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Choosing a Content Management System

Monday 26 November 2007 12:00:00 pm

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If you are evaluating Content Management Systems (CMS), you are probably either starting a new web project, enhancing an existing site or standardizing on a single web development platform. Your organization may be the end user of the project, or you may be doing the project on behalf of a client. Whichever is the case, your decision will stay with you throughout the project’s life cycle and beyond, potentially making it one of the most important decisions.

There is no ideal CMS. Instead, the various CMS solutions offer different benefits and drawbacks. Your challenge is to select the CMS with the characteristics that will meet your web publishing needs and support your business strategy. This article describes CMS characteristics that you should analyze when evaluating potential systems. While written from the point of view of a web development company, the tips in this article are applicable to anyone evaluating CMS.

Background

In 2004, my company ( Internet Bureau) evaluated hundreds of CMS products after it became clear that our own CMS software couldn’t keep up with changes in technology and with shifting and increasing requirements among our clients. Fortunately, we realized the importance of making the right choice and therefore invested much time and effort into research.

In the end, we selected eZ Publish, which, in the ensuing years, has become a competitive advantage, unlike our previous bitter experiences with CMS. We have since become an official eZ Partner, and we see this partnership as a key company asset.

As a consulting and Internet services firm, we had a specific set of criteria for choosing a CMS. However, because we were choosing software that would be used for both our own projects and for our clients' projects, we developed criteria that encompassed a broad analysis of the decision factors with CMS, including features, architecture, licensing and so on.

Expectations

Before we examine the technical details of CMS, let us look at general expectations from the commercial and operational points of view.

First, you must expect to have a reliable, long-term relationship with the vendor and its product. Therefore, spend some time investigating the company history and activities. While sales materials such as presentations and whitepapers can be useful, the best indication of a vendor’s reliability is its track record. If possible, talk to other organizations who have been using the software for a considerable period of time – that is, at least several months after the completion of a full site implementation.

If you are looking for a CMS for a single project, write up a precise functional requirements document to compare against system capabilities. If necessary, have a technical specialist available early in the project to advise you. If you are a web development firm looking for a CMS that you will provide to one or more of your clients, the new platform should fit seamlessly into your service offering.

Clearly defining your expectations and spending time ensuring that these expectations will be met will save you money and help ensure that you make the right choice regarding a critical piece of infrastructure.

Research according to CMS type

There are over a thousand Content Management Systems currently available. These can be roughly grouped into similar types. To start the selection process, you need to understand the major advantages and disadvantages of each type.

Homegrown

These are normally products developed and supported by a single web development company for its own projects. The main advantage is the ability to hack and customize the system according to specific requirements. The main disadvantage is that you are completely dependent on a single (and often small) vendor for bug fixes and enhancements.

Commercial

This is the broadest tier among types of CMS, with a variety of feature and price options. The main advantage is the probability of quick delivery of a standardized solution. The main disadvantage is that evaluation is often limited to pre-sales presentation. It is difficult to evaluate the quality and functionality of a CMS without hands-on experience, and impossible to evaluate the quality of the code in proprietary software where access to source code is not available. Another major drawback with this class of CMS is that it can be difficult or impossible to extend or customize the solution to fit your needs.

High-end

There are only a few high-end CMS vendors. Their advantage is the ability to deliver robust, enterprise-grade solutions. Their disadvantage is the price.

Open Source

With Open Source CMS, the software is available to anyone for free. Many Open Source CMS are developed by non-profit virtual communities. The main advantages are that you generally do not pay license fees, and you are able to extend and customize the product. The main disadvantages are that some products lack commercial-grade stability and security, and many lack support and services infrastructure.

Evaluation

After defining your expectations and determining the type of CMS that suits your needs, you will probably have a short list of CMS candidates. At this time it is worthwhile to obtain full or demo versions of the software. Some things to check include:

  • License obligations – Will you be able to customize the CMS to match your project's requirements? Are there any limitations, such as the number of users or the number of sites you can run from a single installation? Are there recurring subscription obligations?
  • Total cost of ownership – The plan for your project must take into account custom development tasks, but also hosting, service and support requirements, training, implementation and deployment, as well as other long-term expenses.
  • Application platform availability – If you are hosting your own application, do you have the infrastructure and technical expertise to administer the system? Consider a CMS that uses components, such as the operating system and web server, that you are either already using or with which your organization is familiar.

Decision

One of the popular online software guides ( ITerating) uses the following weighted criteria to determine the overall value of a product:

  • Functionality – 35%
  • Usability – 15%
  • Security – 10%
  • Performance & Scalability – 10%
  • Architecture & Quality – 10%
  • Support & Documentation – 10%
  • Adoption & Community – 10%

The list above is simply an example. The following sections of this article provide you with information that will help to develop your own selection criteria. The important point is that by defining your criteria and the relative importance of each individual item, you create a structure that can be used to select the right CMS.

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