The Content Revolution

The Content Revolution

Building the Headless Content Management System of the Future

Myself and team just finished preparing our new cloud headless CMS offering, TerminusCMS. It feels like a pretty long journey getting here, but we feel like we have the basis of a truly next-generation CMS for devs.

We live in the information age, and unsurprisingly that means a lot of what we do with computers is about marshalling, finding, or transforming data.

Each domain which IT serves involves creating digital assets that record information to be enriched, served up, or curated over time. And much of this data is highly interconnected.

Moreover, it is being loaded, curated and enriched by a combination of humans and computers. The entire business is fundamentally cybernetic. We need knowledge graph management systems that include easy-to-use interfaces for human data entry, review, and curation at the same time as a computer performs similar tasks. These systems have to be scalable and distributed.

And as AI grows in significance, the importance of well-structured data will follow suit. AIs perform better when fed well-structured data and with it they will be able to help us create the search engines of the future. It will make expert systems something more like asking an expert, and less like a tool for an expert.

Our infrastructure for creating and managing the data world is still young, so the question is, how is it going to change? We have databases, including graph databases, and we have headless content management systems, what more could we ask for?

As a practitioner in managing data, I developed strong opinions on the matter and made some big bets on what I thought was important by making TerminusDB and now TerminusCMS.

What is currently missing in our data management solutions? I think it essentially boils down to the need for:

  • Continuous integration / Continuous development (CI/CD): data is always in a pipeline.
  • Document graph structured content: Content always relates to other content and we need to manage content with both people and machines.
  • Discoverability: We require powerful query and search (Drupal / WordPress aren’t going to cut it)

None of these ideas are completely new. In fact, all of them are widely used in their respective domains, but they aren’t currently being used together for data management.

To hit these functional requirements we need a headless, schema-driven knowledge graph management system with external transactions for CI/CD… right, what does that mean… Let’s unpack that…

CI/CD for Data

Transactions in databases tend to be focused around the central server. This makes a lot of sense when you want high-performance ACID transactions and a single source of truth.

However, there are more kinds of transactions than the text-book “decrement a bank account” variety. For instance, with content management by humans, it is more natural to think about them as transactions that could be open for a long time.

In software engineering, we already do this with code. Change requests, ala Git, are external transactions. What do I mean by external transactions? It’s a transaction id which associates a state, which can be used with many individuals or microservices to perform a pipeline of updates on the request branch – and which finally completes only after everything is in order.

To do this we need a state that sticks around and can refer to other states. We need a graph of states and their relationships. Basically, we need a Git-like architecture for our database.

A typical workflow with a change request might be:

(I’ll use cN to refer to the names of individual commits)

1 I branch from main with a change request branch which I name dev. Initially we share a commit c0.

main – ∘


2 I make some commits to this branch, adding data by human data entry with a front end I’ve designed to make data entry easy for my problem domain.

main – ∘
  dev –  ∘

3 A computer programme sees this change request update and enriches my added documents, by performing named entity recognition on the text, enhancing searchability.

main – ∘
        ↘      dev
         ∘      |
         cd1 → cd2

4 A spell checker runs on cd2 highlighting errors, which I think fixes.

main – ∘
         ∘ → ∘ → ∘ – dev
        cd1 cd2 cd3

5 Now, my cd3 gets a green light from all of the linting operations that run on commits in CRs. It’s ready for a human review. An editor sees it, likes it, and decides to merge it into main. However, main has moved on… some other changes have taken place (perhaps another curator or maybe an automatic ingestion). These need to be merged back into dev.

       c0          c1    |
       ∘ →→→→→→→→→ ∘  →  ∘
        ↘            ↘ ↗
          ∘ → ∘ → ∘ → ∘ – dev
         cd1 cd2 cd3  cd4

Everything in this process is already possible with TerminusCMS. However, there is more yet to be done.

Document Graphs

Structured documents are widely used by both computers and humans. These include everything from Excel and Word documents which are more human-focused, to Protocol Buffers and JSON which use documents that are more machine focused.

HTML’s great innovation was to introduce into this idea of documents, the concept of the hyperlink. This would allow documents to refer to other documents.

HTML however was focused on rendering (Mark-up) rather than structured content. This means that HTML actually makes poor documents for machine manipulation.

In TerminusCMS we have allowed structured content to use references to other documents, which gives us the power of both the graph and document orientation, and also allows machines to process documents more easily. Rendering can be thought of more as a publishing step of processing the structured knowledge graph data, and less as something that is built directly into the structured content.

It is also possible to mix-and-match, keeping the content as mark-up (or markdown) while having more structured accompanying information as well – as in the info-boxes on Wikipedia.

For instance, a Politician might have a description renderable as markdown, but positions that could show up in an info-box that can be easily searched or processed by other machines.

					{ "@type" : "Class",
  "@id" : "Position"
  "party" : "xsd:string",
  "start" : "xsd:date",
  "end" : "xsd:date",
  "position" : "xsd:date",
{ "@type" : "Class",
  "@id" : "Politician",
  "description" : "Markdown",
  "positions" : { "@type" : "Set",
                  "@class" : "Position" }
{ "@type" : "Class",
  "@id" : "Markdown",
  "@metadata": { "render_as": { "value": "markdown" }},
  "body" : "xsd:string" }

Empowering Cybernetic Cyborgs

This cybernetic approach is designed based on iterative processes, and bio-mechanical. Ultimately we hope to do more to facilitate this approach to data management to make it more scalable and more external.

Right now, we are adding information to commits about what objects changed to facilitate queries over histories, but we’d also like to be able to retain information about read-sets. A read-set is all of the data which you read that was necessary to make a transaction work. This information can allow you to reorder transactions while retaining the Isolation part of A.C.I.D.

This could allow you to have long-running transactions that can commit out of order with others, retaining isolation, as long as none of the information required for the completion invalidates the information. It also makes it the responsibility of the committing transaction to know whether or not this is the case, taking the load off of the central server, which can not in principle know what precise isolation level is acceptable.

To give a case in point, I could have a user class as follows:

					{ "@type" : "Class",
  "@id" : "User",
  "name" : "xsd:string",
  "email" : "xsd:string",
  "credits" : "xsd:integer"

Now, we might want to perform a transaction that looks up the number of credits, finds them to be 20, and then commits the transaction if so. If the granularity of isolation is, however, the object, then people changing the user’s name will conflict. This is almost certainly not what is meant, but the DBMS can’t know this. With read-sets, you could.

In fact, you could even have amended transactions which just tack on a bit on the end to make things consistent. For instance, you could decide that the User needs >20 credits since 20 will be deducted. One starts with the read of 30 credits, comes back to commit and finds 25, and hence the committed number should be 5, which we could paste together in an amended transaction and complete.

This is a form of automated conflict resolution, and while not all sorts of conflicts can be resolved without aborting the transaction, it is possible to build logic around things like greater/less-than etc which would work.

Further, it’s entirely possible to ingrate CRDT data types into this model to get a mixed view, when you really don’t care about the ordering of transactions on a field or the exact state of the original or final read.

The approach of read-sets and external transactions are very general and therefore will be a powerful mechanism for sharing state not only among humans but also among micro-services.


TerminusCMS is our latest attempt to put up a cloud service which exposes some of the power of TerminusDB in a way that non-technical users can enjoy, while also giving the full headless API to developers. The tool is open source, and free to use on our cloud for even quite large databases, so we hope you give it a try and give your feedback!

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