This article introduces Content as a service, the increasingly popular and relatively new kind of CMS. Whereas the traditional web CMS like WordPress and Drupal try to be the single solution for both managing content and creating websites, CaaS vendors focus purely on content management without taking opinions about the output - which still could be websites, but also print, mobile apps, and other devices and channels.
In this 10-min read you will learn what CaaS is, how it compares to the existing CMS, in which contexts it makes sense to go CaaS, and see some projects built on top of CaaS. We'll also touch on topics such as reasoning why CaaS appeared and how to properly evaluate CaaS solutions.
Table of contents
What is Content as a service
Content as a service is a name for a new type of CMS. CaaS CMS are typically contrasted with the CMS of early 2000s, which were initially built for creating websites. Whereas CMS such as WordPress and Drupal promote a "single software for managing, designing and publishing content" approach, CaaS vendors suggest that a CMS should only be used for managing content, but never for controlling its presentation.
Let's jump from this somewhat vague and abstract definition to more specific characteristics of a CaaS CMS:
- A CMS hosts the content repository in the cloud
- The content can be fetched via a RESTful API
- An API returns the content in a well-structured format, such as JSON
- There is a mechanism for defining highly custom content structures
- There is a web interface for managing the content (that's the greatest similarity to WordPress and other well-established CMS)
- Webhooks help the apps which depend on the CMS to react to content updates
Note how different this approach is. The content and presentation layers which used to stand very closely to each other are now separated, and the CMS doesn't control how the content would look. It might look like a step back, but it's not — the benefits of this approach are discussed in the next sections. In short, CaaS approach is simplification — CMS does less, but does it better — which brings more freedom on the other end of the project.
We'd also like to highlight that hosting the old school CMS in the cloud is not what CaaS is about. Yes, your WordPress setup could exist in a cloud, but in all other aspects it's still the same old CMS with the same architecture, its ups and downs.
Differences between CaaS and WordPress/Drupal/another web CMS
- Structured content. These CMS encourage content owners to structure their content — to operate in chunks, not page blobs. This reflects the shift from page-centric web to content-centric web. Content strategy expert Karen McGrane's WYSIWTF piece gives some great context of why chunks are much better than blobs.
- Decoupled approach. CaaS always means separating the front-end (content presentation) from the backend (content storage and delivery). Essentially, this separation of concerns simplifies the CMS architecture: every piece does its own one thing. Read more about headless/decoupled CMS.
- Separation of content and presentation. This family of CMS no longer imposes any design limitations on the product. It means that a CMS is only used to manage and deliver pure content and the channel-specific client decides about visual representation of that content.
- Cloud setup. CaaS, as a sub-group of SaaS (Software as a service) approach, moves the content from your servers to the vendor's cloud. That means that every CaaS user doesn't have to set up, maintain, and scale the infrastructure on their own — the vendor does that for each of them.
Appropriate use cases for CaaS
We often say that there is no silver bullet – no single CMS which would be equally good both for a personal blog and a huge online shop. However, CaaS definitely outperforms its predecessors in a number of use cases:
- Mobile apps content backend. Having content coming into a mobile app from a CaaS CMS is the best way to have dynamic in-app content without having to resubmit the app to the app marketplace. Also, using an existing solution as a backend is smarter than building your own (we speak from experience).
- Multi-channel publishing. CaaS CMS is also highly rewarding when content needs to be reused across different platforms: say, you want to push the same content to a website and to mobile apps.
- Rich web apps. Modern MVC front-end frameworks, such as AngularJS, React and Ember, play nicely with structured content via APIs.
- Integrating with existing services and software stacks. There are contexts in which a CMS could help simplify workflows in an existing project: for instance, taking hardcoded content out of HTML pages, and maintaing them with a CMS instead. Since CaaS CMS all provide an API, they are all highly integration-friendly.
- Highly custom UX. The CMS of the web age imposed strong design restrictions. Yes, you could fully customize the UI, but building a WordPress-powerwed web app from scratch is not very likely. As CaaS job is to simply push content wherever and whenever necessary, designers will be happy not to hear "not possible" from their fellow developers.
- Programatic content creation. When content is already existing and coming from multiple sources, uploading content into one unified repository is ideally supported by creating content via API as well.
Pros and cons
If CaaS is that good, why isn't everyone using it already? Well, mostly because it's good in some contexts (see the section above) and not so great in others.
For example, it's not as good for setting up a personal blog. Or it's not as good when you know that you only want to do a website, and that is it. Because the effort is not worth it: there are other solutions, much cheaper and less complex, for these particular scenarios.
What drives the adoption of CaaS
More and more developers encounter the need to have a CaaS solution. Those are either mobile app developers who need a backend to feed their apps with content, or front-end developers who expect to interact with an API. While those technologies have been around for some time, they are becoming increasingly popular, driving the demand for CaaS.
- Content owners want to get their content to as many platforms and channels as possible: web, mobile, social networks, smart devices, and so on
- It's too expensive to have a separate solution for every channel — development-wise and maintenance-wise
- It's much more efficient to have a single editorial team and a single software stack for all channels
- Developers can be more productive and efficient with the tools they like, and CaaS solutions tend to fall into this category of tools
Features to look out for in CaaS
There are three essential parts: the editing interface (typically a web app), the CMS infrastructure capabilities, and the development ecosystem.
- Enables content architects to create the content model (the structure of content)
- Enables content editors to manage content — that is, create it, update it and collaborate on it
- Performance, uptime, scalability to ensure you can trust your vendor to reliably deliver content in mission critical applications
- SLAs with short incident response times and access to dedicated staff — so in case of problems you get a mission-critical app back up again, fast
- Mobile delivery capabilities so that you can provide a great user experience even in network-challenged environments (like subways, rural areas) and high bandwidth cost areas (such as emerging markets)
- API-based importing, management, and delivery for controlling content programmatically both ways
- Comprehensive and up-to-date documentation to help the development team start using the tool quickly
- CDN (content delivery network) to deliver the content rapidly
- SDKs and libraries so your team is up to speed faster no matter what their tech stack is
- Demo app source code so developers don't have to reinvent the wheel anew
- 3rd party integrations so you get value from existing tools
CaaS vendor market shares
Since the space is fairly young, there is no official market share data available, e.g. from analyst firms. Our own company, Contentful, probably has the most market traction in terms of number and size of customers, revenues, team size and funding - and was recently selected as a Cool Vendor by Gartner, a world-leading US-based technology analyst. Other options are Osmek, Cloud CMS, and Prismic.
Why don't open source solutions with proper add-ons cut it as CaaS
Notably, popular open source CMS such as WordPress and Drupal are moving in the CaaS direction, particularly by introducing plugins (Drupal RESTful web services, WordPress REST API) which add RESTfulness on top of the existing setup. Drupal 8 will also include RESTful API in its core. Running such a setup in the cloud makes for a semi-CaaS solution.
However, while this change adds something which was clearly missing before, the architecture of the system remains the same – web-based, page-centric. There are still no good ways to structuring content in a custom way, there are scaling issues, and content and presentation continue living together.
For some cases it might be sufficient to go with a web CMS with an add-on on top, but we have experienced that problems arise on the way.
Try out CaaS
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