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Episerver's James Norwood Discusses Headless & Decoupled

While driverless vehicles and personal assistants like Alexa are the topics that steal the spotlight and get the most public attention, on the background of all these digital experiences, there has been one particular topic evolving: a headless CMS approach. If you follow the web content management market at all, then you must have read a couple if not a dozen of articles on whether organizations should go with headless or they should stick with a traditional CMS. In fact, here at CMS-Connected, we often get asked from our readers to cover this topic more as well. However, instead of frothing up the bubble on the hype, I wanted to do a reality check on the matter. To that point, knowing Episerver takes a more conservative stand when it comes to the headless CMS hype, I reached out to James Norwood, Executive Vice President Strategy, CMO at Episerver, to inquire his take on what a headless CMS approach is, when headless makes sense and what Episerver has to offer to address this emerging interest.

Before diving into the highlights of my conversation with Norwood, I’d like to start off with a few brief definitions of what coupled, decoupled, and headless CMS architectures are:

  • Coupled/Traditional CMS: A coupled CMS architecture ties the content management backend system completely to the content publishing front-end of a website. While it is the most common architecture for web content delivery, also limits the type of content editors can publish and where that content can appear. The frontend and backend interdependence means that getting maintenance and customization done is time-consuming and less agile than the results that you get with the other two options explained below.

  • Decoupled CMS: First things first, headless CMS and decoupled CMS are not interchangeable terms. In this architecture, unlike a coupled approach, the content management backend and the content presentation front-end are separated which enables more flexible and faster content delivery to websites, apps and other devices. This architecture has the ability to deliver content but content can also be leveraged by other systems and apps.   

  • Headless CMS: The most prominent difference between headless and decoupled CMS is the front-end presentation layer as a decoupled CMS has a predetermined front-end while headless does not. Figuratively speaking, chopping off the “head” gives greater flexibility to publish content on different platforms. That being said, possible disadvantages include the extra development work required, a lack of insight into the content and asset data, and an inability to do live previews.

“A Headless CMS May Seem More Groundbreaking Than It Is”

Even though they all sound catchy, they are essentially three major architectures of content delivery in the end. Therefore, James Norwood believes that a headless CMS approach may seem more groundbreaking than it is simply because of the hype generated behind it. Unlike some vendors that set themselves up just to provide a pure headless CMS, Episerver sees this as a literation or a hybrid approach to solving the same problem that they have always been solving for years “which is how you store, manipulate and serve content effectively.”

Then, what has changed and made this particular architecture “great” again? As James Norwood puts, the delivery side of content has become more prolific in terms of the types that you need to support. Now, who can argue with that? The days of single channel user engagement are long gone as we have seen a revolutionary change in how people interact with computers. Today, for instance, we, as consumers, are already obsessed with our mobile devices, while also slowly falling for conversational systems such as Amazon’s Echo Alexa, Google’s Home, Apple’s Sri and such – not to mention about table stakes like social media, mobile apps, and wearables. With these many channels and devices available, it has become overwhelming for marketers and content creators to be concerned about how every single front-end displays content. That’s where and why the discussion about a headless CMS has started.

“No Need to Build a New CMS from Scratch”

Even though he surely agrees that people shouldn't just think of it linearly - as CMS is just for the web, James Norwood reminds us that we still need a CMS to structure, store and manage our content which I assume that we all may agree with as the WCM is the gravitational center of all those digital experiences. What Episerver thinks differently to other vendors in the space is, however, building a new CMS from scratch is not necessary as long as the core of the WCM platform in place is flexible to respond an ever-changing delivery paradigm.

