The emerging Content-as-a-Service market

at-your-service-by-andrew-j-cosgriff-cropThere is an interesting new market emerging in the world of content management: Commercially-hosted Content-as-a-Service (CaaS). These are vendors who provide a service your applications can leverage for content management. Different than, “Hey look, we’re running our old school CMS in the cloud!”, CaaS is singular in focus and free from the feature bloat and operational complexity typical of the CMS your parents probably used.

At a minimum, CaaS vendors provide the following:

  • a hosted repository,
  • some mechanism for defining the types of content you need to manage,
  • a RESTful API to get content and static assets into and out of the repository,
  • a web-based user interface for managing content,
  • web hooks for taking action when content changes,
  • CDN integration for efficiently serving up static assets, and
  • an up-time and performance SLA.

You then build your web site or mobile app using any technology that suits your needs and fetch content as JSON using the API.

The best approach is to use the service to manage reusable, presentation-agnostic chunks of content. Metadata associated with the content chunks can then be used to make it easier to fetch the content for a variety of contexts. Because it is free of presentation the content can be more easily shared and reused across properties and channels.

Why not Drupal or WordPress?

CaaS vendors do not directly compete with full-featured platforms like Drupal or WordPress. There are Drupal and WordPress modules that add RESTful APIs on top of those platforms, so you could build a web or mobile site that is completely de-coupled from your Drupal back-end. Conversely, you could build a web site on top of a CaaS vendor’s service that had the same look, feel, and features of a site built with a traditional CMS. But both of those examples miss the point of CaaS which is, in a word, simplicity.

I’m not saying products like Drupal and WordPress are hard to use. On the contrary, you can install those tools and have a great looking site up-and-running in minutes. I’ve run this blog on WordPress for years and I am extremely happy with it. And sites like wordpress.com and Drupal Gardens take the hassle out of setting up your own server.

When I say the key to CaaS is simplicity I mean it strips away everything. It makes no assumptions. A hosted CaaS offering should distill content management down to its very essence, implied by the term itself: to manage content. Do nothing else. Take this chunk of JSON, free of any hint of style or presentation, and store it for me, making it available via a tool-agnostic API to my front-end channels to present as I see fit.

This pragmatic approach to content management can be implemented on-premises or on your own cloud-based servers using freely-available technology. I’ll talk more about that in another post. The nice thing about hosted CaaS is that you don’t have to assemble, test, scale, and maintain the solution yourself. Yes, you are giving up some amount of control, the degree to which varies across vendors, but many are willing and able to make that trade-off.

Business model

As with other Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) offerings, CaaS vendors charge a monthly subscription for their service. Some charge additional fees based on things such as number of content objects managed, number of content authors, and data volume. All of the market leaders I looked into provide a free-to-get-started plan to make it easy on developers in the early days of their projects.

Approach appeals to both startups and enterprises

The primary target market for CaaS vendors is clearly start-ups who are writing mobile and/or web apps that need some form of content management. Cost is usually a major factor for this segment, at least until the venture proves itself successful, but so is simplicity and efficiency. There’s no time for complex server installs, any sort of run-and-maintain burden, or pushing new app versions as content evolves. Hosted CaaS is a natural fit for these folks.

But this approach also make sense for enterprises, many of whom are still wrestling with their legacy content management vendor boat anchors (I’m looking at you, Interwoven). A hosted service that does nothing more than capture and share content chunks is a refreshing contrast to those bloated, over-priced WCM systems that require a huge staff to run and maintain yet still leave end-users frustrated.

Those systems haven’t changed much in nearly two decades and yet they remain firmly embedded in many companies where they are busy managing sites that may have been state of the art in 1999, but in a world where even the concept of a “page” is falling by the wayside, are now woefully outdated.

The content-as-a-service approach (API-first, native JSON, pragmatic, emphasis on reuse) aligns with how mobile apps and modern web sites are built and deployed as well as their content needs. This is true whether those apps are built by scrappy startups or huge enterprises.

Stay tuned for a CaaS round-up

So join me as I take a look at some of the players in the CaaS space. In the coming posts I’ll be looking at Prismic, Contentful, and Cloud CMS. If you have used any of these for your mobile or web project and you want to share your story with other ecmarchitect.com readers, do let me know.