What Is Headless Software and Why Would You Choose It

Building an application that is adaptable, scalable, and futureproof

The internet is constantly in flux, with new technologies and platforms emerging all the time. This ever-changing landscape can be daunting for businesses which need to keep up with the latest technological trends or risk being left behind. This can include needing to update core applications to meet new requirements, such as needing a new way of presenting your content or data. In addition, the speed of business and sales development in a global, networked economy means that a successful business will often need to scale much faster than originally anticipated.

Designing software that is better able to handle the flexibility and growth required for most modern organizations is a key motivator in the growth of headless software.

What is headless software?

Headless software is about decoupling the User Interface (UI) from the back-end services. As such, headless software runs without a graphical user interface (GUI). The GUI is the part of the software that the user interacts with, so a headless application may not always include a way for the user to directly input data or view results. Many headless software systems do, however, include a default interface or an API Explorer for interaction.

But whether there is an optional interface included, a headless application will run without relying on that optional interface, i.e., it’s decoupled, with the results being available for use by another system, such as a website or mobile app.

Why would you choose headless software?

There are several reasons why you might choose to use headless software:

  1. It can be easier to manage and update a single headless application than multiple applications that perform similar tasks but with different user interfaces; your front-end applications can be developed independently from your back-end, by other developers, and you can easily change or replace a front-end (or add a new one) without affecting the often more critical functionality of your headless application
  2. Headless software can be significantly less resource-intensive than applications that combine the back-end and front-end components; this allows the headless application to handle more requests, and creates an opportunity to use a much leaner front-end interface
  3. Because headless software allows you to choose whatever toolchain, platform, or language you want to use for your front-end applications, it can be very flexible; this can be a major advantage for businesses that need to quickly adapt to new technologies or scale their operations rapidly

When is headless software implemented?

Headless software is often implemented when an organization wants to be able to provide clearer focus in its software development process. By separating the application back-end from its one or more front-ends, software engineers can specialize on one component of the software, allowing front-end developers to complete their tasks more efficiently.

In some cases, the headless software is provided by a vendor, allowing an organization to employ front-end developers exclusively, with the back-end being maintained by the vendor; there are even situations where an organization can supply their back-end API directly to their customers, without the need for an internal front-end to be built and maintained.

Businesses that use headless software are able to adapt quickly and scale seamlessly to meet increasing demand, while their customers are able to select their preferred and familiar toolchains to access the data produced from headless applications. And headless is also a modular approach, allowing businesses to retain functionality that works well for them, and replace features that don't. When change is needed, it does not require full rework of back-end and front-end, with the requisite knowledge of the entire system; change can consist of some front-end tweaks against a stable and flexible back-end that requires no alterations.

A well-known use case for headless software: Content Management Systems

The most well-known use of headless software currently is with Headless Content Management Systems (CMS), such as Sitecore, Sanity.io, and Netlify CMS. Providing one place to manage content along with an API to provide that content to various front-ends, Headless CMS software is probably one of the easier ways to understand the concept. The administrator / contentment management portions allow marketing, product or customer success departments to create and update content with little to no technical knowledge required, while the content is then made available to websites, mobile applications, desktop applications, or even to be made available to external partners for consumption.

Popular Headless Content Management Systems:

  1. Strapi: this open core project includes a REST API, GraphQL, a good admin tool, and many plugins. Built with JavaScript (NodeJS), and available as self-hosted or as a managed cloud solution.
  2. Sanity: a very flexible open source CMS with a content management "Studio" that allows for collaboration and previewing. Built with NodeJS and React, and available as self-hosted or as a managed cloud solution.
  3. Directus: Another flexible open source CMS, but built to run against an existing SQL database, such as PostgreSQL, MySQL, Oracle, and MS SQL Server. Built with NodeJS and Vue.js, and available as self-hosted or as a managed cloud solution.
  4. Netlify CMS: An open source CMS that also supports static site generators. Built with React and uses any Git-based source control as its datastore, rather than a database. Available as a self-hosted solution, with the option of using Netlify as your host.
  5. Agility CMS: A closed-source enterprise CMS that is built to migrate large sets of content (such as WordPress or Drupal sites) into a headless architecture. Built to deploy using a static site generator, with no self-hosted option available.
  6. SiteCore Content Hub: Another closed-source enterprise CMS that is part of a larger suite that includes digital asset management and e-commerce.
  7. Webiny: A serverless GraphQL-based CMS that offers free and enterprise versions that deploy into your AWS cloud. Its serverless architecture is meant to create a more scaleable content management system, and is similar to the serverless architecture used by our product, FormKiQ.

A newer use case for headless software: Document Management Systems

While Content Management Systems are created mainly for marketing or documentation purposes, a Document Management System (DMS) exists to provide a mechanism for the upload, processing, storage, and easy retrieval of any kind of document that an organization touches, whether that document originated in paper or electronically. This could include legal contracts, documentation, financial documents, compliance records, or even rich media such as photos and videos. Most DMS software includes additional features such as metadata creation, optical character recognition, and full-text search, and can be used to store, process, and retrieve millions of documents.

By designing a Document Management System as headless software, as we have with FormKiQ, the same flexibility, scalability, and adaptability that have made Headless CMS a popular choice are now being made available for all kinds of documents.


It can seem like an easy decision to spend time and resources designing a web application that does it all, from connecting to a database to displaying that information in a web browser, that decision is a commitment to having only one way to access and present that data, and that is a commitment that could create a great deal of trouble in the long run.

More resources on Headless Software and Architecture: