What to Do When You’ve Outgrown Your Legacy CMS

Is an outdated content management system holding your company back? In this in-depth guide, learn how to diagnose your problem and migrate to a new CMS and enjoy better uptime and stability.

As your business grows and your digital needs evolve, the content management system (CMS) that once served you well can start to show its age.

Legacy CMSs that were cutting-edge a decade ago may now struggle with modern performance demands, lack features for building engaging user experiences, and pose security risks if not kept updated.

Outgrowing your CMS is an inevitable stage in the lifecycle of many organizations. Recognizing the signs and taking proactive steps to evaluate your options is crucial for maintaining an effective digital presence.

In this post, we’ll examine some of the key signs that you may have outgrown your CMS and how you can migrate to a content management system that can better handle your company’s needs.

Signs You’ve Outgrown Your CMS

Performance Issues and Scalability

Performance issues are usually the first indicator that your CMS is having trouble.

If your website is slow or experiences downtime under normal traffic loads, your content management system might be struggling. First generation CMSes lacked efficient caching, meaning that the database had to be queried every time a user visited a page on a site.

Plugins also have a huge impact on website performance. This is especially problematic considering the fact that legacy CMSes often relied heavily on plugins to achieve basic functionality. If you are running an older version of your CMS, you may not be able to update your plugins to their current versions without causing breaking changes to your website.

Newer content management systems feature more efficient data structures and caching layers that help your website scale with the needs of your business.

Lack of Features

Your content management system should make operating a website easier, not harder. If you are spending more and more time finding complicated workarounds to add basic features into your site, you should consider migrating to a modern CMS.

Older platforms lack a lot of features that modern websites require, like:

  • Flexible data schemas

  • Multi-language support

  • Omnichannel content management

  • Customizable editing workflows

  • Personalized content

  • Version control

  • Full-text search (e.g. Algolia, Elasticsearch, Meilisearch)

  • Support for new image and video formats

  • Officially-supported third-party integrations

Modern content management systems typically bundle some of these features into their core product or offer them as first-party add-ons. If you need custom functionality, newer CMSes also have standardized plugin architectures that make it easier for developers to build the solutions you need.

Security Vulnerabilities

The worst way to discover that your legacy CMS has let you down is a hacked website.

Unfortunately, security issues are common in older content management systems. A compromised website can result in extended downtime and lost revenue as you work to resolve the problem.

Typically, the biggest security risks on your site are out-of-date plugins and dependencies. Plugin developers often stop supporting older versions of a CMS after its official end-of-life date. In a worst-case scenario, a plugin your website depends on might have been completely abandoned by its developer. Your legacy CMS might also require an older version of a core dependency like PHP, Node.js, or MySQL, creating the potential for lower-level attacks.

Security researchers maintain lists of known exploits for CMS plugins. The WordPress Vulnerability Database and Drupal Security Advisories page are two great places to check if your plugins have known vulnerabilities.

Newer content management systems tend to be built with security in mind. It’s much easier to find support for strong password enforcement, multi-factor authentication, and single sign-on (SSO), all of which can mitigate the chance that a user account on your site can get compromised.

While migrating to a new CMS involves upfront costs, they pale in comparison to the loss in revenue, productivity, and customer trust that can stem from a compromised website.

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Maintenance Challenges

Maintaining a legacy CMS can be difficult. As your content management system ages, it becomes more difficult to find developers who are familiar with it. Even if you find a digital partner who is willing to work with your legacy CMS, they will typically charge a premium for doing so.

Lack of documentation, outdated code libraries, and developer resources focused on newer versions can make enhancements prohibitively difficult.

Older content management systems typically used a monolithic architecture that tightly couples the frontend and backend of a website. If you want to make substantial edits to either the data structure or the design of the site, it’s hard to change one without changing the other.

Depending on how your site was originally built—and how many plugins have been used to keep things running—your legacy CMS may be very “brittle,” with small changes on the backend causing cascading problems throughout the site.

Another problem you might face is finding a web host that can support your legacy CMS. If your content management system depends on an outdated version of a core dependency like PHP, Node.js, or MySQL, you might be forced into using a more expensive or less reputable hosting provider who is willing to tolerate the risks that insecure dependencies bring.

