Sat, 19 Feb 2005

Content Management

— SjG @ 6:56 pm

Content Management. Seems like that’s what everyone wants for their web sites these days, and it’s no wonder. You can keep your site up to date. You can change things in response to your users, your boss, or that fellow with all the crazy ideas over in marketing. You can change things according to the season, or according to your mood. And lastly, at least in theory, you don’t get “locked in” to a specific vendor for maintenance.

So Content Management’s a good thing. But people mean different things when they use these words.

  • If you’re a gamer and want a portal site for your gaming group, you mean one thing: a place where you can post news and images, list members, hook in a discussion board, and maybe post game rankings; this is also probably what you want if you have a web site for your cooking club, your neighborhood, or perhaps your local political organization.
  • In the other extreme, you’ll mean something else entirely. If you’re, say, the marketing director for a publicly-traded company, you want each department head to be able to edit the section of the company web site that pertains to their work, but you want work-flow management so that the marketing and legal departments can have final say on what goes live. You’d probably like revision control, fine-grained access control (who gets to upload or edit what, and who can reject or approve it), and other similar features. You may well want the site to be able to get content from other back-end business systems.
  • Then there’s the middle ground, which includes some of the features from each of the former. If you run a small agency, you’ll want to be able to post comps and scripts to your clients, you want to update your awards page each time you win something, and you probably want to put those award-winning ads online for people to view. You might want some access control, but you don’t need revision control or interfacing with back-end systems.

For the first case, the community site, there are dozens of PHP-based Open Source solutions. There’s PHP-Nuke, Post-Nuke, Drupal, Mambo, Xoops, Typo3, Xaraya, and countless others. All of them are well adapted for this specific niche, and most of them are pretty horrible if you want to extend them or use in a way that’s not part of the original design. Call me an elitist, but the bar to entry here is very low; there are a lot of programmers who don’t know what they’re doing, and they’re doing it very publicly. There’s a strong emphasis on cool and futuristic visuals, and something of a shortage of solid architecture. Few of them create HTML that will validate, and even fewer make proper use of cascading style sheets (CSS). Fortunately, you can road test them all at, and see if any work for you.

For the second case, the corporate solution, there are a multitude of commercial packages which vary in price from the low 5-figures on up to as far as you want to go. We use Enonic VerticalSite for this kind of corporate site. It’s Java/EJB based, and uses widely-accepted standards like LDAP, XML, and XSLT, so it can integrate into a vast array of other back-end systems. XSLT allows the developer total freedom in the templating so, page sizes can be reduced through the use of CSS. It’s a solid solution, and affordable for its class.

I’m pleased to say that there is finally a reasonable contender for the last case, the middle option. In the past, we’d tried to adapt projects from the PHP Portal group to serve in this capacity, and, frankly it was not a very good experience. Now, however, there is CMS Made Simple. It’s a straightforward framework, that provides a developer with a lot of basic functionality: group-based permission system, hierarchical content management, and support for XHTML templates and CSS. But what’s best about CMSMS is that it’s a lightweight framework that doesn’t come with a lot of unnecessary extras, yet it supports an object-oriented API for adding modules, so you can add in any functions you find lacking.

I’ve been madly developing menuing systems and a flexible Feedback Form submission system for CMSMS (you can find ’em on the Project Wiki). The new API seems pretty solid, and it’s certainly easy to develop for. I’ve found the developers to be personable, helpful, and very positive when I’ve communicated with them on IRC.

My next project, which I plan to implement using CMSMS, is a portfolio tool for artists. The tool should enable artists to create web sites to showcase their work.

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