Drupal as a headless CMS: benefits and challenges

2 February 2022

Traditional CMS systems have been around since the early days of web development. Those platforms were then developed to store and present content - such as text, images, and videos. This approach bundles everything in one big silo: content, HTML, CSS, and so on. This made it impossible to reuse the content in that silo, since it was stuck in specific code snippets. Now that organisations no longer simply post content on web pages, there’s a need for a more flexible solution. Headless is the answer!

Headless Drupal | iO

What is a headless CMS?

A headless CMS is any type of backend content management system where the content repository (the body) is separated or disconnected from the presentation layer (the head). The focus with a headless CMS is therefore exclusively on the content. Content stored in a headless CMS is delivered via APIs to different platforms and channels.

With a headless CMS you are no longer dependent on the built-in solution of the CMS. Instead, you can choose - or program - a presentation layer that best suits your content. But before you decide to use a headless CMS, you should know the benefits and challenges of such a system. Here they are!

Benefits of headless

1. Efficient content management

When the content in your CMS is linked to the presentation layer, each channel may display a different version of the content. If you want to change something in your content (e.g., correct an error or update information), you need to do this separately for each channel. In a headless CMS, content management is centralised and therefore more efficient. You only need one version for all channels. This way, you can easily manage a multi-site brand platform.

2. Freedom of choice

In a traditional online project, the choice of CMS often dictates the entire tech stack of the website. This is different with headless. Developers can add functionalities as they go along because content and presentation are decoupled — whether they program them themselves or simply add an extra module.

3. Easy upgrading

It is a lot easier to upgrade a website built with a headless CMS because there is less development on top of the CMS itself. Developers don’t have to consider links and features. The close open-source community also makes Drupal a safe choice in the long term.

4. Scalability

A headless CMS requires less computing power than a traditional CMS, because both layers are not connected. This allows you to host the website more efficiently and your total project becomes more flexible and scalable. The ideal solution for an extensive enterprise website!

Building a headless CMS with Drupal?
Tech in conversation while working on Mac

Challenges of headless

1. You need more self-written code

With a traditional CMS, you are supported by the developer in setting up the code. A headless CMS gives you more agility and freedom, but that also means you probably need to write more code yourself for a website that is truly tailored to your organisation.

2. A higher complexity

The structure of headless means that you don't have to opt for an all-in-one solution. You can rely on different service providers for different services. This way, you build an architecture that fits your project like a glove. But it also means that you must have knowledge of all these different services, and the integrations quickly lead to additional complexity. Moreover, each service has its costs. In some cases, headless can be more expensive than a traditional CMS.

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How does Drupal work as a headless CMS?

Now you know what headless exactly entails. But how does Drupal work as a headless CMS? Well, headless Drupal — also known as Decoupled Drupal — uses Drupal as the backend repository for content. The frontend is built in different technologies (usually JavaScript or PHP) and communicates with Drupal via an API.

There are several reasons why Drupal is a popular choice for headless:

  • It's easy to distribute content through Drupal to websites, mobile apps, IoT devices, kiosk displays, etc.

  • Drupal is a solid tool for content creation and data storage, yet can be easily paired with a frontend technology that provides an elegant UX

  • Drupal has fantastic out-of-the-box functionality and a strong focus on APIs

  • Drupal experts are hard to find (although we have over 130 at iO). Therefore, it is a good idea to have the frontend done by a separate team that specialises in a different technology.

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