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Evolution of CMS and overview of modern DXP platforms

Evolution of CMS and overview of modern DXP platforms

For almost all industries the digital experience has become a primary importance. And ongoing rapid technology advancements mean that many companies need to reconsider the technology choices around their Content Management System (CMS). CMSs have changed a lot in the last ten years and are now far more complex than they were in the past.

For companies looking to modernize their systems, it’s helpful to have a good understanding of recent history and the current state of the industry. It also helps to be aware of the currently available technology stack and vendors in order to make the best technology choices.

We have therefore put together this guide to provide an overview of the history of the CMS, how the technology works, as well as an analysis of the leading vendors. It will additionally provide a set of recommendations on what choices your company should make depending on your needs.

A brief history of the CMS

To understand how the CMS has evolved, it helps to consider how the whole web industry has changed over time. The following section highlights the most crucial moments in web development including how these changes influenced the web in general and the CMS market in particular.

1990 – 1996: The static age (Web 1.0)

The period was characterized by Flat HTML text files. 1993 saw the first support for images. By 1995 the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) was up and running. 1996 saw the first introduction of the Internet Explorer browser, which was the first to support CSS.

1997 – 1999: The dynamic HTML revolution

A major turning point came in 1997 as dynamic content   came into its own with the introduction of the Document Object Model (DOM). The DOM defines the logical structure that lets you identify and programmatically control parts of a document.

Dynamic HTML using Asynchronous JavaScript and XML, commonly called Ajax, was a revolutionary breakthrough. This was because it allowed developers to request and receive data to update a web page without needing to reload the page.

Many enterprise CMS platforms began to appear around this time including Interwoven (1995), Documentum (1996), FatWire (1996), FutureTense (1996), Inso (1996), and EPiServer (1997).

2000s the era of the monolithic CMS (Web 2.0)

The CMS of the early to mid-2000s started to cater to enterprise and business needs in a larger and more professional manner. Simultaneously, the period saw the advent of open-source CMS platforms like Drupal, WordPress, and Joomla. Most of these contained both the back-end and front-end technology of a website and could handle text, images, and other files to store, display, and download.

2007- 2010 going mobile with web 3.0

In 2010 smart tablets came on the scene. REST APIs and the JSON data-format were vital to delivering content to mobile devices. This megatrend of delivering content to mobile devices ushered in the mobile web era. This era became known as Web 3.0, to identify the shift from computers and laptops to mobile content delivery. By the beginning of 2014, mobile internet use exceeded desktop use in the U.S.

The mid-2010s the digital experience platform

A Digital Experience Platform (DXP) is a software platform that enables you to build and deliver integrated, optimized user experiences across all digital channels, all audiences (though with the customer at the center), and all stages of the user/customer lifecycle.

The Importance of Personalization
Personalization is key to building an effective Digital Experience Platform. Personalization means understanding your visitors’ interests and tailoring content to fit their needs and preferences, providing them with an experience that they find relevant.

Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning
AI and machine learning are already having a significant impact on content management. Integrating your content hub with AI and machine learning tools and services can help you discover hidden opportunities, speed up processes, and most importantly, offer relevant digital experiences to customers.

On the timeline we introduced a new definition, DXP, and we also saw the important role that JSON and CSS played in significantly influencing the entire web industry. We will now progress to looking at modern trends in more detail in order to further explore DXPs.

CMS vs DXP – the key differences

When talking about content management systems we often use the CMS abbreviation but in the modern world, it’s not really relevant anymore. This is because businesses in general have more complex requirements than simply managing content on web channels. Instead, modern solutions are able provide business with a whole range of capabilities including handling orders, creating marketing campaigns, and providing rich analytics and reports. This type of systems is called Digital Experience Platform (DXP).

The first and most crucial difference is that DXPs always include or are built around a CMS. In other words, the CMS is only a functional module of the DXP along with other important modules that can be built-in or connected as a third-party service. While the CMS is responsible for working with content and its delivery to the channels, DXPs are used to  manage the full business lifecycle including analytics, reports, media data, customer relationships, finances, etc.

Let’s highlight the key difference to provide a clearer picture.

