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What's Hard About Customising A CMS?

A screenshot of the Keystone UI

I want to write about a task I’ve been struggling with and why I find it hard. I want to make a full stack app: a web app with a data layer, which means it has three parts - frontend, backend and database. I have some experience writing frontends and very little experience with backends or databases.

It seems like frontend developers often want to write full-stack apps without having to fully learn backend skills. There are commercial solutions to this problem called Backend-as-a-Service (BaaS) or Headless CMS. Whatever they call themselves, what they do is provide a user interface for creating a content model, which in turn generates an API that can be consumed by your frontend. They all offer varying levels of control over fields and relationships, access control, validation, hooks and manual data editing, at different prices.

The word CMS (content management system) might bring to mind software like Wordpress or Drupal, but the addition of the word 'Headless' indicates that it's a relatively new type of product that does not provide a frontend and just focuses on the API. It also doesn't prescribe the use case but allows you to define your own content models, so you aren't locked in to a 'blog' structure, for example - maybe you just need a model for products you sell, or whatever. Compared to a BaaS, the word CMS might indicate that a service offers a more intuitive or white-labeled editing experience, it might provide a special interface for document editing, and that it can be used by non-developers, e.g. marketing teams.

Some of these products are open source and can be autonomously deployed, such as Strapi, Directus, Supabase(?), or one I’ve most recently been using called Keystone. Strapi and Directus give you a special UI for creating content models, customising role-based access control, and the look and feel of the admin interface. While it may be possible to make plugins or extensions (like Wordpress), the developer installing them shouldn’t need to write any backend code to get it running.

By contrast, Keystone more or less demands that you learn backend development due to its bare-bones initial setup. All customisation on Keystone happens through configuring it in code. Access control, validation or custom GraphQL mutations must be defined through Typescript functions that make use of APIs they provide for interacting with the context, user session, and the Apollo Server. The APIs certainly make it easier than doing any of these things from scratch, and the functionality that Keystone provides for generating a full CRUD GraphQL API with minimal developer input is incredible. Still, it’s a lot to take in.

A screenshot of the Keystone UI

Deploying your own instance of a pre-existing software package and trying to customise it is a strange way to approach learning about backend development. Every time I’ve tried out one of these headless CMS projects, I’ve found the CMS to be a leaky abstraction in some way. To be fair, all of them have been fairly early in their release cycle during the time that I’ve been experimenting. I think what drew me to Keystone over more fully-featured projects is the sense that

  1. my project is bigger or more complex in scope than any pre-packaged CMS would be able to accommodate (without writing code),
  2. my efforts at customising the code are welcome and expected (not restricted), and
  3. because it’s a smaller, simpler project, understanding the source code may actually be possible for me at some point. Also
  4. the stack it builds on top of (Apollo Server, Next.js, Express, Prisma) are things I want to learn more about anyway.

The third point is probably the most important. But to be clear, I think it’s not especially small or simple except by contrast to Strapi or Directus, or even that it's the best decision for my use case long term. Actually, I’m finding working with it pretty hard. What is hard about it?

To start with, building a full stack app is just really complicated. There are a LOT of things to learn and keep track of. CRUD is already like, 4 things you can do with data, all with different approaches from the database to the API to the admin UI to the frontend, all potentially different for different data types. Everything has to be wrapped in some way of dealing with authentication and authorisation, and you have to articulate access control for given lists or fields. Then you add validation and hooks, adding extra steps to each of these data flows. Not to mention a lot of details around the database that I don’t want to think about.

No doubt it’s especially hard for me because I am also trying to act as designer, making decisions about access and workflow before then trying to implement it. There are many levels I need to be considering, it’s a big unwieldy project for one person to be doing, it’s easy to be distracted and overwhelmed. Not only that but even with helpful abstractions and documentation, implementing access control, validation and hooks for the first time within the Keystone system is a learning curve.

Other tasks in Keystone are less friendly, like creating custom fields, which demands that I understand more complex concepts that underly the app architecture - the internal structures they use to translate a config file into a GraphQL server, Prisma client and admin UI. I think this is what they Keystone team call an 'escape hatch' - a way not to get trapped in the confines of their pre-existing field types.

This is a strange way to be learning about backend development because I started using this CMS to simplify and streamline the process of creating a backend, but in order to see that through (and add something as basic as S3 image fields) I’ve ended up trying to learn something about the internal mechanics of what you might describe as a meta-backend.

The other fundamentally hard thing is that I’m still fairly new to Typescript and GraphQL. I understand the basics of both, but both go so much deeper than I currently understand. I think I’m at the point in a learning journey where you start to see how much you don’t know. It’s overwhelming and maybe me writing this is just a way of appreciating myself for how far I’ve come to be able to make sense of a lot of this stuff.

I am still generally enjoying the challenge, I think picking apart this problem is good for my growth as a developer and maybe even in some ways it’s preparing me to work in an organisation where I will inevitably need to learn about and write code within pre-existing architectures.

In summary I think the response to the original problem of frontend developers wanting backends is a bit of a “pick 2” situation from this triangle of criteria:

  1. Self hosted/No vendor lock
  2. Customisable & efficient
  3. No backend skills needed

In my case, the first two criteria are non-negotiable and I’m at a point where I am happy to try and learn backend skills. I just need to be kind and patient with myself.