Content control on demand

Touting lower costs and fewer headaches, the hosted CM model is making a run at the enterprise

The ASP moniker may be yesterday’s buzzword, but the on-demand delivery model lives on -- with struggling software segments such as CM (content management) ripe for its promise of reduced complexity and costs.

Past fears about the financial viability of the hosted model have largely faded, due in part to the success of on-demand software services companies such as Salesforce.com. Illustrating this hosted model rebound, research company IDC predicts on-demand application services will grow from $425 million in 2002 to $2.6 billion in 2007.

Whether targeting Web content or the larger pool of corporate documents and digital assets, traditional installed CM software has garnered a reputation for being costly, complex, and time-consuming to implement. 

These factors have set the table for the quick rise of hosted Web CM, which focuses on the management of Web-based content for intranets and public sites, including large, complex sites -- such as newspapers -- and those that support functions such as e-commerce.

Economics is one reason the on-demand model is thriving for Web CM. High-end installed systems such as Interwoven’s TeamSite start at approximately $150,000. In contrast, one-time setup charges for hosted offerings can range from a few hundred dollars to $20,000, with monthly fees from $10 to $3,000.

Furthermore, today’s Web CM services typically are hosted in enterprise-grade datacenters, such as those run by IBM, with the option for businesses to publish content to their own Web servers. Beyond this newfound flexibly and business safety net, the hosted model alleviates a continuing problem with CM applications, namely keeping software updated and Web sites running; vendors take responsibility for these essential tasks. Usability, without skimping on core functions, and quick ramp-up time are other benefits of the hosted Web CM model. 

I reviewed three of the top hosted Web CM offerings: Clickability cmPublish Version 4, CrownPeak Advantage CMS, and iUpload Content Manager Version 5. Another notable player in this space, Atomz, declined to participate in my review.

I also took a quick look at two lightweight hosted services for intranets. MindHarbor’s mmprove is worth consideration for more modest needs (see “Small-scale CM”). Although it’s more of a portal, Intranets.com also delivers high value to those seeking a collaboration-focused CM solution (see “Instant collaboration from Intranets.com”).

Each of the three heavyweight Web CM services I tested offer intuitive interfaces that allow computer novices to add content while still providing corporate functions such as approval mechanisms. On the back end, administration tools help Webmasters create page templates and build out a basic informational site or intranet in weeks, instead of the months typically needed with enterprise CM applications. The products differ in how they organize large media libraries (an area in which cmPublish is especially strong) and in terms of depth of developer control (a strong suit of CrownPeak Advantage and, to a lesser degree, iUpload Content Manager). None, however, has the document management power of TeamSite or Documentum.

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When reviewing these services, I was looking for a scalable architecture that publishes to Web servers in various datacenters. Workflow and approval capabilities are also very important, as is the ability to publish on a schedule and to a variety of devices. 

The wealth of functionality available through hosted Web CM does not point to the demise of high-end, installed solutions. The back-office integration, developer-friendly environments, and additional security that installed solutions provide leaves them plenty of room in the CM market. Besides, although hosted services give developers some leeway, going hosted isn’t the same as getting under the hood with, say, Visual Studio .Net or BEA WebLogic Workshop. 

But that brings us full circle to the whole point of hosted CM -- that, rather than having to worry about development efforts, an enterprise should just get down to using the system.

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Clickability cmPublish

Clickability cmPublish clients are often media outlets, including sites for television stations or online versions of high-profile magazines. That’s understandable, considering the system’s capability of housing a large number of assets that can be easily categorized and searched. Still, this same capability of publishing voluminous articles works just as well for product information -- the staple of many corporate sites. And because enterprises don’t always have the luxury of in-house design staffs, cmPublish’s simple template-tagging language makes it easy for novice designers to manage templates.

Logging on to cmPublish shows a comprehensive work center with a left-hand menu that changes context based on the main tabbed area selected. Compared with navigating CrownPeak Advantage or iUpload Content Manager, initially this is a bit daunting, but it’s functional nonetheless.

Developers familiar with HTML and template languages -- specifically the open source VTL (Velocity Template Language) -- will feel comfortable in the Design area. In fact, I was more productive with cmPublish than with some installed systems. For example, to include a top banner in my test site, the code I embedded in my base page was simply: $cms.template(“TopBar”). But it would be even better if the commands were available as options from the UI -- as they are in CrownPeak Advantage -- although there is a free Macromedia Dreamweaver Velocity extension available.

After about an hour, novice users should be able to find their way around the Publish space and be productive. One reason is the Workspace menu, which organizes pending tasks, such as pages that require editing, along with options to create new content. 

As with the other products, this system’s in-line Java visual editor provides a good range of formatting options; experienced users can switch to HTML mode for special layout needs such as constructing complex tables. The only hassle is that you have to open a separate preview window to see what the published edits will look like. Yet when saving pages, the system clearly displays options for categorization, submitting to a workflow, or publishing at a set time.