Figure 1 – Basic CMS and DXP architectures

There are two diagrams on the Figure 1. The left diagram describes the basic CMS architecture while the right diagram includes the CMS as just a part of the overall DXP along with other modules, which will be described in more detail below.

Let’s now take a look at the key differences from another angle. There is a detailed set of features on Figure 2 that can be found in modern CMS/DXP solutions. We can now evaluate the system from the users’ perspective, which helps us to understand the type of system we are ultimately looking for.

Figure 2 – CMS and DXP functions grouped by module

Figure 2 divides all the features into two categories. Those highlighted with a green background include functionalities that are supposed to be included in a CMS, while those with a pink background include functional modules that are part of a DXP or a third-party service.

DXP modules and their role can be considered as a group of specific standalone services, such as the Cognitive module. Under the hood, the Cognitive module exposes the data to different algorithms and as a result can generate informative live dashboards, charts, notify users about main trends, provide recommendations, and even predict the future using AI and machine learning.

As another example, let’s review the Digital Assets Management module. This module gives users rich functionality for working with a range of different media types. It includes an online editor, a powerful search engine, version control, as well as many other useful features. Examples of other major module types that can be included in a DXP include order management, customer management, reporting, and inventory management.

Hopefully it is now clear that the CMS is just one component of the broader DXP, which is a  complex, scalable system consisting of many independent modules. The DXP is highly adaptable to specific customer requirements and should have the capability to expand across new areas of responsibility where required.

CMS under the hood

As a next step, let’s dig deeper into CMS architecture.

During the evolution of CMS systems, three main architectural approaches were developed. These were Monolithic (Coupled) CMS, Headless (API-first) CMS, and Decoupled (Hybrid) CMS. We will now take a closer look at the meaning of each type and compare and evaluate each one according to current needs.

Monolithic CMS components:

  • A database for storing content
  • An admin panel for content management
  • A representation layer with a website as the main front-end element as a general rule of thumb

Monolithic CMS doesn’t give developers much freedom in terms of content representation. As a rule, developers have to work within tight borders that the CMS sets. In addition, integration with third-party services can be problematic.

Headless CMS components:

  • A database for storing content
  • An admin panel for content management
  • An API for communicating with content consumers (websites, apps, etc.)
  • The ability to customize integrations with third-party modules

Headless CMS is a fully API-first system. The user is able to change content using the admin panel. Content is stored in a database and can be accessed from API. This type of system essentially doesn’t care about content representation at all, i.e. the content is fully separated from the user visual experience.

Decoupled (Hybrid) CMS: Decoupled systems have all the functionality of headless CMS but provide the representation layer the ability to support websites or templates out-of-the-box.

Looking at the above three architectural approaches of the CMS, it is possible to define one crucial aspect – in an omnichannel world we can’t relay data coupled with the visual experience. What is needed for representation is only clear, error-free data. Only with pure data (JSON) and unified transport (REST API) can we achieve the goal of omnichannel delivery (web, mobile apps, IoT devices, etc). As a result, the Monolithic CMS is completely outdated if the goal is to be able to support multiple channels.

At this stage, we have covered a few important points. We’ve discussed the difference between a CMS and a DXP and the range of functionalities present in each and taken a look at the current CMS architectural types. This fundamental knowledge now allows us to make a deeper analysis of the current market and its major players.

Analysis of the best modern DXP/CMS vendors

As a next step, let’s assess the current state of the market and its leading players. We have developed the list of leaders based on Gartner and Forrester analytic reports.

The current top vendors are: Adobe, Acquia, Sitecore, Episerver, Oracle, OpenText, Progress, Kentico, Crownpeak, e-Spirit (FirstSpirit), Coremedia, Bloomreach, Magnolia, SDL, WP Engine, and eZ.

Each of the vendors can be evaluated based on the following categories – technology stack, CMS type, and presence of AI-powered functionalities (Table 1).

