Top 10 Headless CMS. Market-leading Headless CMS Comparison

How to choose the best-fit headless CMS for your business? In this article, we have identified several types of headless CMS for different business requirements and compiled a list of the most effective ones. Learn more about the alternatives, compare features, and narrow down your search based on the pros and cons of each platform to find the most suitable headless CMS.

Content has become a number one driver in customer engagement. Companies are now looking for a way to future-proof their digital experience architecture, enabling omnichannel support for their customers available today and in the future. At the same time, it is essential to give developers, managers, and content creators the possibility to create more interactive experiences for customers with less investment of money and time, offering businesses a competitive edge. As a result, there is a demand for agile and flexible software to effectively manage vast amounts of digital content. And here is where a headless CMS with all its killer features comes to the fore.

In our previous article, we gave the definition of a traditional and headless CMS, explained how they work and defined their advantages and disadvantages, which led us to conclude that a headless CMS is a perfect solution for companies to prepare for the new omnichannel era.

Today, we see a growing interest from businesses toward headless CMS aided by new software architecture trends, enhanced AI capabilities to deliver personalized content, headless commerce tools that create new choices and customization options for users. However, not all companies can pin down a reliable solution that’s equipped to fuel their unique and specific digital presence for the foreseeable future due to the large CMS market supply.

To help you, we have identified several types of headless CMS for different business requirements and compiled a list of the most popular headless CMS. So you can learn more about the alternatives, compare features, and narrow down your search based on the pros and cons of each platform to choose the best headless CMS for your company.

Types of headless CMS. SaaS (cloud-hosted) and On-premise (self-hosted) solutions.

If we were to split Headless CMS into two categories, we have SaaS and on-premise CMS based on the type of hosting.

On-premise solutions are software that is installed and run on individuals computers or the organization using the software. You download it, install on your choice of server and complete the initial setup. With this comes the individual responsibility for the website infrastructure and its software dependencies like databases, necessary software libraries, and more. On-premise CMS can be run locally on your own computer for free, or, if you want to be able to access it from outside of this environment, you can install it on a server with a hosting service for a small monthly fee.

There are several reasons why using on-premise CMS is better than going with cloud-hosted solutions. They include the following:

  • You have full control over data. It makes your business GDPR-compliant.
  • You host the website. Thus, you are in complete control of the website customization and have more freedom in its management.
  • It can efficiently work without any updates and plugins, if you don’t want to install them.
  • Ability to extend the backend API services and the Admin Panel GUI with your own custom features.

Simply put, a SaaS CMS is software that exists entirely in a cloud environment. In this case, the solution is provided as a service, reducing the need to support the website infrastructure by software infrastructure and IT teams as it happens with an on-premise CMS.

The “service” part of SaaS CMS means that the vendor will handle all the questions with upgrading, maintaining, or hosting the website or apps. It allows you to focus on more pressing issues. It can become a problem for companies that deal with sensitive data regularly and don’t want to transfer the security of their data to a third-party company. At the same time, maintaining high levels of security compliance across your own website does take a lot of work, so eventually it might be easier for businesses to find a trustworthy vendor with a strong history of client satisfaction to take care of their platform.

While the type of hosting is the primary difference between SaaS and on-premise CMS, it only scratches the surface of SaaS benefits. Some of the resulting benefits of SaaS CMS are:

  • Seamless upgrades and enhancements: You get the most up-to-date version of the software without needing to re-implement your solution because all releases and updates are the responsibility of your vendor.
  • Speed to innovation: This CMS offers content admins increased speed to market and reduced friction. Moreover, it makes the adoption to new market trends much easier as the entire change process is streamlined.
  • Simplified maintenance and management: When you move to a SaaS CMS, your vendor typically takes care of maintaining the system and ensuring it’s secure and scalable.
  • Increased time to value: Efficient and simple installation gets your experiences live faster.

Each kind of headless CMS can be considered for different business purposes and project requirements. When you decide on the type of hosting, you will face the question of choosing a platform with headless functionality. Further, we will explore some of the best available SaaS and on-premise headless CMS options. We will pay attention to the features offered by each option and the main differences between them.

Top Headless CMS 2021 Comparison

SaaS or on-premise? On-premise.

NetlifyCMS is one of the most popular Git-based platform in the headless CMS ecosystem. It is built as a single-page React app and works with all static site generators for a faster and flexible web project. NetlifyCMS allows for the creation of a website or an app with continuous deployment and one-click HTTPs. It’s usually the number one choice by developers when it comes to creating modern static websites and apps.

Features:

  • Editor-friendly user interface
  • Intuitive workflow for content teams
  • With Git Gateway, you can add CMS access for any team member
  • Fastest static hosting.

Pros:

  • Fast, web-based UI
  • Platform agnostic because it works with most static site generators.
  • Easy installation. You add two files to your site and hook up the backend by including those files in your build process or linking to our Content Delivery Network (CDN).
  • Modern authentication using GitHub, GitLab, or Bitbucket and JSON web tokens.
  • Flexible content types. NetlifyCMS gives you access to an unlimited number of content types with custom fields.
  • Fully extensible. You can create custom-styled previews, UI widgets, and editor plugins.

