Open source CMSes prove well worth the price

We look at five free offerings boasting solid Web publishing features that challenge their commercial competitors

Drupal requires some extra time and skills to set up, which mainly involving installing PHP, and a database server and empty database, then manually updating some configuration files. Several handbooks and site recipes (step-by-step instructions) should cut this initial effort to under a day. (I also found a kind-hearted community member who'd packaged Apache, Tomcat, PHP, Drupal, and other essentials in an automated installer for Windows Server).

Drupal's core installation includes essential modules that are easily enabled from an administration page. That said, there are likely features you'll want to add on, such as advanced workflow. So set aside an additional day or so to tweak Drupal to your needs. The overall learning process will likely take at few weeks -- more than other products but certainly less time than if you rolled your own CMS.

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The system's user management let me create different user roles quickly, which controlled what they could do on the site. Additionally, I changed the look of my test site by applying different themes. While still in the admin area, I constructed menus and the type of information that appeared in other page blocks (such as the right-hand margin).

Categorization accommodation

Content is added in several ways: as individual pages, stories (news articles), pages within "books" (which are used for longer documentation), and blog entries. In each case I used uncomplicated forms to enter text; unfortunately, Drupal lacks a rich-text editor, so you'll have to stick with plain text or manually add HTML markup code. Another option for posting content is employing blogging software, such as Red Sweater Software's MarsEdit for the Mac or Word 2007.

Drupal's built-in taxonomy system let me tag pages with appropriate topics, categories, and terms.

The software offers several navigation options, including using the aforementioned categories to automatically populate menus. True, this takes additional setup work in the Site Building administration area to initially populate the taxonomy. But I think it's worth doing because it reduced ongoing site maintenance for me. Alternately, you can manually customize site navigation.

I found that other aspects of Drupal follow this same basic formula: There's not much you can't do, but it may take installing a module or some additional steps. For example, translating text is best done with a stand-alone editor. Or consider search: There's an internal site search system, but you need to manually schedule the indexing jobs.

Some of the more interactive features I liked include the news aggregator, which gathers content from news sites and Weblogs; RSS feeds of your Drupal content; and user authentication using an LDAP server.

Drupal has attracted interest among users and developers over the past four years. Usability -- for administrators and content editors -- might be better and the range of functions could be expanded. This application's modular design, however, lets community members keep it updated and in the CMS race.

Open Source Matters Joomla 1.0.13
If there were celebrity breakups in the open source community, Mambo would provide great tabloid fodder. After disagreeing with Mambo Foundation management in 2005, the core developers jumped ship, forked development, and Joomla resulted. Technically, both systems continue to be enhanced, and modules created for one system generally work with the other.Joomla administration, though, is more improved and, based on discussion board activity, Joomla appears to have the momentum right now. There's also more tangible backup, where some hosting providers market Joomla as their site-building solution.

Joomla satisfies Web publishing needs that range from small business Web sites to corporate portals and extranets. The central package is relatively easy to install and those with basic skills can manage a Website. As delivered, this CMS includes fundamental components such as news articles, polls, blogs, calendars, search, and RSS feeds. Add-ons and extensions (some that require purchase), include document management and e-commerce engines.

Joomla lets registered front-end users enter content while back-end administrators change design templates, alter page layouts, add modules, and manage users. My administration testing started at the Web control panel, which has four areas for arranging content, installing features, and handling overall system maintenance. I understood how to use most functions, such as creating folders and uploading media, right away.

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The harder part of this CMS is learning the menu system and also managing the various content containers. Still, I believe after a week of reading and experimentation that even relative newcomers could have a small production-ready site -- and that time that can be compressed if you're experienced with a commercial CMS, such as Ektron, Eprise or Red Dot. That's because Joomla Web sites follow common design and publishing methodologies used in the enterprise.

First I created sections, which represent an overall page. Similarly, I customized various individual modules, including RSS feeds, polls, contact lists, and mass mailings. Lastly, templates combine HTML and CSS to define the look of pages. After modifying the templates with built-in editors, I employed the Module Positions screen (that has 50 slots) to position objects until I had the look I wanted.

Additionally, the administration Web interface clearly lists all of your elements and when they were published, and provides access to other functions (such as user permissions, server, configuration, along with wizards to install new modules). Thus, I believe reasonably complex sites can be maintained by IT staff with modest training.

Yet I found a few places where I wondered what the developers were thinking. For example, your site's home page is managed from the Menu Manager, which is normally used to create menus that appear on the top and side of each page.

Supporting front-line users
For day-to-day tasks, Joomla is generally accessible. To mirror a typical enterprise workflow, I created roles for authors, editors, and publishers. Authors didn't have any trouble submitting content using a three-part Web form that has expected features to format text, insert links and images, and create tables; other parts of the forms let you define metadata and the time content should be published. Editors follow the same process to modify articles. Publishers may perform all the jobs done by the lower roles, in addition to pushing content to the live site.

There isn't any formal workflow or notifications in the basic system, but publishers can review a list of content and quickly see its state (such as unpublished). In addition, there's basic content control, such as check-in and check-out.

More sophisticated workflow was one of more than 1,000 extensions I spotted for Joomla -- with the majority available under GNU GPL or Creative Commons licenses. Hence, I think without much extra work or expense you can customize your installation for vertical markets or special needs.