VendorTechnologyCMS typeAI presence
AdobeJava, CloudHybridAI
AcquiaPHP, CloudHeadlessAI (Personalization)
Sitecore.Net, CloudHeadlessAI (Personalization)
EpiserverASP.Net, CloudN/AAI (Personalization)
OracleJava, CloudN/AN/A
OpenText.NET, CloudN/AAI (Analytic)
ProgressASP.NET, CloudHybridAI (Third-party integration for machine translation)
Kentico.NET, CloudHeadlessAI (Recommendations)
CrownpeakJava, JS, Cloud (AWS)HeadlessN/A
e-Spirit(FirstSpirit)Java, CloudHybridAI (Personalization)
CoremediaJava, CloudHybridAI (Intelligent Image Tagging, Assisted Landingpage Creation, Smart Product Recommendations for Shoppers)
BloomreachJava, CloudHeadlessAI (Site search, SEO and product merchandising tools)
MagnoliaJava, CloudHeadlessAI (Image tagging)
SDLJava, CloudN/AAI (Translation service)
WP EnginePHP, Python, Ruby, CloudDecoupled (WordPress’ REST API)AI (Recommendations, text quality)
eZPHP, CloudDecoupledAI (Third-party plugins)

Table 1
Information from Table 1 allows us to produce the following three pie charts, which show which technologies are preferred by the leading vendors.

Figure 3 – Preferred programming languages of leading CMS/DXP vendors leading CMS/DXP platforms

Figure 3 above shows a fairly predictable preference of Java and .NET as the primary programming languages. However, JavaScript is notably absent. While NodeJS is still a relatively young technology, it is still surprising to see it is not widely used by leading vendors considering its general popularity and speed of business feature delivery.

This absence of NodeJS use is worthy of further research and we will undertake a separate investigation into NodeJS-based CMS platforms and share the results in a separate blog article.

Figure 4 – CMS architecture preference

Figure 4 demonstrates two important points. Firstly, Monolithic CMS is in the past due to its inability to support omnichannel content delivery. Secondly, Decoupled (Hybrid) CMS has become more and more popular and it appears that the increasing trend towards this type of system will continue in the near future.

Figure 5 – AI presence in leading CMS/DXP platforms

Artificial Intelligence, one of the most prominent technology trends of recent years, has also had a significant influence on the CMS/DXP market. We determined that around 80 percent of the top vendors use some form of AI in their products. Not all of these AI features are built directly by the vendors however, with around 20 percent of vendors using third-party solutions that are connected to their systems.

CMS solutions are essentially evolving into DXPs. Many vendors in the CMS market now offer a CMS alongside a separate DXP product. While CMS remains at the heart of the technology stacks that support customer experience initiatives, native CMS capabilities are expanding beyond their traditional boundaries. The “omni experience” mandate and integrations with adjacent technologies are driving expansion into the area of ​​DXPs.

The cloud extends beyond infrastructure. Demand for continued innovation leads organizations to remove themselves from basic IaaS/hosted-service-related discussions about whether a CMS offering resides in a particular cloud. The driving force is now innovation, rather than customization. Customers are increasingly looking for more modern WCM technologies that are built on mesh app and service architectures such as MASA, microservices, and serverless and containerized architectures.

Hybrid is the new headless. Although “headless content management” has become something of a buzzword, global organizations are increasingly seeking systems that are not only purely headless but that can also provide head-on and head-optional capabilities from the same platform.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning are already making a significant impact on content management. Integrating your content hub with AI and machine learning tools and services can help you discover hidden opportunities, speed up processes, and most importantly, offer relevant digital experiences to customers. Personalization engines are using AI and machine learning to deliver smarter, customized, and predictive customer experiences. In addition to the personalization services mentioned in the previous section, some examples of using content management with AI and machine language services and tools include SEO optimization with CanIRank, MarketBrew, and BrightEdge; content creation and text analysis with MonkeyLearn, Acrolinx, Automated Insights, and Narrative Science; and translation services with KantanMT, and SYSTRAN.

Which CMS/DXP to choose?

So which CMS/DXP is the best choice for you? The question doesn’t have a simple answer, a better approach being to undertake a research campaign to help you better understand your company’s unique circumstances. To help this process, we have developed some key factors that you should take into consideration.


You first need to consider the groups of people that will be affected by the choice of CMS/DXP. There are broadly speaking three groups of people that should be considered. These are business and decision-makers, marketing and web editors, and developers and IT. Each of the groups plays an important role in the lifecycle of your product so they should all be comfortable with the chosen CMS/DXP.