Cons:

  • It requires a learning curve. You will need basic knowledge of how websites work, how to set up a static website, and what a Git repository actually means. Coding skills are also needed to set everything up.

SaaS or on-premise? SaaS.

Appernetic.io is a cloud-based platform for managing and generating static content for GitHub Pages. It allows you to build faster and more secure websites, it is the bridge between the simplicity of static websites and the user-friendliness of CMS authoring interfaces.

Features:

  • Responsive layout
  • Using the visual tree view, you can navigate between file systems
  • Configuration
  • Editor which enables users to build their own webpages with the help of design templates and formatting toolbars
  • Static website generator which pre-designs website content rather than running queries in the CMS database which increases the page load speed

Pros:

  • Easy and fast setup
  • Full control over the source code by developers
  • Integration with Github and Gitlab
  • You can automatically get a cloudinary link
  • Powerful content model

Cons:

  • Lack of theme choice
  • No asset pipeline
  • There is no easy way to add a plugin or extension engine

SaaS or on-premise? SaaS.

GraphCMS is a native GraphQL headless CMS. The main focus of it is to provide users with an exceptional digital experience while making it easier to manage the content part. GraphCMS is front-end agnostic and it is developed by GraphCMS GmbH. The hosted content APIs can be consumed by websites, apps, or any other platform.

GraphCMS boasts the JAMstack approach to development, which means a stack of Javascript, API, and Markup. GraphCMS is a client-side and JAMstack compatible CMS.

Features:

  • Digital asset management which allows developers to transform their digital assets into different formats and structures.
  • Content personalization and flexible content modeling. It enables developers to create dynamic content for target audiences and tailor the content to match the user requirements by modeling the content.
  • GraphCMS uses authentication tokens to authorize the API requests.

Pros:

  • Scalability
  • The easy-to-use localization API feature
  • No technical knowledge required
  • Flexibility on what data models we can create and how those models are formed

Cons:

  • GraphCMS requires deep knowledge of the system and needs lots of time to be efficient, especially around creating specific data patterns/relationships.

SaaS or on-premise? SaaS.

Contentful offers an API-driven headless CMS where you focus on your content and backend. It uses RESTful API to give developers complete control of content, digital assets, and all programming languages. Contentful is also familiar with caching techniques and external CDN integrations, enabling it to deliver API payloads in the sub-10ms range.

Features:

  • The ability to display JSON snippets
  • Rich-text editor
  • Content modeling feature enabling content admins to arrange individual fields and content modules such as text, images and calendars.
  • The fully decoupled write and read API ensures a fault-tolerant system.

Pros:

  • Clear and intuitive user interface
  • It supports a wide range of frameworks and languages to help with broader web needs.
  • Customization through content types so that those of the same type (articles, interviews, news, etc.) are grouped for convenience and easier content production
  • Media assets supported
  • It provides a one content infrastructure to all. You can manage your content anytime through a smart device.

Cons:

  • The necessity for developers to get comfortable with concepts like content-modeling and search-based management
  • Developers are fully responsible for the functionality

SaaS or on-premise? Either.

Magnolia is an open-source headless CMS providing content admins the possibility for in-context editing, full preview, and personalization. For developers, it offers built-in CI/CD, hot deployment, and slim YAML configuration files. Magnolia easily integrates with front-end frameworks like React, Angular and Vue, and any emerging technologies through Magnolia’s leading REST APIs.

Features:

  • The Visual SPA Editor which provides content admins with the ability to edit Single Page Applications in context instead of being limited to form-based input.
  • Content and data from outside systems — such as site analytics — can be accessed natively to eliminate back-and-forth between systems.
  • Marketing automation, digital asset management, analytics, and other made of pre-build connectors.

Pros:

  • Content admins can work without the support of developers when editing content.
  • The ability to publish content to any channel without losing such features as preview, in-context editing, and personalization abilities
  • Use front-end languages only to complete entire projects to reduce costs and accelerate the release.

Cons:

  • The need for developers to implement the platform
  • The digital asset management feature has only basic capabilities.

SaaS or on-premise? Either.

Directus is an open-source CMS and API. Built using Vue.js., Directus manages custom-schema SQL databases directly, so it will be a good match for projects that require customized databases. Developers can build custom databases based on project needs and requirements without learning a proprietary framework or being forced to build using specific technologies.

Directus wraps your new or existing SQL database with a real-time GraphQL+REST API for developers and an intuitive admin app for non-technical users. Similar to other traditional CMS tools, it is powered by PHP; developers will thus feel comfortable with the scripting language if known.

Features:

  • It supports numerous solutions, from traditional websites to kiosks and other interactive digital builds.
  • It is possible to upload and manage files; databases do not typically handle files.
  • Directus provides a user-friendly interface that is extremely easy to use.

Pros:

  • All the main elements (API, SDK, and app) are free to use, giving developers a strong foundation for any type of set-up.
  • Processes are tracked in the platform, and rollbacks are possible; you never lose data.
  • It stays up-to-date by pulling whatever is required from the database due to the regular updates.

Cons:

  • Hosting is not included in free tiers.
  • Pre-uploading long videos fails.

