Using WordPress as a Headless CMS

Content management systems (CMSs) are very useful, allowing you to create, edit and manage your content as needed.

But as powerful as they might be, traditional CMSs such as WordPress don’t meet everyone’s requirements. In some cases, a higher amount of flexibility is desired. You may, for example, want to integrate your CMS with a different coding methodology and not use the front end so often. In such cases, WordPress may still be the answer, since we can change the way we use it. We can use it as what’s called a headless CMS.

In this article, we’ll be discussing how to use WordPress as a headless CMS. But before getting into that, let’s first fully clarify what a headless CMS is and what it can do for us.

A Headless CMS Defined

In the simplest of terms, a headless CMS is one that has no front end. As such, it includes just the API and the back end that is required to store and manage content, organize data and handle the workflow. There’s no front end display of the said content. Naturally, this means any front-end templates tend to become unnecessary in a headless CMS.

Thus, in stark comparison to a traditional CMS, a headless CMS offers just a content management back end and API. Since there’s an absence of a front end, a headless CMS can’t be used for content “publishing” in the true sense of the term. On the other hand, traditional CMSs such as WordPress often model their entire existence around the content publishing features. This is, by and large, the biggest difference between a headless CMS and a traditional one.

Now, naturally getting rid of the front end can pose a decent set of challenges for the everyday user. The biggest drawback is that in the absence of a true front end, there’s hardly any proper method to figure out how content or output may look when rendered.

Furthermore, in the absence of proper security measures, a headless CMS can pose some serious security issues. This is because, on the back end, it’s necessary to ensure that different user roles have only the right amount of privileges in order to prevent unwanted access to sensitive data.

With that said, what are the major advantages associated with headless CMSs? More importantly, when should you consider using one?

Advantages of Headless CMSs

Perhaps the biggest and most obvious advantage associated with headless CMS architecture is the fact that it offers great flexibility and control to developers. You can control virtually every aspect of development, handle how data is managed, how content is stored in the back end and even decide on the best possible front-end solution for your needs.

With such flexibility, coupled with the fact that every headless CMS comes with its own API for managing calls to and from the back end, you can save a good deal of development time. It’s easier to reuse existing modules, push updates and bug fixes and perform other similar tasks when working with a headless CMS.

Additionally, it’s worth noting that applications and websites built atop a headless CMS architecture tend to be easier to scale. A high level of scalability is an obvious advantage. The back end is already separated from the front end, so the downtime for the end users is minimized.

Beyond that, a headless CMS is generally compatible with most platforms, as the front end in itself is missing and can be integrated as per the user’s needs. Since there’s no content publishing solution native to a headless CMS, chances of DDoS attacks are reduced as well.

Why You Might Use WordPress as a Headless CMS

We’ve seen the various advantages that headless CMSs bring to the table.

In general, a headless CMS is preferable in cases where a traditional CMS may not fit in, or be too restrictive in nature. Take, for example, the case of mobile development. You can easily use API calls in a headless CMS to deliver content to an iOS or Android platform. Similarly, you can make use of JavaScript frameworks in your apps and rely on headless CMS architecture for pushing content to various platforms.

Obviously, for smaller and simplified projects, a traditional CMS is still the way to go. However, for cases where you need greater control over the back end, and wish to employ API calls to push your content to various platforms, or even wish to integrate a custom front-end mechanism totally independent of the back end (or just do not wish to have a front-end solution at all), a headless CMS is an ideal fit.

In terms of using WordPress as a headless CMS, it already has REST API built in, which means we have the API part sorted. Furthermore, we can make use of the familiar WordPress back end to manage the content.

Obviously, this means with just a few basic steps, we can have our own headless CMS in the form of WordPress. Considering the fact that WordPress is highly popular, using it as a headless CMS also implies that our CMS can perform well on a varied range of hardware and software combinations and also be under regular maintenance and security updates.

While there are various headless CMS platforms and options out there, and many of them are really amazing in their own right, WordPress still has one very common aspect in its favor. It has been around for a good while now, and requires just a simple MySQL and PHP stack to run. You can cut down on overhead costs and cloud storage bills by making use of WordPress over other headless CMSs that may otherwise have a bulkier set of requirements.

Using WordPress as a Headless CMS

WordPress has three major parts:

  • the database, where the content is stored
  • the admin panel to manage the content (API)
  • the HTML view, or front end, to display the content.

Naturally, as a headless CMS, the last option is of little use to us. When using WordPress as a headless CMS, content is treated merely as data.

Step One: Setting up WordPress

It’s important that you use a fresh installation of WordPress. Considering the fact that there are various tutorials out there on how to install WordPress, and the official documentation too is rather detailed on this step, we will be skipping the installation details here.

Furthermore, most web hosting providers nowadays offer one-click install feature for WordPress. Just bear in mind: change the database and table prefixes from the default wp_ values to something else, and use strong passwords!

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