Joomla developers quickly built on the legacy of Mambo, especially improving administration. What the basic system lacks in functionality can usually be fixed by installing a component. Version 1.5 (which was in Release Candidate 1 stage during testing) appears to address concerns about the complexity of the menu system while injecting more Web 2.0 functions (such as more design latitude in how pages appear).

Plone 3.0

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Plone does one thing -- Web content management -- and does it with aplomb. That's why you'll find well-known U.S. and international organizations in most industries running their Web sites, internets, and extranets with Plone.

This CMS has outstanding multilingual content management (with localized workflow), a powerful page editor, and flexible navigation. Version 3.0 introduces an inline editor, link checking, a portlets engine (for including content from other Web sites), and versioning, supports the search engine Sitemap protocol and wiki markup, and has full-text indexing of Word and PDF documents.

Setting up and customizing Plone isn't taxing. By following the well-done documentation and tutorials, I updated the visual design of my test Plone site in a few hours, all accomplished using the Web Developer Extension for Firefox along with an excellent Plone download, DIYPloneStyle. It's also relatively easy to add more advanced functionality (such as having navigation sections that are automatically generated from the contents of a folder) with a few style sheet changes.

On the administration side, Plone provides a range of enterprise-friendly functions, from authentication using OpenID, Active Directory, or LDAP to granular permissions for groups, roles, and workflows. All this is controlled from the Zope Management Interface, though I wish it was integrated into the rest of the system. That said, individuals can easily control who can view, edit, and approve their content -- without going through an administrator.

With design done, my testing moved to managing content. Again, Plone doesn't demand any extraordinary skills. For example, the folder view and AJAX-based drag-and-drop let me quickly reorder content, which was then reflected in the site's navigation. Site maps are automatically generated and updated. What's more, any collection (a grouping of content that developers create without writing code) or search result can be turned into an RSS feed.

The desktop-style page editor (based on the Kupu editor) is notable for converting Microsoft's text markup into clean XHTML and also for a great asset browser that previews images and links. Plone 3.0's inline editing was a big help for quick updates because you don't have to open a separate interface: Just click on the text area requiring revisions.

This CMS has lots of multilingual features. Besides more than 25 user interface languages, it's one of the few to support right-to-left languages (such as Arabic, Hebrew, and Persian). I also admired the split-screen editor, which assisted in translations. Plus, an add-on handles standard XLIFF content export and import, which is important when working with translation agencies.

Underlying power
Beneath Plone 3.0 there's a catalog of features that check the integrity of your sites and deliver a pleasant publishing experience. Link checking automatically alerted me when I tried to delete a page that other sites referenced. Further, I employed the automatically generated table of contents, which created and linked to chapters based on the headers in a long document.

Rules and versioning don't quite match Alfresco but are nonetheless useful. For instance, I defined a rule to move a file from one location to another for archiving after a certain time. The workflow system alerted users when something was changed, such as document revisions that required approval. And I appreciated this application's automatic locking and unlocking, which ensures two people don't overwrite each other's changes.

Plone 3.0 doesn't have a wiki. The software, however, allows wiki markup in any type of content (including Word and PDF documents that are transformed into Web pages), which eliminated the need to manually create links to other content. Plus, you can apply access control to these documents, just as with any standard Plone page.

With this release, Plone 3.0 adds important CMS capabilities such as versioning, inline editing, workflows, and OpenID support. It's true that some of these features require add-on modules that might consume server resources. Still, with a caching proxy (the organization's CacheFu project ships with Plone) there's very little else to criticize.

Stepping back and looking ahead
After my intensive test schedule with these five products, there were a few surprises along with verification of what I generally suspected all along.

The lightweight Drupal has a decent following and special features, such as taxonomies, but comparatively weaker CMS functions (lacking rich-text editing, for example) and a somewhat unfriendly development environment mean Durpal is playing catch-up. Joomla, after breaking from Mambo, swept up many core developers and swayed community members to switch, too. Collectively, they've turned Joomla into a very relevant project. With improvements planned for Version 1.5, I'm optimistic about this CMS.

DotNetNuke (the .Net reincarnation of PHPnuke) wasn't originally on my short list, but I'm glad I reconsidered. Although it's Windows-only, this ASP.Net application proved scalable and has a real affinity for handling midrange commerce activities. Plone is a step above, combining multilingual features, workflow, and automated navigation.

With a strong organization behind it and a slew of features, Alfresco's Community Edition stood out in this comparison. That would be true solely considering its content management, but as these applications branch out into document and records management, Alfresco has already staked a claim in the extended ECM space.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Ease of use (25.0%)
Scalability (15.0%)
Management (10.0%)
Security (15.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Features (25.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
Alfresco Community Edition 2.1 9.0 9.0 8.0 9.0 9.0 10.0 9.2
DotNetNuke 4.4.5 9.0 9.0 8.0 8.0 8.0 8.0 8.4
Drupal 5.2 8.0 8.0 8.0 9.0 9.0 8.0 8.3
Plone 3.0 9.0 8.0 9.0 9.0 9.0 8.0 8.6
Open Source Matters Joomla 1.0.13 8.0 8.0 9.0 9.0 9.0 8.0 8.4
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