Because you don’t work in the context of a site, it’s important to have the option to quickly locate content, an area where cmPublish excels. For example, I quickly used the integrated search function to build customized tabular views to display all product pages for a particular server line. In the same way, this filtering helped me find media assets.

Clickability has done a good job with permissions and workflow. Checking off a few blocks is all that’s needed to assign users to various groups and to specify whether someone can access the staging or development servers. In the same way, I had no trouble building a workflow; just select a state -- for example, Editing -- and pick from a drop-down list to set what happens when content is either approved or rejected.

Additional native modules contribute to cmPublish’s value. Building and sending e-mail newsletters requires just a few steps. The system also includes interactive elements, such as online polls and e-mailing content to a friend.

Moreover, the system builds in Web analytics with Clickability imWare. Reports include site page views and useful details, such as the number of e-mails generated by a page and traffic generated to other pages within the site.

Clickability cmPublish has caught up with the big CM systems in several ways. You can develop complicated nested content templates and selectively deploy them to various test and production servers. Additionally, there’s out-of-the-box support for RSS and e-mail subscriptions, along with flexible workflow and publishing schedules. Some features, such as classified ads, are clearly aimed at the commercial publishing market, but the same uncomplicated processes are equally appropriate for enterprise divisions or departmental sites.

CrownPeak Advantage CMS

Enterprises requiring functional depth and publishing flexibility in a hosted Web CM system won’t be disappointed by CrownPeak Advantage CMS. The system’s three main advantages put it in the top spot: It readily and securely connects to other systems; the UI adapts to a range of authors, including power users; and traditional labor-intensive jobs, such as modeling a new site, can be done in a matter of minutes.

Even early in testing, I had little question Advantage CMS is an enterprise-level product. For starters, the browser interface strikes a fine balance; not only does it allow everyday users to go right to a page within a hosted site and edit content, but it also gives administrators access to advanced capabilities. For instance, after logging in, a user in charge of entering press releases is taken right to that section of the Web site. A menu then shows authorized functions, such as editing text or submitting the changes for approval.

Setting up a site to do all this is more complex than with the other products, but there’s quick payback. For example, page templates have several pieces, such as a content-entry form that validates fields or automatically loads content from another template. Yet I quickly built this input page and accompanying output files from standard HTML plus a few high-level CM tags. Other output formats, including XML and HDML (Handheld Device Markup Language), are supported.

Moreover, the ability to build additional templates allowed me to reuse content in other sites, including an extranet and employee portal. The next level has grouping functions to collect and replicate a set of templates and folder structures, including permissions; this really cut my time when I needed to duplicate a site. I was also impressed with the  ability to send content to multiple staging and live production servers.

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There’s a high level of personalization such as detailed notifications of changes at the folder level or even to a particular asset. Likewise, Advantage CMS has one of the best workflow engines I’ve seen. Each step can be mandatory or optional, and the system supports multiple serial and parallel approval chains.

For subject experts, contributing to a site is a breeze. The WYSIWYG editor’s multilingual interface allows users to copy and paste or drag and drop content from Microsoft Word, Excel, and browsers.  And the software skillfully manages links between pages and documents.

Advantage CMS’ document and asset management is less than what you would get with Documentum, yet it’s still impressive. Media files are subjected to the same check-in/check-out, versioning, and approvals as they are in systems such as Documentum.

I appreciated the modes that allowed me to navigate sites using a folder hierarchy or by using searchable lists and reports. Reports are quite extensive, not only providing Web site access data but also details about internal users, such as how many times someone logged on and which pages they changed.

Several uncommon capabilities round out Advantage CMS, including team discussions, a project manager, and a task manager.

CrownPeak Advantage CMS packs as much power as you’d likely need for handling a spectrum of corporate sites. Although the service lacks e-commerce, CRM (e-mail campaigns), and a few less important functions such as polls and chat, these are available from a number of CrownPeak partners.

iUploadContent Manager

iUpload Content Manager offers a fairly complete feature set for both developers and end-users -- without sacrificing usability for either group. Although this product is not intended for large, complex sites with a lot of authors, you can stretch iUpload in other directions.

Logging in to iUpload reveals a portal-like site, with the number and type of options displayed in a tabbed menu bar, based on role. As administrator, I first created templates and views for displaying content. After opening HTML pages in Dreamweaver, I merely inserted iUpload tags and content placeholders and placed the resulting files into the system.

Content Manager Version 5, released this past summer, includes several enhancements over past versions that should interest enterprise users. As with many other hosted offerings, with iUpload you don’t work with your Web site in context; rather, you surf through a folder hierarchy to find a page or element to edit. To mitigate this problem, various areas of the user interface, including the Site Architecture and Asset areas, have a quick search option.

The new rich text in this release has excellent Apple Macintosh and Mozilla browser support. This word-processing-style editor offers many text formatting options and tables. In addition, it cleans extraneous HTML tags hidden in text pasted from Microsoft Word. When edits had been completed, menu options allowed me to either view the page as it would appear on the live site, publish the page immediately, or set the date and time for changes to appear; it’s also possible to archive content, but that’s done in another area of the user interface, which is a bit inconvenient.

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