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As companies grapple with ever-increasing amounts of data — and just what to do with all of it — data management becomes a critical concern. Some businesses may have twenty or thirty siloed SQL platforms (or more) handling data, which can make it a nightmare to simply get at the most relevant data for reports or applications. 

This is where a “headless” content management system is so beneficial, says Ben Haynes, cofounder and CEO of Directus. This type of back-end content management system decouples the content repository “body” from the presentation layer “head,” thus allowing the system to pull SQL data from numerous sources and present it in various ways. This is opposed to typical CMS systems that organize content into website-oriented frameworks in one big bucket “head.” That content cannot adapt to other digital platforms and cannot be altered because it has already been infused with code. 

Directus, an 18-year-old, Brooklyn-headquartered company, is working to set itself apart when it comes to headless CMS and its capabilities and implications. The company just released its open data platform, Directus 9, for general availability. It’s advertised as a platform that can turn any SQL database into an API and no-code app. 

“Directus removes barriers to accessing valuable data, providing a flexible, scalable and intuitive solution for any data-driven app or project,” Haynes said. 

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The company is innovating and competing in a growing space with contemporaries including Sanity, Storyblok, Contentful, and Strapi. 

An ‘unopinionated, agnostic’ data management system

Directus touts its namesake system as unique because it sits atop multiple SQL databases and mirrors data from them without altering the original schema or content. This, Haynes explained, enables database administrators to maintain full control, while also making it easy to ingest, fetch, update, and create data. Directus 9 has been recoded into 100% JavaScript, and it is available as a free, open-source, on-premises software, or as a tiered cloud-based offering with exclusive features and a Community Cloud option. 

The “unopinionated, agnostic” system is also modular, extensible, incrementally adoptable, and flexible, according to Haynes. It can layer on top of and mirror data from a wide array of databases, including MySQL, Microsoft SQL Server, CockroachDB, Oracle DB, and others. “We don’t support one database; we support all of them,” Haynes said. 

As he put it, a company shouldn’t have to adapt itself to adopt a given technology stack. Layering on top allows the Directus system to inherit what a company is doing. “It literally is your architecture shining through,” he said. “Your data store stays completely pure and pristine.” 

Directus 9 ultimately embodies the company’s focus on “data democratization.” A database that is normally locked behind the doors of IT can be accessed by all business users, “from interns right up to C-suites,” Haynes said. And they don’t have to build their own in-house systems that can take months or years to complete. 

The newest version has 10 times higher performance than the company’s previous versions, allowing for near-instant SQL query responses. It also adds more secure two-factor authentication and single sign-on permissions; customizable dashboards, charts, and other visualization tools; and numerous integration and presentation options. 

“It’s a completely different approach than what’s out there,” Haynes said. “Just saying ‘headless CMS’ is so leading, so myopic.”

Haynes started Directus in 2004 with the aim of democratizing data management. The software company has gained significant traction: it recently achieved the milestone of 16 million Docker installations, and its software is used by the likes of Bose, AT&T, TripAdvisor, Comcast, the U.S. Navy, and the Government of Canada. “It’s amazing to see the breadth of use patterns for this platform,” Haynes said. 

Work on Directus 9 started two years ago as a two-person project; it has since grown to a team of 20 engineers supported by hundreds of contributors. Looking ahead, the company will continue to enhance and improve the system with a focus on stability, documentation, and testing, Haynes said. On a broader scale, he sees greater implications around digital visualization and data understanding. 

“We’re trying to find those outer bounds,” Haynes said. “It’s exciting building something that is actually meaningful at such a large scale.”

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