What is CMS Architecture? A Quick Reference Guide

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Anna Fitzgerald
Anna Fitzgerald


Content management systems (CMS) are designed to help streamline the creation and distribution of website content at scale. They’re massively popular, with more than half of all sites surveyed by W3Techs using some type of CMS.

Marketer learning what CMS architecture is

WordPress is far and away the leader with almost 40% of the global market share, but other solutions such as HubSpot, Shopify, Joomla, and Drupal are also making market inroads.

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For many site owners, the function of their CMS far outpaces form — so long as systems make it easy to create and distribute content, most users don’t worry about the underlying infrastructure. As CMS offerings evolve, however, and websites become a fundamental aspect of brand success at scale, it’s worth knowing the basics about CMS architecture: what types exist, how they work, where they excel, and where they come up short.

Ready? Let’s dive in with our CMS architecture quick reference guide.

What is CMS Architecture?

CMS architecture refers to the design and implementation of frontend and backend processes within CMS systems.

In plain language, CMS architecture defines the relationship between the tools used to publish and manage posts and pages with those used to create and edit them — the frontend and the backend.

For most site owners, this relationship isn’t relevant on a day-to-day basis; so long as CMS frameworks are working as intended there’s little reason to dig deeper and understand the ins-and-outs of CMS architecture.

As the market diversifies and new CMS solutions emerge, however, new ways of implementing architecture have evolved to deliver key advantages in specific use cases. In practice, this means that while familiar WordPress deployments will work reasonably well for most site owners, there are instances where another type of CMS architecture will better-serve website goals.

Types of CMS Architecture

There are five basic types of CMS architecture:

  • Coupled (also called traditional)
  • Decoupled
  • Headless
  • Hybrid
  • SaaS

Let’s break down each in more detail.

1. Coupled CMS

Coupled (or traditional CMS) architecture is the most common and familiar and is used by popular platforms including HubSpot, WordPress, Joomla, and Drupal. The idea behind coupled CMS architecture is simple: Frontend publishing functions are linked — or “coupled” — to backend processes. This means that both content editors and site designers see and use the same interface when building websites with CMS tools. With this architecture framework, not only are both ends of the CMS dependent on many of the same resources — content delivery systems are also integrated into the architecture at scale.

Coupled CMS solutions offer several advantages, including:

  • Minimal infrastructure investment
  • Simple set up, integration, and deployment
  • Ideal fit for small, single sites

But it also comes with potential drawbacks, such as:

  • Potential security vulnerabilities
  • Limited customization options
  • CMS scaling is tied to provider databases

2. Decoupled CMS

Decoupled CMS solutions separate — or “decouple” — front and backend processes. The result is admin and publishing architecture that rarely interact; both have their own set of resources and rules, allowing admins to make significant backend changes without impacting frontend processes, and vice versa. It also allows separate scaling of resources, in turn making it possible to specifically target frontend or backend needs without overspending on infrastructure.

Decoupled CMS excels at:

  • Delivering content quickly
  • Securing files and website content
  • Improving site uptime

Drawbacks include:

  • Increased deployment and management complexity
  • Potentially higher costs for frontend development and scaling

3. Headless CMS

In principle, headless CMS architecture is very similar to decoupled frameworks since both separate frontend and backend processes for improved performance and scalability. What sets headless CMS apart is the lack of any single frontend destination for content. Unlike decoupled solutions which use a specific frontend to handle content publishing and distribution, headless alternatives use application programming interfaces (APIs) to deliver content across multiple frontend channels. Thanks to the rapid uptick of mobile devices and the demand for device-native content and websites, headless architecture has gained significant ground over the past few years.

Headless CMS solutions offer benefits such as:

  • Freedom to develop and experiment with multiple frontends
  • Seamless delivery of content to any device
  • Site owners can choose the best frontend for their needs

But there are also potential pitfalls, including:

  • Increased expenses to manage backend frameworks and multiple frontends
  • Greater complexity since all themes and templates must be custom-built

4. Hybrid CMS

Hybrid CMS architecture combines decoupled, coupled and headless frameworks to streamline content creation and delivery. While backend and frontend processes remain separated to empower developers, the frontend solution is a specific, API-driven presentation layer. In other words, it’s a headless CMS with a single frontend framework used to manage publication channels across different platforms.

Advantages of a hybrid CMS include:

  • A user-friendly environment for developing content
  • Share content easily across multiple applications and platforms
  • Create all content in a single frontend framework but deliver it anywhere, anytime

The biggest challenge of a hybrid CMS? Content management. With API-driven distribution makes it easy to send content anywhere, managing this content across CMS databases is more challenging than with coupled or decoupled models and requires greater technical expertise.

5. SaaS CMS

Software-as-a-service CMS solutions are typically offered by all-in-one hosting providers. Rather than leveraging a coupled CMS like WordPress or a customized decoupled or hybrid alternative, SaaS solutions are offerings that make it easy to publish content.

The biggest benefit of a SaaS solution is simplicity — no setup and no management is required. The biggest drawback is also simplicity, since there’s no ability to customize content or modify backend processes because everything is handled by the hosting provider.

CMS Architecture Best Practices

If you’re not sure which CMS solution best fits your needs, it’s worth considering three CMS architecture best practices:

  1. Define your needs — What do you need your CMS to do? If you’re running a single website with basic templating needs, for example, coupled architecture solutions are often your best bet. If your brand is growing and you need the ability to quickly push content to multiple channels, consider a headless or hybrid option.
  2. Minimize complexity — Complexity is counterproductive to content success. As a result, it’s worth adopting the CMS architecture that delivers the least amount of complexity given your current needs. For example, if you require more in-depth back-end development but still need streamlined front-end development, a decoupled solution is a solid middle ground. If you’re just getting started with your site, a straightforward SaaS solution may be all you need.
  3. Maximize output — The more relevant content you can deliver to your customer base, the higher your visitor numbers, and the better your SEO. As a result, it’s critical to choose CMS architecture that lets you create, manage, and deliver great content as quickly as possible. If sheer volume and variety is your goal, consider a headless architecture option. If you need consistency across content producers and editors, coupled architecture may deliver the best value.

Architecting Successful Outcomes

While your CMS architecture may not play a large role in day-to-day decision-making and operations, selecting the right framework — coupled, decoupled, headless, hybrid, or SaaS — can set your site up for both short- and long-term success.

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