InfoWorld Test Center Guide: Content management systems

Before you invest in a CMS, be it a high-end corporate solution or an open source alternative, learn which features are important

Content management represents a broad area. Still, applications under this umbrella are usually thought of for publishing content to the Web. A CMS takes over where HTML editors run out of steam, as they typically deal with individual Web pages and require coding experience to use. On the other hand, a CMS is backed by a database, which keeps Web pages and related assets (such as images and documents pages reference) in one spot. Equally important, the software gives enterprises necessary control – from logically organizing the site and maintaining design standards to providing workflow and change management.

Choosing the right CMS can be a daunting endeavor, but this Test Center Guide will equip you with the knowledge you need to make an informed decision.

What is a CMS?
First, let's put the whole content management topic into perspective. Most large organizations have an overarching, multiyear ECM (enterprise content management) strategy, with WCM (Web content management) being just one element. You'll also encounter EDRM (electronic document and records management), KM (knowledge management), DAM (digital asset management), workflow, collaboration, and DRM (digital rights management).

Lately the number of ECM vendors – those that offer all the aforementioned applications – has dramatically shrunk. Behemoth Oracle grabbed Stellent, which itself snapped up content security firms SealedMedia and Bitform. Open Text purchased Hummingbird (shortly after it had acquired RedDot) and DAM vendor Artesia. Then there's omnipresent EMC's buying frenzy (Document Sciences, ProActivity, and Captiva) to bolster its 2003 Documentum acquisition. And don't overlook IBM with its CM suite (from the 2006 FileNet acquisition), along with BPM (business process management) and compliance offerings.

In each of these consolidations, the idea was to give customers an end-to-end ECM solution that ranged from managing virtually every type of content to handling security. This strategy makes sense in many respects. For example, you could apply one set of rights management to documents, whether they're used for internal processes or repurposed on the corporate Web site.

Yet pure-play WCM vendors endure, even if they're not in the limelight. These companies have added document management and select other ECM features to their core products. But what sets these companies apart from the larger players – and contributes to their ongoing success – is that they typically offer lower cost and less complex solutions that many enterprise customers want. This sentiment's supported by a JupiterResearch survey that found 27 percent of CMS owners were very unhappy with the difficulty of using their system and considering a more straightforward replacement.

CMS buying criteria:
When evaluating a content management system, you should put five general categories on your checklist: technology, features, ability to integrate with other enterprise systems, customization, and costs.

Does the CMS fit into your IT infrastructure? Are you set on Windows Server, .Net framework, and Microsoft SQL Server? Or perhaps you're a Java shop and run Oracle application servers and databases. These factors should help you winnow your CMS candidates, because many vendors have experience with a particular stack. Still, there's nothing wrong with mixing and matching application servers, Web servers, and databases; just make sure the CMS vendor formally supports your configuration. Often, open source releases will give you the most deployment choices.

On the other hand, even in a mixed datacenter environment, there's occasionally one platform that staff have the most experience servicing. Going with that setup should help reduce the time needed to install and support the CMS, which is obviously important when you're involved in a fast-cycle project.

And be watchful for other infrastructure issues, especially if you have complex publishing requirements. Say you need to distribute to different channels – perhaps cell phones and desktop clients – or mirror content to different geographies for performance. This may mean you'll need one application server platform for the CMS and another for the Web server used to deliver content. A staging server (for testing), regular database maintenance, and disaster recover should play into your planning, too.

Furthermore, don't leave out other system administration tasks. Does the CMS provide easy access to items such as cache management, logs, performance reports, and user account management tools?

If you're not ready to keep up an in-house investment, there are several superior hosted CMS products; you can use the following criteria to evaluate them, too.

What features are most important? Common sense should tell you that no CMS will provide every feature you may need. So go with a variation of the 80-20 rule: Find the product with 80 percent of the functions most important to you using 20 percent of your overall budget. (Reserve the rest of your budget for implementation, support, and complementary purchases.) Here are some tips for that feature list.

Clearly, users need to work with the system, which initially entails developing templates for site sections. Templates enforce corporate style guidelines while separating content from the way it's presented. A WCM doesn't have to bundle a template editor; instead, make sure developers can employ tools they already know, such as Adobe Dreamweaver and Flash or Microsoft Visual Studio complemented by Silverlight.

Next, the software should let content contributors select the template appropriate for the section of the site they're working on and then create pages within an established taxonomy. For entering content, require the CMS to include a WYSIWYG editor that's accessible though a browser – without large downloads for plug-ins. Ideally, the system will allow in-line editing within the Web page, so users can immediately see the results of changes (instead of presenting them with multiple pop-up windows and multiple preview steps). To satisfy power users, expect access to the content's source code or, if appropriate, an XML editor. Moreover, the system ought to provide easy entry of meta tags.

You might also consider systems with a lightweight client, WebDAV support, or plug-ins for desktop applications (such as Microsoft Word). Any of these can help with importing content into the Web site and perhaps eliminate converting and reformatting.