Migrating to a newer CMS gives you the opportunity to build your site in a more future-proof and maintainable way.

Evaluating Your Options

Should I Build a New Site or Migrate?

The first decision you have to make is whether or not it’s worth the time and expense to migrate to a new CMS.

For smaller sites with minimal content, it may make sense to simply rebuild the site from scratch on a new platform rather than migrate all the content over. With a new website, you won’t have to deal with the technical debt that can make CMS migrations difficult.

Migrating your CMS makes the most sense when your old site has been kept (relatively) up-to-date and has a lot of important content that you want to preserve.

Another thing to consider is the design of your current site. If you’re satisfied with the design of your site but have outgrown your current CMS, migration will let you keep your current theme. Building a new site makes more sense when you want to overhaul the appearance and functionality of your site at the same time.

If you’ve weighed your options and migration seems like the right path, there are several ways of going about it.

Upgrading Your Existing CMS

The first route is sticking with your current CMS but upgrading to a new version.

Depending on how out-of-date your current version of the CMS is, an upgrade could feel like switching to a new content management system altogether. Newer versions of platforms like Drupal and Joomla have updated interfaces, theming systems, and plugin libraries that allow them to power modern websites.

If you’re reading this article, upgrading your CMS probably entails more than just clicking an “Update” button in the dashboard. Major versions often come with breaking changes and incompatibilities that have to be resolved manually. This can be as simple as changing out a couple of tags in a theme file, or as complicated as rewriting custom plugins or performing complex database joins with SQL.

Before you consider upgrading your existing CMS, research the new version thoroughly. Watch videos, try out the dashboard, and read articles from people who have attempted a similar upgrade. Consider working with a developer who specializes in working with your particular CMS.

Migrating to a New CMS

Your second option is migrating to an entirely new CMS. Migration makes the most sense when you need to preserve your data and are satisfied with the current look of your site (or want to make changes incrementally).

Migration is a multi-step process that involves exporting the data and theme files from your current site, importing it into a new CMS installation, manually correcting import errors and formatting your data, refactoring your theme files, and testing the new site prior to launch.

There are a number of advantages to migrating to a new CMS instead of building a new site, including:

  • Improving your website’s performance

  • Reducing hosting and maintenance costs

  • Reducing the number of third-party plugins you need to use

  • Preserving your site structure and search engine rankings

  • Incorporating the latest security features

Most enterprise-grade content management systems are commercial software and must be licensed. Typically, there is a one-time fee and an ongoing annual fee. Self-hosted options like Statamic and Craft cost less than $300 upfront and are extremely versatile. On the other end of the spectrum, cloud solutions like Contentful start at around $300 per month for a small team.

Paying for a CMS might seem unusual if your original site was built on a free, open-source platform like WordPress, Joomla, or Drupal, but it allows the developers to devote more time to adding features and troubleshooting. Licensing agreements normally include limited developer support; additional support is often available as part of a package.

Migrating to a new CMS on a modern technology stack purpose-built for the enterprise is often the best long-term solution. This does involve upfront migration costs but sets you up with a sustainable platform for years to come.

Building a Custom Solution

For organizations with truly unique digital requirements, working with a developer to build a 100% custom CMS can be an option.

Building a completely custom CMS solution from scratch is typically justified in situations where off-the-shelf or open-source solutions, even highly customizable ones, cannot meet the unique and specific requirements of a business. These can include:

  • Businesses with extremely strict regulatory compliance needs that want complete control over security and data protection (e.g. finance, healthcare, government)

  • Highly-specialized workflows—like a publishing or media company with complex multi-channel content distribution needs

  • Seamless integrations with legacy systems

It's important to note that building a custom CMS is a significant undertaking that requires substantial resources, expertise, and ongoing maintenance. Therefore, it should be carefully evaluated against the potential benefits and long-term strategic goals of the organization.

Building a custom CMS from scratch is rarely cost-effective for most use cases. Because a CMS developed this way is essentially one-of-a-kind, your organization will have to train any future in-house developers or third parties on how to use it.

The ongoing maintenance and opportunity costs associated with a custom CMS are usually better spent on an enterprise-grade platform. Modern, enterprise-grade CMSes can be fine-tuned for just about any use case.

