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Headless CMS: Open Source vs SaaS

Headless CMS: Open Source vs SaaS

With a headless CMS, you can create, store, and manage content in a central location, and display it on websites, apps, IoT devices, and more. For many organisations the first few steps of the headless journey begin with a decision whether or not to self-host or to sign up for a headless SaaS solution. Each option has its own advantages and disadvantages which, when compared, simplifies the decision.

When should you go headless?

Perhaps the most appealing and oft-cited feature of a headless CMS is its omnichannel publishing capabilities. In other words, you can publish and otherwise manage the content displayed on websites, apps, phones, smartwatches, tablets, IoT devices, CRMs, and digital signage from a single CMS. This is made possible with APIs such as RESTful API or GraphQL API.

In contrast, a traditional CMS typically offers only one presentation layer (display in a desktop or mobile browser) per CMS. It’s also what’s referred to as a ‘monolithic architecture’, meaning that the CMS’s individual components are tightly coupled or dependent on each other. A headless CMS presents a more modular solution, often described as having a microservices architecture. This, in turn, provides the potential for greater customisation with less effort compared to a monolithic architecture.

We can therefore conclude that switching to a headless CMS is a good idea when:

  • You need to deliver content to multiple channels whilst maintaining on-brand messaging and consistency
  • You want to deliver custom user experiences using a specific technology stack
  • Your business relies on a complex ecosystem of integrated tools and systems (like CRM, marketing automation, and e-commerce platforms), a headless CMS can offer more flexibility and easier integration capabilities

A headless CMS can deliver on all these features, but the extent to which it does and the expertise required to achieve your goals can be greatly influenced by your choice between a  SaaS and open-source headless CMS solution.

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SaaS Headless CMS

With the SaaS model, access to and use of the headless CMS is provided as a paid-for service. The front-end of the service tends to be very user-friendly and provides an intuitive interface capable of simplifying much of the tech know-how needed for the initial setup. This facilitates quick deployment. Ongoing assistance during and after setup is usually provided by dedicated support.

The hosting service provider installs and maintains the CMS, which typically includes updates and backups. Since the software is hosted on their server, they are also responsible for server maintenance.

Perhaps the most obvious drawback associated with a SaaS headless CMS model is the ongoing subscription fees which can add up over time. You’ll find that you have limitations where deep customisation of the CMS is concerned compared to open-source solutions. Always keep in mind that you’re also dependent on the vendor for feature availability, uptime, and continuity of service.

Open-Source Headless CMS

Open-source headless CMSs, in contrast, are usually free to download and use and don’t come with the risk of vendor lock-in. And while that can significantly reduce initial costs, it does necessitate a fair amount of technical skill to install, customise, and maintain the CMS.

When that skill is readily available, open-source headless CMSs offer extensive customisation options, with active community support being readily available to offer assistance and other resources.

But running an open-source headless CMS is not without its challenges, chief among which is that you’re responsible for running and maintaining the entire CMS. This includes updates, security patches, and fixing any bugs or issues. It’s also worth keeping in mind that running an open-source headless CMS is not free – you’re liable for hosting costs, as well as costs associated with maintenance and development.

What to look for in headless CMS hosting

Whether you’re looking at self-hosting or a SaaS solution, a headless CMS has more nuanced hosting and functional requirements than a traditional CMS. This necessitates more careful scrutiny before you decide on a hosting service provider. Here are a few considerations to keep in mind:

Unmanaged or managed hosting?

Just because you’re not opting for the SaaS doesn’t mean the complete burden of looking after your hosting setup falls to you. With managed hosting the hosting service provider assumes responsibility for all hosting-related tasks, which makes it comparable to a SaaS solution (minus customisations and product support).

With managed hosting the service provider will perform many of the hosting-related tasks, such as checking network and server performance, monitoring for and proactively resolving anomalies before they cause disruptions, as well as backups and disaster recovery. Many of the functions performed by the host are based on a service-level agreement, which ensures that the service provider functions as a seamless part of your internal teams.

On the flip side of this coin is entirely self-managed hosting, where all aforementioned tasks fall to you.

API response time

APIs provide seamless communication between the headless CMS and the presentation layer, which may be a website, an application, an IoT device, or all three. A rapid API response ensures a good user experience and performance efficiency between the front-end and back-end. Good API response times also ensure that systems can handle many simultaneous requests without performance degradation – important when scaling is a requirement for busy websites or applications.

Resource availability

Resource availability should be a consideration where a SaaS deployment model has been used. The main question that must be answered is whether a customer experiencing heavy loads will impact other customers.

Where a self-hosted solution is considered, it’s important to ensure that there are enough server resources available. Unlike resource calculations with a traditional CMS, those required in a scenario where a headless CMS and decoupled front-ends are used may include more nuance since the CMS itself and the frontend(s) may be hosted on different servers in different regions.

Uptime guarantees

High availability and uptime guarantees are recommended since headless setups are sometimes more distributed than conventional monolithic CMS servers. This is crucial in scenarios where downtime can result in revenue loss. Managed hosting service providers will, in some cases, provide proactive monitoring of both the infrastructure and client applications / services to identify and address anomalies before they become problems.

Backup and disaster recovery

Given that there are more moving parts in a headless CMS hosting environment, and that they are often more distributed, disaster recovery deserves special attention. Here managed hosting can alleviate a significant load since the planning and routine execution of backup and disaster recovery is assumed by the hosting service provider.

What to do next

We specialise in building custom hosting solutions that match your needs. Whether you just need a server for your backend, or a complete private cloud spanning back-end, front-end, as well as DevOps, we’re ready to help. Talk to us to find out how we can help.

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