Headless CMS β€”

secure CMS?

by Arso and Ilona
5 min
23. Nov 2021.

It doesn’t matter if it's a traditional or headless CMS; website security is one of the most important aspects of running an online presence.

Every business owner should care about website security, and if they don't, the job of every website developer is to emphasize it. Hacked websites lead to data loss, income loss, credibility, and potential lawsuits. Also, that means countless hours of debugging and repair for you, dear developers.

But, how does hacking usually happen?

The favorite way for hackers and bots to gain access is via the login screen. Honestly, if you're trying to get into someone's account, wouldn't that be the first thing to try (even if you are not a hacker)? Password strength also plays a vital role. We can't emphasize that passwords like "12345678" or "password" are not strong enough. 99.9% of accounts get hacked because of the weak password and not using multi-factor authentication (source: Windows Central). Remember, websites and accounts should be fortresses, unreachable to anyone unknown.

Alongside login, outdated websites are an easy target, too. Using an older coupled CMS version that is obsolete means that the security system has not been updated; therefore, it's not protecting that much. One of the weakest spots is third-party add-ons and plugins, and unfortunately, they are popular among non-tech users. So, why were we talking about all those vulnerable targets for attacking a website? Traditional CMSs like WordPress and Joomla, which most people use for building websites, are code and file-heavy. Hence, they have more material vulnerable to cyberattacks.

Believe it or not, not a day goes by without a compromised site, and some data says there are over 30,000 small business website hacks a day. WordPress, Joomla, and Drupal are popular targets for hackers for two simple reasons: their popularity and open-source code. Also, they tend to be used by less technical users, making them an easy target. According to a recent report on website security by ZDNet, most website hacks are related to vulnerabilities in plugins and themes, misconfiguration issues, and a lack of maintenance by web admins, who forgot to update their content management system (CMS). There is only one proper way to protect sensitive data, and that's with the appropriate encryption. For transferring secure data, web applications can use the secure version of HTTP protocol - HTTPS (Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure) protocol which uses SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) to protect messages transmitted via the network. Secure Data should be written in an encrypted form and remain during transmission to ensure integrity and confidentiality. But securing the data slightly differs with headless CMS versus traditional.

How headless CMS security differs from traditional CMS?

To understand the security difference between these two CMSs, we first have to know how they work. CMS like WordPress have graphical user interfaces that allow content creators and other non-tech users to create and publish styled templates. The content created is stored within a database and displayed to the end-user or reader based on this pre-defined template. In more technical words, the raw data for a blog post is pulled from the MySQL database by Wordpress's PHP application and pushed to the theme. The theme then converts the content into HTML and styles based on its CSS to let the reader consume it. It's clear now how everything in the traditional CMS is packaged together. The frontend and the backend are codependent. Traditional CMS vs. Headless CMS - The Full Comparison Getting all that critical functionality out-of-the-box does translate into... code. Lots and lots of code, lots and lots of files. Which also means lots and lots of potential vulnerabilities to be exploited. Headless CMS is a bit different. Under the pure headless CMS architecture, content is typically delivered through a content distribution network (CDN) and not through a database, as is the case under older CMS versions. Having the frontend and the backend separated keeps the focus on the content creation and storage, with little to no control on the frontend rendition. Unlike a traditional CMS, which consists of backend storage and frontend presentation layer tightly coupled together, headless CMS parts are not codependent; in other words, they are decoupled. Furthermore, the API publishes headless content as read-only. It can also be placed behind one or more layers of code β€” perhaps an application layer and a security layer β€” making it even less vulnerable to attack: security tighter, risk of attacks lower. Another popular method of hacking we haven't mentioned in the beginning is through SQL injection. HeadlessCMS combats by running on a server without SQL or even without being connected to SQL. When a developer truly creates a unique decoupled CMS from scratch, like a headless CMS, nothing about your CMS is a known entity.

Is headless CMS that secure?

Ask any headless CMS user or developer who knows about it, and all will say the same - yes.

Here are the security benefits of headless CMS:

It is less susceptible to DDoS attacks.

Headless CMS consists of a backend layer and connects to different front ends using APIs, thus removing the "head."

No database for content, no security threat – simple

There is no CMS code in the creator's environment. Security with flexibility and easy integration and maintenance becomes a piece of cake compared with previous CMSs, and this means the benefit of less anxiety and more productivity.

Fewer updates

There is no need for updating code every time there's a new release of the headless CMS (provided the API is backward compatible), so there is no situation where a slight change in one component may impact the entire system's security and performance.

Web continuity

People often forget to keep website plugins and themes updated, which unethical hackers seek to exploit. Any breach often means compromised continuity of the web page. With decoupled CMS, all temporary issues can usually be resolved in the background with web working.

Future-proofed

Ultimately, the more secure your CMS is, the smoother your adaptation to future demands will be. For example, adding personal user data like emails or other data-sensitive content is more accessible when the headless CMS is secure.

On the other hand, you should always be careful. It's essential that IT teams only shortlist and select headless CMSs with solid track records and security technologies and protocols that protect against cyber attacks. For instance, you should check if the platform provides authentication and authorization features and throttling features to prevent DDoS attacks. Since headless CMS is API-first CMS, they're likely implementing API security best practices by default, but it's a good idea to inquire about these features. Also, think about server security (for example, requiring HTTPS for network communication). For headless CMS to be genuinely more secure than traditional one, API should follow industry standards, and IT teams should ensure the infrastructure uses security best practices. Sometimes, same as with the traditional CMS, the vulnerability appears because of the individual implementation or oversight, not necessarily the chosen software.

Whatever the choice, security is more vital than ever.

In my opinion, losing your online presence is the worst-case scenario for any digital business owner out there. It is not uncommon for an organization to have a situation in which one moment everything is fine, sales are going crazy, and the very next moment your website is unavailable. Puff, gone. Usually, business websites are the target of attacks. In some cases, the attackers take visitors' personal information, causing a crisis. Sometimes they use DDoS attacks to flood a website server with a large amount of traffic and cause it to crash.

Whatever is the case, security must not be neglected in any CMS.

Benjamin Franklin said: "By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail." Although web security is more vital than ever for today's businesses, with the number of cyberattacks and security breaches skyrocketing, it's not a trial task. It involves a fair amount of planning and executing a complete strategy that goes way beyond simply securing a single or even a dozen websites, plus APIs and development, staging, and production servers. Honest advice for business owners and content creators would be to find experienced developers to make your web or app safer and make your digital experience less stressful. Honest advice for every web developer would be - to give headless cms a chance. The advantage of headless CMSs is the separation of frontend and backend. The reason a decoupled CMS is more secure is that content cannot be accessed by CMS database hackers; it has nothing to exploit. As simple as that.