Choosing the Right CMS For Your Needs

Factors to Consider

With hundreds of different CMS platforms on the market, selecting the right one for your needs is a critical decision. Some of the factors you should consider include:

  • Features: Does this CMS have the features you need? Is its dashboard and workflow user-friendly? Can non-technical team members use it effectively? Would the new CMS make it easier or harder for you to work on your site?

  • Third-Party Integrations: Does this CMS have any plugins or core features that will make it easier to use the third-party integrations you’re already working with? Are those plugins officially supported, or are they maintained by third parties?

  • Existing Technology: What tech stack is your team (or digital partner) most familiar with? Will this new CMS result in additional needs and unexpected costs, or will it reduce your overall technology spend?

  • Scalability and Performance: How does the CMS store and retrieve data? What level of system resources does it require? If the size of your site grows by 2x, 5x, or even 10x, would this solution still make sense? What would hosting costs run?

  • Reputation: Do users seem to generally be satisfied with this CMS? How actively do the developers respond to questions and solve problems? Is there a community you can go to with questions? Does this seem like a small project that is going to fizzle out in a year or two, or is this a proven platform with staying power?

Enterprise Content Management Systems

As mentioned previously, there are hundreds of different commercial CMSes on the market today, and more are being added all the time. It would be impossible to create an exhaustive list of every possible option and its features.

With that said, a handful of content management systems really stand out for their versatility, reliability, ease-of-use, and active developer communities.

Enterprise-grade CMSes fall into two categories: self-hosted solutions and cloud solutions.

With a self-hosted CMS, you license the software itself and host it on your own provider. Most organizations opt for using a virtual private server via a service like Digital Ocean or Linode. Your team or digital partner is responsible for setting the CMS up and maintaining it on a day-to-day basis. Self-hosted options are typically much cheaper than managed, cloud-hosted solutions.

Cloud-based CMSes—like Contentful or Storyblok—are hosted on servers managed by their developers. With a cloud-based CMS, your team doesn’t have to worry about server maintenance or security. Typically, you will have to host your frontend theme somewhere else. Cloud-based CMSes communicate with your frontend via an API. This has the additional advantage of making it easy to redesign your site in the future without making substantial changes to a backend.

Below, we’ve listed a few of our favorite options for enterprise-grade CMSes.

Self-Hosted Enterprise CMSes

  • Statamic: Extremely fast and performant, even with large amounts of data. Easy for both developers and non-technical staff to work with. Highly customizable for just about any business need. Robust plugin library and active developer community.

  • Craft CMS: Beautiful visual editor. Huge selection of third-party integrations, many of which are officially-supported. Has a high-quality official e-commerce add-on.

  • ExpressionEngine Pro: Highly-customizable. Active and experienced developer community. ExpressionEngine has a fifteen-year track record, which is impressive for any CMS.

Cloud-Based Enterprise CMSes

  • Contentful: Loaded with enterprise features, with advanced tools for things like language localization, integrated e-commerce, and building knowledgebases.

  • Storyblok: Features an intuitive visual editor for non-technical staff plus excellent commenting features and approval workflows.

Evaluating and Selecting Options

Deciding on a new content management system requires serious thought. You’re choosing a system that will power your company’s website for the next 5-10 years (and possibly longer). Making a good choice now will spare you from hassle and expense down the road.

So how do you figure out which CMSes should be in your short list?

One great place to start is by asking a trusted team member or third-party partner that you trust. There’s no substitute for the kind of hands-on knowledge you gain from working with a particular CMS day-in and day-out.

You should also look at what your competitors are doing. Free browser extensions like Wappalyzer can show you what CMS a competitor’s site is running. We’ve found that certain industries tend to converge on particular CMSes, either because they feature excellent support for an industry-specific third-party service or because their workflow is well-suited to a certain set of circumstances.

Most enterprise-grade CMSes either have a public demo that you can access on the developer’s website. You might also ask a team member or digital partner to set up a simple testing site that you can explore. Pay particular attention to the interface. Is it intuitive? Who is the least technical person on your team who would need to access the site, and do you think they could figure it out?

