What is headless?

An illustration of a headless person and a picture of Per Andre Rønsen

Headless: a quick primer

Everyone's talking about headless these days. Not to mention their grandmothers. But what is it about this new technology which puts a spring in developers' steps and causes business owners to throw their cash around to get a hold of it? Let’s start with an analogy.

Imagine a jeans manufacturing business, which runs a factory, a warehouse and an outlet store all in one location. The warehouse fetches jeans from the factory, and distributes them directly to customers through the attached outlet store. The factory and warehouse are infinitely big, but the store only has so much space. The customers are therefore somewhat limited in what they are able to browse through, but that's fine because jeans are just jeans after all.

One day they realize that most of their customers' tastes have changed. They want a wider selection of colors and styles, maybe some chinos and sweatpants as well.

Adapting to change

The outlet store responds by putting a wider selection of pants on display. It gets a bit cluttered there at first, but after a while they find ways to arrange their shelves to accommodate their customers' needs quite well. They also divide the outlet into sections, so that the different styles are easier to look through. The factory and warehouse don't care that much; they just make what they are told to make.

In terms of content management systems (CMS), the outlet store is a traditional frontend (what you see when you visit a website). The warehouse and factory is the CMS and database, which pushes out jeans, or code, in whatever amounts the frontend asks for.

The situation is fine when they only have one outlet store. And it was fine for most businesses as well for a long time, because they had only needed to relate to a website, which is just shown on a regular old browser on a regular old computer.

But when mobiles and tablets became more and more used, and eventually having more users than traditional browsers did, the frontend had to adjust. They needed to rearrange what products they put on display and how they displayed them, so that the customers found what they needed. This is reflected in the "responsive" approach to frontend development, which makes websites react in different ways according to what display they are shown on. On mobile they might need to stack images on top of each other instead of showing them next to each other, for example. This makes them easier for the user to see.

Time to go headless

But some time in the last few years, things have started to change even more dramatically. The customers don't necessarily want to travel all the way to the outlet store to get what they need. And they need not just pants, but shirts, skirts, swimwear and sunglasses. The factory and warehouse, as you remember, are infinitely big, so they aren't too affected. But the outlet must change. They don't have enough space to be able to offer everyone what they need. The company must become a franchise.

To transport the goods to all of their new franchise locations all over the region, they need to hire truck drivers. The drivers make their rounds from the warehouse, to deliver the products to different stores. Each driver serves one store, and makes sure they have exactly what they need to meet their customers' demands.

Today customers don't just want to consume their content in one form. What about when you need to display your content on an info screen? A smart watch? Or a coffee machine?!?

The truck driver is an Application Programming Interface, or API. The API transports information in the way the individual devices want, straight from the warehouse. The business' magical infinite factory and warehouse stay where they are, because handling data in one location is very efficient. But the outlet store isn't that central to their business operation anymore, it's just one of the many ways they sell their products.

When stores are opened in other areas in the region, they are decoupled from the warehouse. The attached frontend used to be the head of the operation. What the business used to communicate with customers, if you will. But now that the outlet store has moved, the core operation is headless.

By the way, if you want a closer look at what headless is and what it can be used for, check out our ebook below:

Free eBook: The Future of Content Management Systems

Take a load off the CMS

In reality the one head has been replaced by several heads like the mythological hydra, but I suppose that name was taken.

A headless content management system sends out data in the same way as before, but the various presentation layers, or frontends, are able to take that information and present it in ways that often are completely different from each other.

Modern CMS'es like Drupal and WordPress are able to do more and more, and are in many cases the digital hub of a business. When they are used as a headless cms, they get to remain central, but the burden of also hosting a frontend is taken from them.

Say an electronics business wants to enable customers to buy phones through Alexa. With headless they are still able to manage content and create campaign materials, control user permissions and accounts and all the other logistical stuff they need, through their CMS. They just need to send it to a different "head". With a traditional CMS setup the whole frontend system needed to be rewritten to fit the new platform.

This is great for developers, business owners and administrators, because they can have an overview of the whole codebase and operation in one place. It's also great for content creators and marketers, because they can still create content in, say, Gutenberg, and it'll be sent and adjusted to the various marketing platforms.

Headless isn't for everyone of course, (yet) but for businesses with large datasets and diverse publication platforms it's a godsend. 

Is a headless content management system for you?

There is much more to say about headless, like how it enables using several CMSes or other data sources for one frontend, or how it simplifies migrations, and so on. But before you get into the nitty gritty it’s a good idea to see to what extent your business might benefit from headless development. 

Every case is unique, but there are some common parameters which could tell you if your business should at least consider switching to headless. If you want, you could answer the 12 questions above to help you decide. And if you still have questions, you’re welcome to give us a shout, and a headless (not literally) expert will be with you shortly.


Per André is a Co-founder at Frontkom with 14+ years of experience as CTO and CIO. He has extensive experience with people and technology for both private and public sector. He is also co-founder of Dignio Health Tech, SMSpay, Web3 enthusiast and Co-pastor of 3:16. Per André writes about CMS, headless, awesome tech and team composition and efficiency.

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