As James Norwood stated in our interview, Episerver, just like other vendors, used to deliver its platform in a coupled web CMS arrangement because that's what was required at the time. However, with the arrival of mobile and e-commerce technologies, things have evolved beyond the web, and many marketers and merchandisers shifted their attention to the mobile channel in an effort to claim a share of that pie. As a result, to satiate this obvious interest, Episerver’s customers wanted to be able to deliver their content beyond the Web. Since very early on, Episerver has produced “a well-documented REST based API” so the vendor easily responded to this emerging demand. James Norwood further explained: “Episerver was designed as a tiered solution, meaning the presentation layer and the delivery layer were already separated from the business logic layer and the storage layer.” In other words, Episerver has addressed the notion of moving beyond the web by providing APIs and integration points to turn the system into a hub so users can inject their content into various platforms. More importantly, to provide those capabilities, the vendor didn’t need to develop a new CMS, but leveraged the foundation of its platform.

As Forrester’s analyst Mark Grannan told CMS-Connected in an interview, “API-based content delivery and microservices are hugely important.” By harnessing the power of APIs, a headless/decoupled CMS may offer ultimate flexibility for creating rich web and mobile experiences and unleash the creative power of front-end developers but it comes at the price of sophisticated development skills and experience. This is another important point to consider for those, who are basically in need of a web presence as well as content delivery across channels, because it is very common to be dazzled by the new or “trending again” innovative approaches and lose the sight of your organizations’ essential needs versus their resources. On that note, I also asked James Norwood, when headless/decoupled makes sense and when not. “Very large enterprises that have embedded IT teams are more likely to want to play with a headless only CMS,” said Norwood and elaborated: “Because you don't get all of the benefits of the delivery layer and the under tree structure management that we've built in over the years to make it easy for marketers to get their work done. It almost feels taking those capabilities back from marketing and instead, putting them back to the IT side of the house.” Have being said, he also believes this is not necessarily a bad thing as long as you are a large enterprise or have enough resources in place.

Episerver, on the other hand, is committed to helping businesses in the upper mid-market to lower enterprise market deliver to their customers an enterprise-level experience, and those customers typically don't have those technical resources. Even if they do, going with pure headless CMS means that they've got to become reliant on the IT department who is already stretched and overwhelmed with other tasks. In short, as Norwood puts in, “horses for courses.” The bottom line is that because this shift involves heavy reliance on the IT teams, James Norwood believes that the mid-market is less likely to want to take a pure headless CMS approach.

This conversation reminded me of Gartner’s claim saying, “Episerver requires considerable product-specific and .NET expertise.” In a different interview with James Norwood, I inquired his take on this particular comment, and he said: “Episerver’s platform provides a comprehensive WCM solution for mid-sized to larger organizations and so does require an implementation partner or internal technical resource to help implement. However, once it's up and running, one of the biggest benefits of the Digital Experience Cloud is that it's easy for marketers and merchandisers to use.” More importantly, he pointed out a significant difference between the comments from Gartner’s Magic Quadrant for WCM 2017 and Gartner's Magic Quadrant for Digital Commerce on the same matter: “In fact, you would expect digital commerce WCM use cases to be the most involved, just by their very nature, yet Gartner stated that 'a large majority of reference customers found it easy or very easy to implement and customize, whereas all reference customers reported high overall satisfaction with both Episerver and its digital commerce platform,' as recently as this April. It’s reasonable that customization would require some degree of technical expertise, although configuration once a marketer is trained is straightforward. At the end of the day, content marketers can be productive with Episerver in a matter of hours.”

Not an Either-Or Situation

For midsize organizations that are aiming at delivering an enterprise-level experience, James Norwood suggests a hybrid approach where the platform is built on a decoupled architecture, so organizations can have the option to go headless or traditional (coupled) - or even a combination of the two. To simplify when a headless CMS approach is beneficial and where it may be an overkill, think about governmental websites where the content is expected to be very informative and rich but the presentation is really not the priority. In that case, there is no point of putting extra effort, time, and money to develop a custom front-end whereas a coupled CMS will be perfectly fine and more efficient to get the job done. On the flip side, if you have a multi-national audience, or if your website heavily relies on mobile apps and even displays content on very specific connected devices, then having a headless option provides you with the flexibility of content deployment you need as the coupled CMS template system might be too limiting. In that case, first, you need to make sure if your vendor provides you a headless option, and then, whether you have necessary skill-sets within your organization to develop sophisticated front-ends that ultimately work seamlessly with the content and other services.

