMS, some drawbacks are worth mentioning.

The first is that building initial infrastructure can take time, planning, and financial resources. Developers should work simultaneously with different codebases for every single front-end framework. Since your teams will be working with APIs and various disparate channels, this essentially means adding another piece of the puzzle to the pre-existing complexity. Complexity often brings additional costs, so a headless CMS will be more expensive to implement and manage.

Onboarding is needed for teams to adjust to the lack of a presentation layer, or teams may build presentation layers using integrations. So a headless CMS comes with a deeper learning curve.

Top Headless CMS Platforms

Contentful is a cloud-based headless CMS that helps you publish across channels. Companies like Nike, Audible, and Spotify use Contentful’s services to manage and deliver their content.

If you opt for Contentful, you can start building your digital experiences at an enterprise level while your content creators take control of each iteration in an intuitive application. Besides, developers can work with frameworks of their choice. As a result, you and your team can get structured content ready for any channel.

Sanity.io is a cloud-based, unified content platform that allows real-time collaboration among your content team members. Companies like National Geographic, Netlify, Condé Nast, etc., have been using Sanity’s services.

The most exciting thing about Sanity is its flexibility to build data-driven content solutions. Their motto of “by developers, for developers” helps your development team use tools and frameworks of their choice and your content team to multi-level edits and track changes. You can work together with teams: develop, review, and iterate.

Top Decoupled CMS Platforms

WordPress is the simplest and oldest open-source content management system. So it’s no surprise that WordPress covers nearly 42% of all websites on the internet. Initially a traditional (coupled) CMS, it has now gone decoupled, producing JSON feeds of data and sending it to WordPress REST API. 

If your site needs data from multiple sources and delivers it to users without making a stop at your WordPress database, decoupled might be a good choice for you. Another reason to choose WordPress decoupled architecture is when you don’t want to add layers of complexity of a headless infrastructure to your system. For a straightforward website, having too many constraints and parameters might actually slow down the deployment of new features, so you might want to consider a decoupled system.

Like WordPress, Drupal is a free and open-source content management system that provides a back-end framework for at least 13% of top websites worldwide, ranging from personal blogs to government websites. It is flexible and highly scalable, and that’s why organisations like The Economist, Tesla Motors, the Government of Australia, etc., use Drupal as their trusted CMS.

With its module extensions and native features, Drupal offers many options. You can create mobile and integrated digital applications and help users gain a seamless content experience every time they interact with your content. So, again, if you want to strip away the complexities of a headless architecture and work on a flexible and scalable environment, Drupal can be an excellent option for you!

To Go “Decoupled or To Go Headless”? That Is The Question!

Besides the classic dilemma, you must have noticed that the advantages of one kind of CMS often turn out to be the limitations of another type of CMS. Choosing the right kind depends on your business needs and company requirements.

A headless CMS is a good option if your project will need a flexible front-end architecture that a traditional CMS doesn’t provide. The API-first, headless CMS will let you efficiently push your content to various channels, making it an excellent tool for cross-platform publishing.

However, if you are building a stand-alone business website, a decoupled CMS — if not a legacy CMS — might best serve you; after all, the point is to get your site up and running.

If you need more help choosing the suitable CMS, remember WEBO Digital’s headless and decoupled CMSs expertise. We will gladly help you and proffer you professional advice on selecting a CMS platform for your business.

Published On

December 20, 2021