Figure 6 – CMS/DXP stakeholders

Figure 6 above shows the most important areas of interest for each stakeholder group. For instance, if your developer department consists mostly of .NET developers then it probably makes sense to consider CMS systems that are built with .NET. Similarly, the marketing and business departments will have their own preferred set of tools.

It’s important to recognize that it’s very unlikely that you’ll be able to find a CMS on the market that will satisfy the requirements of every group of stakeholders. Instead it is better to take the approach of finding the vendor that satisfies the largest number of people without having to make too many compromises.

Below we have mapped out in detail each of the highest priority functionalities you should consider as you make your assessment of which vendor is likely to be the best match for your company’s circumstances.

Essential functionalities

Functionality that needs to be present at any modern CMS/DXP solution:

  • Structured Content Management – This makes it easier to create value-driven content like products, articles, etc. It provides a rich set of functional features for easy management of generated content
  • Rich text editor – Reduces the effort required for users to express their formatting directly as valid HTML markup
  • Digital asset management – Provides a powerful set of instruments for working with brand and marketing materials
  • Responsive preview – The ability to see the result of the change beforehand for all affected devices
  • Version control – Keep track of all changes. What, when, and by whom each particular change was made. It also makes it easy to revert to a previous version
  • Access rights – Indicates a level of authority and dictates what each team member is able to do on the site
  • Scheduled publishing – Allows for an improved ability to think ahead. Users can plan and make changes in advance that can then be applied at a chosen later date
  • Accessibility – The CMS should provide comfortable access to all generated materials for people with disabilities
  • SEO capabilities – A set of tools for improving the quantity and quality of website traffic
  • Headless support – Delivering content without presentations. This enables the user to  reuse content on other devices or solutions

Preferred functionalities

Functionality that should be present in a modern CMS/DXP solution:

  • Responsive admin console – The system should provide a full set of functionality from any type of device whether desktop, mobile, or other touch devices
  • Easy to manage page templates – Is it easy to manage how your content will be presented? Does the system have a clear and easy mechanism to make changes to templates?
  • Integrations with marketing tools – Which integrations are present in the system out of the box? How difficult are custom integrations of new systems?
  • Support for user generated content – User generated content such as comments, ratings, and reviews are an important way to help build engagement with your customers and trust in your brand.
  • Workflow – This operates as an approval level in your system, allowing for checking and approving changes before they are applied.
  • Built-in search engine – Any CMS you consider should have the facility for search across your entire content library and be able to index it according to its type
  • Batch publishing (changes cart) – The ability to make all necessary changes, review results, and publish in a single action
  • Multi-language support – The world is global as never before. Multi-language support allows you to more easily scale into new markets
  • Marketplace for plugins and functionality – A rich ecosystem and community with access to a large number of plugins, libraries, and integrations with third-party systems can be highly beneficial

Other non-functional requirements

  • Performance – Can the system handle peak loads? Be sure to factor in this crucial aspect in your system selection
  • Reliability – Make sure that you’re aware of how the system will function when you encounter issues. Is there a backup mechanism, log service, support services, etc.
  • Security – Keeping your content and customer data safe is a top priority. Security is not a condition, it is a process. So make sure that the system you choose has well-built security features such as 2-step authentication. Also, make sure that the system is exposed to penetration testing on a regular basis
  • Flexibility / scalability – Is there scope and flexibility within the system to easily handle scaling needs or changing requirements as your company grows?
  • Technology – The system should not only be able to integrate all the latest tech but also be flexible and agile enough to adapt to future tech
  • Cloud or on-premise – A CMS based in the cloud can provide advantages over more traditional on-premise software. However, there are trade-offs. For example, while cloud solutions can be scaled much more easily, there is generally a higher lifetime cost associated with them
  • Training – How costly will it be to train your staff to use the system?
  • Support – Be sure to pick a system that offers a good level of support that is also in the right form for you

Hopefully this article has given you a better understanding of the history of the CMS and an overview of the current state of the technology and vendor landscape. It should also have provided you with an overview of the clear segmentations that exist among the available options and made it clear when a DXP/headless solution is necessary. This should enable you to make a far more informed technology decision for your business.

If you have any questions about CMS/DXP systems or about the research or methodologies used in this analysis, feel free to reach out directly or leave a comment below.

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