Vendors that support only a pure headless CMS approach often have this argument that dictates a headless CMS enables developers through APIs to tackle content deployment and presentation issues faster than many traditional/coupled CMS systems. Norwood claims it is not the case for their offering, for instance, as headless and API-driven capabilities are an extension of its core premise which is a website management and delivery platform.

One of the challenges of separating content from presentation, on the other hand, is the preview functionality. Modern content management systems built on a decoupled architecture allows content creators to preview and edit content in the context of a page. With a headless CMS, this feature is taken away due to the separation of content and delivery. Therefore, the user may need to do a lot of upfront anticipation work to make their page look good in the end. In other words, if your authoring system and your delivery system are separated, you will have to bridge the two so you can bring the preview to your authoring domain. A decoupled CMS like Episerver may allow content creators to have not only the ability to preview across all platforms but also to edit content directly in those channel-specific previews.

WCM platforms have evolved from taking content for granted through a one-way, dead-end repository to a multi-repository approach. In fact, Forrester’s study revealed that 93 percent of companies are using multiple repositories to store content. When you have a pure headless CMS, having multiple software systems can be challenging as each piece comes with its own requirements on how things can/should be done. To tackle this issue, your techie team has to cover different codebases and deal with AngularJS, React, or whatever renders your front-end.

One of the main distinctive differences between pure headless CMS and a decoupled CMS is that a headless architecture provides a Content Management repository system that is independent of content delivery and presentation layers while a decoupled CMS is a full stack of content management, delivery, and presentation solution but allows for content stored within it to be leveraged by other systems. Episerver is 100% ASP.NET MVC based and offers an all-in-one product with CMS, eCommerce and digital marketing features. The vendor states that its platform provides a competent API and enough integration points so it can peacefully cooperate with other solutions to present the content and the websites run on Episerver are naturally extendable just like every other ASP.NET MVC website.

Lastly, I asked James Norwood about the benefits of a headless CMS to everyday marketers. Speaking from experience, he thinks that a headless CMS doesn’t necessarily have a significant benefit to everyday marketers as their main task is creating, managing and publishing content. He doesn’t mean to diminish its value though as he also says if a marketer is working on a project where they are tasked with pushing content through some Internet-of-Things (IoT) devices, then, as long as they have a technical team to support requirements, they can take advantage of “some cool stuff around the widgets that you get with headless.” Let’s be clear, developers are limited a bit by the UI of decoupled CMS, which is not able to leverage Internet of Things (IoT) to the extent that a headless CMS is able. But again, he warns about the high reliance on the IT department as marketers are not programmers.

My POV

With ever-changing trends in the technology landscape, it is getting difficult to foresee the future. Considering every organization has its own unique needs and goals to meet, there is no best approach among these three approaches but organizations can identify which one is the best match. Additionally, the needs for content delivery may change not only based on organizations but also based on different projects within the same organization. All these approaches come with their own pros and cons but, at the end of the day, it is a matter of priorities and what you could compromise on to get those priorities nicely done. There will be cases when a pure headless CMS may serve you better as long as you have necessary skill-sets within your organization, or a traditional CMS can provide great value and there is not necessarily added value in a headless or decoupled CMS.

Nevertheless, it is not an easy task to determine whether a pure headless model or decoupled CMS is a strong fit for your organization. To help our readers navigate in these daunting waters, we will be publishing other articles including interviews with users, implementation partners, and technology providers. So to binge on all of our exclusive content on this topic, please check back to our website in the upcoming days.

Venus Tamturk

Venus Tamturk

Venus is the Media Reporter for CMS-Connected, with one of her tasks to write thorough articles by creating the most up-to-date and engaging content using B2B digital marketing. She enjoys increasing brand equity and conversion through the strategic use of social media channels and integrated media marketing plans.