This article originally appeared in TidBITS on 2003-04-07 at 12:00 p.m.
The permanent URL for this article is: http://tidbits.com/article/7143
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Help Us Choose Among Content Management Systems

by Adam C. Engst

I've mentioned in passing that we've been looking into new systems to replace the aging hardware that runs TidBITS (all our servers use pre-G3 PowerPCs) and cobbled-together software (FileMaker, Lasso, HyperCard, AppleScript, and Retrospect). The hardware decision is easy - an Xserve ought to do everything we want and more, and it will slot nicely into a rack at digital.forest, our server hosting service. But the content management software is another story.

<http://www.forest.net/>

A content management system is a collection of programs for storing, managing, displaying, and archiving various types of content. A full content management system generally includes a database for storing the content, middleware software for extracting and presenting the content, and a Web server for the actual serving. We have articles, polls, and TidBITS Talk messages, along with collections of those items in issues, article series, and message threads. Plus, we publish our content in different formats (setext, HTML, RSS, and more) and in different venues (email, Web, FTP, Usenet news, and so on).

The need for a content management system has become increasingly common as the Web has matured. Content producers realized they needed tools that help put content on a single Web page (Claris HomePage or Symantec's Visual Page, for instance). That expanded to needing tools that help manage an entire site (Adobe SiteMill or the modern day Adobe GoLive or Macromedia Dreamweaver). Now, however, many needs have grown once again to include software that helps to manage content on a regular basis, simplifying the process of adding new content, archiving old content, and providing access to both old and new content in appropriate ways.

Everyone's needs are different, of course, but the need for some sort of content management system turns out to be remarkably common. Whether you're an individual trying to maintain a personal weblog or a business trying to maintain a catalog of your products, you need a content management system. That's why so many software packages call themselves content management systems. Some are designed for local newspapers, while others aim at providing information systems for entire college campuses. Some are so proprietary that you can use them only if you contract with the developers to build and host your system, whereas others adhere to open source precepts (unfortunately often including the one about documentation being for losers and fools). Add in a myriad of blogging programs and you can see how difficult it is to find the perfect content management system for a particular purpose.

After long discussions about how to plan and create our new content management system, Tonya and I finally decided to work with our friend Keith Kubarek, who had spent 16 years working at Cornell University but recently left to concentrate on his Web design and development company, One Bad Ant. The process has been going well, and it's been tremendously helpful and educational to watch someone else try to figure out precisely what TidBITS does - we're too close to our systems to view them objectively. Keith's business analysis of what we do was particularly interesting for the way it helped us clarify not just what we do now, but those areas in which we hope to do different things in the future.

<http://www.onebadant.com/>

Initial Technical Analysis -- Now that we've completed the business analysis, Keith has moved on to the technical analysis, in which he's evaluating existing content management systems to see which deserve further investigation and possible adoption for some or all of our eventual solution.

What are our primary needs? Along with the basics of storing, managing, displaying, and archiving content, we need features like rock-solid integration with email for issue distribution, user account management so users can manage their own subscriptions, links between articles and between TidBITS Talk messages, management of sponsorship appearances, unified circulation statistics, support for different issue formats and venues, integration of PayBITS, and more.

Trying to figure out which content management packages provide these features (or can be extended to provide these features) is a Herculean task. Luckily, we were able to eliminate many of the seeming contenders based on two simple criteria.

Narrowing the Field -- After that initial level of winnowing, we applied additional criteria to narrow the list further. These criteria weren't as all-or-nothing as the previous ones, but if a program failed on several counts, it fell off our list.

Current Contenders -- So here's where you come in - after all, TidBITS readers are the people who will use whatever we end up creating. We've come up with a short list of packages that deserve additional investigation, but we're under no illusion that we've even identified every possibility. If you know of something else that might fit our needs, let us know and we'll check it out. Similarly, if you have educated opinions or deep knowledge about any of these packages, we'd love to know that as well. I plan to be holding these discussions primarily via TidBITS Talk (please send comments to <tidbits-talk@tidbits.com>), so if you want me to keep your message private, just say so and send it to me personally. Here's the list.

<http://www.aegir-cms.org/>
<http://www.midgard-project.org/>

<http://www.bricolage.cc/>
<http://www.masonhq.com/>

<http://www.cofax.org/>

<http://www.blueworld.com/>

<http://www.phpnuke.org/>
<http://www.postnuke.com/>

<http://www.xoops.org/>

<http://www.zope.org/>
<http://www.plone.org/>

<http://www.4d.com/>

The Next Step -- We realize that the current set of contenders represents a jumble of options for scripting languages, underlying databases, and supported technologies, and our heads are spinning as we try to analyze the possibilities. So tell us what you think, and we'll be sure to write more about our progress.