When evaluating your options, you should also try to get a handle on what your total cost of ownership (TCO) would be for each CMS you’re evaluating. You should factor in the following expenses:

  • Licensing fees (both one-time and recurring)

  • Hosting

  • Maintenance

  • Custom web development (like plugins for third-party services)

  • Training and Support

  • Learning Resources (like online course sites for your team)

Digital partners like agencies or solo web developers typically offer monthly retainer packages that give you access to a guaranteed number of hours each month for troubleshooting and feature development. If the CMS you choose doesn’t support a particular third-party tool that your business relies on, you will need to have your digital partner develop a custom plugin for it.

Training, support, and learning resources might seem like something you can skimp on. Our advice is: don’t. Having someone you can call when a problem comes up can mean the difference between a few hours of downtime and days of headaches and lost revenue.

While the evaluation process might seem daunting, it’s important to realize that there isn’t one right answer. You will probably identify two or three high-quality, enterprise-grade CMSes that could serve your needs well. Every content management system has its own quirks, and whichever one you pick, it will require adaptations for your particular use case.

Once you’ve decided on a CMS to move forward with, it’s time to plan out your migration process.

Planning the Migration Process

Choosing a Digital Partner

Unless your enterprise has an in-house web development team, migrating a CMS is typically something you’ll want to outsource to an experienced agency.

The first you should look for a digital partner who can handle your migration is on the website of the CMS you’ll be migrating to. Most CMS developers maintain a directory of agencies that specialize in working with their particular platform. Look for agencies that specifically mention migrations as a service they offer; not all do.

Google is your friend. Avoid pay-to-play directory sites and go directly to the websites of agencies that mention CMS migration as a service they perform. Try to find agencies that have experience with both the CMS you’re on and the one you’ll be migrating to. Experience working with businesses in your industry is also a plus.

When you’re interviewing an agency to work with, there are a couple of essential questions you need to ask them:

  • How experienced are you with migrations? CMS migration is a specific subset of web development. Not all agencies are experienced with complex CMS migrations. Ask about their experience level with the specific legacy CMS you’re running now. A reputable agency should have no problem providing 2-3 examples of websites they’ve migrated.

  • How would you go about migrating my site? Pay attention to what they say here. If they plan on using automated tools, they should also be checking manually to make sure all of your data made it over.

  • How will you make sure I keep my SEO? A poorly-done migration can destroy your search rankings. The agency should have a plan for writing redirects and making sure the hierarchy of your pages stays consistent.

  • What post-migration support am I going to get? CMS migrations rarely go perfectly. Often, you will spot a few little bugs in the days and weeks after a migration that need to be fixed. A reputable agency should be willing to fix any mistakes that they made at their expense.

Think twice before entrusting a CMS migration to the lowest bidder. Cheap agencies and freelancers might tell you they can handle the work, but they invariably lack the expertise necessary to do the job well. CMS migration is a job best left to the experts.

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Running a Content Audit

The first thing you should do is run a thorough content audit on your current site. You need to have a firm grasp on the content your website is managing—how much, what types, and where it’s located. At a minimum, a content audit should consist of:

  • Crawling all site pages and assets to create an inventory

  • Identifying page types, templates, and content models

  • Reviewing analytics to prioritize top-performing content

  • Auditing content quality and identifying stale/outdated assets

  • Planning your new site architecture, navigation, and URL structure

A content audit serves several functions. You can use it as a map to perform a before-and-after comparison and spot missing content on your new site. You may also identify content that doesn’t need to be part of the migration, either because it wasn’t being used on your old site or because it wasn’t performing well.

The way your old legacy CMS organized your content is probably very different from the schema that your new CMS will use. Your content audit will show you how your existing data lines up with your new data structure. If you see things that are obviously missing and should be a part of your new data structure, a deeper dive is required to find out where those pieces of data are located on your old site so that they can be properly migrated over.

Backing Up Your Current Site

It’s critical to make sure that you have a backup of your current site before starting a migration. You should work with your current host or digital partner to get the following:

  • Image backup of the web server

  • Database exports

  • Archive file containing your content (images, videos, documents, etc.)

These files should then be immediately saved to a local storage device and the cloud. It’s rare for a CMS migration to go catastrophically wrong, but having a backup of your old site will give you the ability to restore your old site in the event that it does.