SaaS or on-premise? On-premise.

Cockpit is a free, self-hosted, and API-driven headless CMS. It describes itself as a “content provider” and “not a website builder”. The main aim of it is to store and distribute content without content editing features to adjust the presentation of your content. So Cockpit is a pure headless CMS. It uses API, JSON, JavaScript, PHP, SQLite, and MongoDB to deliver and present content, and Cockpit is both language and database agnostic.

Features:

  • Clean and simple interface to get to work with
  • Supports cross-channel content distribution (Web, App, Smart Device, IoT)

Pros:

  • You can create a solution with custom code whenever you plan to extend, which ensures plenty of freedom.
  • API-first approach. It stores the content, acting as the CDN on your website, with options to use MongoDB and other database solutions that you prefer.

Cons:

  • As a purely headless CMS, Cockpit has no focus on visuals. There’s no visual editor or anything to help preview the pages.
  • There is often not enough support when you find a problem because of its open-source character.

SaaS or on-premise? On-premise.

Sanity.io is an open source headless CMS built on JavaScript and React.js. It is the platform for structured content. Sanity comes with an open-source editing environment called Sanity Studio that you can customize with JavaScript, and a real-time hosted data store. Sanity has generous included quotas — so getting started is free. Sanity also provides real-time collaboration, live previewing, and content versioning.

Features:

  • a WYSIWYG rich text editor which allows you to embed editable data in running text and defer markup to render time.
  • It comes with a Sweet Query API that enables you to cache multiple queries on a single request.
  • Review changes feature with full document revision history right inside the Sanity Studio.
  • Structured content. Your rich text is stored as a clean data structure where you can design a content model with necessary metadata.

Pros:

  • Plenty of customization
  • Support of different plugins
  • Possibility to use you own front-end, or whatever else you might need: Vue, Svelte, Node, .NET, PHP, Golang, or whatever speaks HTTP
  • Helpful and friendly developer community
  • Responsive design, works on small screens

Cons:

  • Problems with webhooks which require developers support
  • It can be time-consuming when it comes to implementation.

SaaS or on-premise? SaaS.

Prismic is a SaaS headless CMS with an API. The platform allows users to model their content schema, fill in content, choose frameworks such as Node, React, Next, Gatsby, Vue, Nuxt, etc., query content with either their RESTful API or GraphQL, and deploy with a hosting platform such as Zeit, Netlify, Heroku, etc.

Prismic gives a scheduling possibility and project management tool enabling collaboration and workflow management.

Features:

  • Multi-language support for wider reach
  • Capable of Integrating with other resources
  • Possibility to schedule and preview content

Pros:

  • Native integrations with Shopify and Magento, so it can prove valuable for e-commerce setups
  • User-friendly experience.
  • Drag and drop, rich text editors make the SEO customization easier
  • Easy to set up and configure

Cons:

  • Lack of expansion and adaptability
  • A rich text editor is relatively basic

SaaS or on-premise? On-premise.

Strapi is an advanced open source CMS built on Node.js. It means that the entire codebase is available on GitHub and thrives on contributors. Strapi enables you to build and manage multiple APIs. It focuses on transparency and aspiration to be a perfect balance between a content management system, framework, and an automation tool to increase the speed of back-end development and platform management. With the help of Strapi, it is possible to build a robust API and to provide an advanced CMS.

Features:

  • Clean and fully customizable admin panel
  • There are plugins that allow the platform to be extended
  • It’s compatible with a wide range of database and SQL solutions
  • Strapi Cloud is in the works

Pros:

  • It has a blueprint letting you create, read, update, and delete your data.
  • Convenient management of user session
  • Easier support of your applications

Cons:

  • Documentation can vary in quality due to the open-source nature

Headless CMS List: Summary

We have described each platform in sufficient detail, paying special attention to its functions, pros, and cons. To clarify, we made a quick headless CMS comparison table to let you quickly filter the platforms and choose the more suitable one for your business requirements.

This list of platforms that we provide is not complete and comprehensive. We have compiled the most widely spread and popular headless CMS on the market. Meanwhile, the CMS ecosystem offers a wide range of choices letting anyone find their matching solution. Among existing headless CMS are Ghost, Tina, Ponzu, Webiny, Prose, ApostropheCMS, Publii, Craft CMS, etc.

Conclusion

The goal of every business is to be efficient and profitable, and the right decision of a robust headless CMS can help you with that. However, the process of choosing one platform from many can be quite intimidating. Luckily, we got your back; we provided you with valuable insights about different headless CMS by comparing their features and identifying the pros and cons of each one.

Going headless isn’t the easiest transition your company will make. A vendor with a history of giving hands-on assistance and supportive expertise can smooth things down for you. At UpsilonIT, we constantly broaden our knowledge and skills in building websites and mobile apps with top headless CMS. We are ready to answer your questions and bring you through the challenges of implementing the best-fit Headless CMS into your business.

If you want to learn more about our experience with headless CMS, follow UpsilonIT on Medium to receive our upcoming articles and contact our business development team explaining more about your project to start narrowing down your search for the perfect headless CMS option for your project and budget.

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