A CMS (Content Management System) is a software tool that provides a platform for creating, organizing, and publishing content online. Over the years, this technology has become an essential component for building websites, enabling businesses and individuals to manage their digital content with ease. The evolution of CMS technology has given rise to several approaches to content management, including headless CMS and flat-file CMS.
In this headless CMS vs flat-file CMS article, you will see what the two technologies are and the main differences between them. At the end of this comparison, you will be able to choose the solution that best fits your content management needs.
A headless CMS is a backend-only content management system that separates content handling from the presentation layer. You can think of this technology as a single source of truth for content. This is because it centralizes content management in an easy-to-use platform for non-technical users. Then, the content is exposed via API to one or more frontend applications, such as websites, mobile apps, web apps, smartwatch apps, etc.
A headless CMS is essentially an API-based, frontend-agnostic solution that editors can use to create omnichannel content. The term “headless” is used to describe the absence of a data representation platform. The reason is that, unlike traditional CMSs, headless CMSs are decoupled from the frontend. Thus, developers can build the presentation layer as they prefer, avoiding the limitations usually imposed by monolithic CMSs such as WordPress.
Check out our in-depth guide to learn more about what a headless CMS is and how it works!
Let’s take a look at the main benefits and drawbacks of the headless CMS world.
Flexibility: It gives developers the flexibility to use any frontend technology stack they want, including Next.js, React, Remix, Svelte, Gatsby, Vue, Angular, Nuxt, or any other library, framework, or site generator. This means that developers can build a unique, rich, customized digital experience with no limitations, while editors focus on content.
Scalability: Since it is decoupled from any frontend and exposes its content via API, it can serve many websites. This makes it the perfect solution for a multi-site scenario, allowing you to easily scale in terms of number of applications. Also, most popular headless CMS platforms can scale up to thousands of requests per second.
Security: To be successful and reliable, it must be secure and avoid data leaks. Therefore, the vendor will make sure to keep the technology up-to-date. Also, because they do not have a public-facing frontend, they are less prone to common web application vulnerabilities, such as cross-site scripting (XSS).
Does not give you full control: It comes with limitations typical of SaaS (Software as a Service) services, not giving you the ability to manually access the database or the server where the backend application lies. The provider will manage everything for you, which could be a problem in emergency situations. So, you rely on the availability and support capability offered by the vendor.
Might require an Internet connection: Most headless CMSs are cloud platforms that expose their data only through the Internet and cannot be installed locally. If you plan to develop your frontend solution without a Web connection, that can represent a concern.
Time to continue this flat-file CMS vs headless CMS comparison and dig into the other technology under analysis!
A flat-file CMS is a lightweight content management system that relies on files. In other words, it does not require a database but uses the file system to store content. In particular, flat-file CMSs are typically simple and built with a minimalist approach in mind. They provide only the basic functionality needed to manage content, making them the ideal solution for small sites or blogs that do not require much customization or third-party integration.
Flat-file CMSs are usually web-oriented systems coupled with the frontend. The term “flat-file” refers to the way the CMS stores its data. While the average CMS relies on a relational or NoSQL database to store content, a flat-file CMS uses plain files. Thus, this solution integrates with a frontend technology to render content read from files in a structured format, such as XML, JSON, Markdown, or MDX.
Let’s explore the main advantages and issues that come with a flat-file CMS.
Simplicity: It is designed to be easy for editors to use and straightforward for developers to integrate and deploy. They try to offer a minimalist set of features that focuses on the essentials, relying on other solutions for more advanced functionality. For example, they use VCS systems such as GitHub to offer versioning capabilities.
Speed: It reads content directly from files, which is usually faster than making an API call, waiting for the backend to retrieve the data in a query, processing it, and returning it to the client. Since the content is stored as files on the server's file system, it can also be cached more easily.
Portability: To move a flat-file project from one server to another, it is generally sufficient to copy the source and paste it into the destination. Once moved, you can begin uploading the new content files to the new destination via FTP. Also, keep in mind that flat file platforms are typically very small in size. Thus, routinely back-upping the entire system is quick and easy.
Minimalist functionality: It is lightweight and simple. For the same reason, they typically do not offer advanced built-in features. It is the developers' responsibility to build them. For example, because they do not rely on a database, they may offer limited search and data analysis capabilities.
Poor scalability: Flat-File CMS solutions are coupled with the frontend. Just like traditional with CMSs, this makes them unsuitable for multi-site. Plus, they are subject to the limitations of the underlying file system in terms of indexing and scalability. When the number of files grows too much, this can become a problem.
Choosing between a headless CMS and a flat-file CMS depends on several factors, including the size and complexity of the project, your budget, development resources, and business goals.
If you want to build a large and complex web app, one or more sites, or are worried about scalability, a headless CMS should be the choice. The reason is that headless CMS platforms offer more flexibility and scalability than flat-file CMS systems. Their API-centric nature makes them future-proof because you can change the frontend anytime, and easier to integrate with third-party services. As a result, they are the perfect solution to implement a composable architecture, the technology stack of future businesses, according to Gartner. At the same time, they may cost more and require more technical expertise to get started with.
On the other hand, if you need to build a small site, want to avoid schema modeling, or have to create a basic web app that does not require advanced functionality, a flat-file CMS may be the better choice. Flat-file CMS solutions are simple, easy to use, and can be set up quickly and inexpensively. However, they are not scalable and once adopted you will have to live with their limitations forever.
To summarize the differences between the two technologies, take a look at the headless CMS and flat-file CMS comparison table below:
|Headless CMS||Flat-File CMS|
|Frontend||Separated, any frontend technology stack is allowed||Bundled with the CMS|
|Scalability||Highly scalable, suitable for large websites or multi-site||Not suitable for large websites and does not support multi-site|
|Functionality||Supports advanced functionality, such as internationalization and SEO optimization||Limited functionality, minimalist approach|
|Time||Initial setup and schema definition can take some time||Easy to set up and deploy|
|Cost||On large projects, can become expensive||Generally not expensive|
|Security||Kept always up-to-date by the vendor||Must be manually updated|
|Third-party integration||Total, thanks to is API-centric nature||Limited|
In summary, flat-file CMS vs headless CMS has not an absolute winner. The right choice depends on your specific needs and goals. That said, keep in mind that a headless CMS, unlike a flat-file CMS, is a general-purpose and flexible solution. It can adapt to different scenarios, including smartwatch and mobile app development, which makes it a more popular solution in most cases.
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In this article, you learned that headless CMS and flat-file CMS are two different approaches to content management. In particular, you saw what the two technologies are and their main advantages and disadvantages. A headless CMS offers more flexibility and scalability, while a flat-file CMS is simpler to deploy and configure. By understanding the differences between these two solutions, you now know how to choose the technology that best fits your business.
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