Modern content management systems use version control to minimize the risk of downtime or lost data stemming from a bad edit or a hardware failure. One of our favorites—Statamic—features an integration that can automatically “save” your content to Github. If anything ever happens to your site, you can pinpoint the change that was responsible and easily rebuild and relaunch your site within a matter of minutes.

Strategy and Timeline

Once you have a content audit in place and copies of your old website in hand, it’s time to work on a strategy for your CMS migration.

Your digital partner should provide you with an outline of their process that identifies key milestones, including:

  • Configuration and setup of the new CMS environment

  • Redesigning the information architecture and content models

  • Migrating and restructuring existing content

  • Rebuilding page templates and components

  • Handling URL mapping and redirects

  • Integrating with other marketing and business systems

  • Testing and quality assurance processes

  • Content editor training and onboarding

  • Go-live deployment and legacy system decommissioning

CMS migrations shouldn’t be rushed. Plan on at least 6-8 weeks for an agency under a normal workload to handle your migration.

While you and your company’s leadership may be eager to reap the benefits of a new content management system, it’s important to realize that the problems you’re currently experiencing didn’t happen overnight, and rushing a migration will lead to more problems in the future.

On a related note, don’t cancel your existing hosting plan immediately after your new site goes live.

It will take several hours or even days for your domain name to consistently send visitors to your new server. During that time, visitors may be randomly sent to your old website. By waiting a week or so after launch to cancel your old hosting, you ensure that they will at least see your old site and not an error page.

Testing and Quality Assurance

Rigorous testing throughout the migration process is essential for a successful launch. Be sure to ask your digital partner about their plans for:

  • Functionality testing

  • Reviewing all migrated content for quality and completeness

  • Load testing and performance validation

  • Checking all third-party integrations

  • Reviewing SEO factors like URL structures and metadata

Assuming those things were tested the last time the frontend of your website was redesigned, you shouldn’t need to worry about re-testing things like mobile-friendliness or accessibility.

You and your digital partner should check the site over to make sure your design didn’t “break,” however. This tends to happen when the new CMS uses a templating engine that is radically different from the one that was used by the legacy CMS you migrated away from.

Load testing / performance validation is critically important in the days and weeks after your new CMS is launched. Different platforms have can have vastly different ways of handling your site’s data. Some use old-fashioned relational databases (like MySQL or PostgreSQL) that demand a lot of system resources, while others use alternatives like flat file stores. By provisioning a server that’s the right size for your needs, you’ll avoid unnecessary expenses while also avoiding performance issues.

As previously mentioned, bugs will inevitably be discovered after the migration process has ended. As long as you and your digital partner have an understanding about how those bugs will be fixed—and who will pay for it—you’ll be fine.

Training and Support

After your website has been successfully migrated to a new CMS, you’ll need to make sure your team knows how to use it.

Most agencies are happy to help with this in the initial weeks after a migration project has wrapped up. If your digital partner provides it, you may benefit from additional training and support as part of an ongoing monthly retainer that also includes developer hours.

In order to determine your training and support needs, ask yourself who on your team will be interacting with your website the most.

Technical users are often just fine with reading the CMS documentation. Visual learners can benefit from video courses designed for your CMS. Non-technical users may require more hands-on assistance. In-person trainings are ideal, but 1:1 video chats can accomplish the same thing.

One aspect of support that’s often overlooked is documentation. If migrating your site meant that your digital partner had to modify the CMS with plugins or custom features, they should document those changes for your reference. Documentation doesn’t have to come in the form of a text file; short videos showing your team how to perform specific tasks are often far more useful.

Finally, you should know where to turn if something goes wrong with your new CMS. The time to find a digital partner is not immediately after your website has crashed. If you’re satisfied with the work that your digital partner did, it’s logical to start with them, as their developer team will be intimately familiar with your site (and any customizations they had to do to make it work).


While migrating to a new CMS when you've outgrown your legacy system is a major undertaking, it's an investment that pays long-term dividends.

With a modern, extensible platform built for the needs of today's digital experiences, you'll be able to deliver engaging customer experiences, operate more efficiently and securely, and stay ahead of evolving user demands for years to come.

Dylan Layne Tanner

Dylan Layne Tanner is the CEO of Amethron. With nearly 15 years of experience as a digital marketer and web developer, he has played a key role in managing the digital operations of enterprises in the senior housing, nonprofit, and retail sectors.

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