Although the CMS doesn't require full-blown digital asset management, some form of this feature is becoming more commonplace. Look for an asset repository, with an intuitive visual interface, to access images and multimedia objects (Flash files, audio, and video).

Version control is pretty much a given, but check for it nonetheless. You should have the option to easily roll back pages to any previous save. With heightened legal and government compliance requirements, versioning also gives you an archive of content and changes. If you have intricate records management needs, make sure the CMS lets you specify the length of time versions are maintained. Similarly, it's important for pages to automatically go live at a scheduled time and also expire when you specify.

Workflow, the checks and balances of content, doesn't have to be elaborate. However, there should be some method to specify who needs to review content before it goes live, e-mail notification to the reviewer of their pending tasks, and a quick way for these managers to spot what's changed (for instance, side-by-side comparison of original and revised text). For more sophisticated projects, it's important to have a visual workflow designer plus features to develop parallel or alternate workflows based on roles or a person's availability.

Many organizations have a separate search application, but don't assume it will seamlessly integrate with your CMS. As such, determine if the content management system comes with a search module. If so, does it have advanced functions, such as searching multiple sites and can the engine exploit pages' meta data?

Will it play nice with your enterprise systems? An API is a baseline requirement if you expect your CMS to work with other enterprise systems and various Web servers; depending on your environment, look for ASP.Net, ASP, Cold Fusion, or PHP support. Also, ask for API documentation in case your developers need to extend these components for special requirements.

In making your CMS selection, also consider other data interchange standards, including XML, RDF (Resource Description Framework), RSS, and Web services. These capabilities can prove invaluable at many levels. For instance, adhering to XML won't just smooth data sharing with your sales force automation system, price book, or e-mail marketing products; it can provide the necessary conduit into enterprise search applications or analytic tools.

Similarly, RSS and Web services might be the ticket to a quick integration with your intranet portal.

On the security side, you'd be smart to consider single sign-on for both content authors and registered users; in this case, assess how well the CMS works with Active Directory, LDAP, or other authentication systems. Additionally, check whether there's 128-bit encryption support.

What more can you get beyond the basics? If you're seriously considering a CMS, then you've probably decided that building a "home brew" system isn't for you. Bravo, since experience shows that the effort to develop something from scratch is often far harder and more expensive then originally anticipated (often reaching six or seven figures).

So besides some hooks into other systems provided by supplied APIs, how do you ensure that your CMS won't run out of steam after the initial rollout? One answer is to see what other components the vendor offers. Document and records management are often companion products that are easily added – or possibly selected during the initial system setup and configured when needed. Available social media functions are also worth reviewing, including blogs, wikis, surveys, and polls.

You might also inquire about an open SDK if you need extensive customization, say, a special version of the user interface.

With many enterprises operating globally, consider how the vendor deals with localization – either using option modules or through standard functions. These can range from native support for XLIFF (XML Localization Interchange File Format, a widely adopted translation standard) to ways for repurposing corporate content for country-specific Web sites.

Personalization is an especially hot topic since it lets organizations target content to specific users. This can be done by requiring visitors to log in or also based on how a person anonymously navigates your site. Some systems offer this as a standard feature, an add-on module, or a separate server product, or they work with a third-party personalization engine. No mater how personalization is accomplished, at some point you'll likely want this feature, so do your homework upfront to minimize future costs and implementation effort.

How much will it cost? Midmarket CMS costs are all over the map. But after surveying the major products, some trends emerge. Basic CMS licensing costs can be as low as $7,000, with a more realistic average of about $85,000. At the high end with all frills included, expect to budget $500,000 or even more.

Startup efforts for a modest public site or intranet – system setup, templates, scripting, workflow design, and training – will probably range from $25,000 to $50,000. Thereafter, add about $50,000 for yearly operating costs. Support and development for open source CMSes usually fall within this range.

Without question, as a system grows in complexity costs rise exponentially. It's reasonable to budget at least $1.5 million for a one-year development effort and $1 million yearly for maintenance of dynamic corporate sites.

CMS vendors and solutions
On the commercial front, Ekton's the value leader with CMS400.NET, currently at Version 7.5. The system offers a plethora of easily implemented and used features, including social networking, document management, enhanced search, integration with portals plus other content delivery options, and many ways to control content (such as built-in form tools).

RedDot offers several WCM products. RedDot CMS has an intuitive interface, so public-facing or intranets can be maintained by nontechnical users. The software is very good at handing localized content, has a workflow, and includes a digital asset manager. Stepping up, RedDot's Enterprise Content Management adds document and business process management functions. Finally, LiveServer dynamically assembles content from multiple sources and presents a custom view to registered users. Additionally, LiveServer can deliver these mashups to Web sites or portals, such as SAP, IBM, or Microsoft SharePoint.

SilkRoad's Eprise Enterprise is a mature product containing many solid features. Business users easily add content with an in-context editor while templates control consistent site design and branding. Importantly, you target information based on user preferences, roles, and business rules. For large organizations, multi-tenancy lets you host many sites from one Eprise instance. Additional modules include document management, digital image management, internationalization, and search. What's more, the standard configuration is very search engine-friendly.

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