Content Management Systems

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Dan Shearer

version 1

Last edited September 2007

Or, finding a simple content management system that doesn't hold my data hostage.

I have modest needs from a Content Management System:

  • Mostly read-only, with fewer than 100 authors. So it should be as simple and non-confusing as possible for general web users
  • Lets me trivially reuse marked-up content from elsewhere, and is trivial for others to reuse the content
  • Lets me migrate easily to Something Else
  • A nice range of content organising features (I'm not a librarian, I need help in choosing metaphors for organising things.)
  • Good i18n support that doesn't require me to have a base/default language
  • Really, really easy to use for authors, encouraging us to record as much as possible

There are lots of OSS CMSs around, some of them very active projects and well-respected in the community of people who care about information organisation and presentation. Search for "CMS" on Freshmeat or in the site management category there. You have to poke around a bit, because categorising is difficult, systems can be for Site Management or even Blogs.

I looked at Midgard, Joomla, Drupal, Scoop, Plone, OpenPHPNuke, PHPGroupWare and others to a very cursory level. None of them came close to meeting my needs, which is surprising because I meet a lot of people who say they are looking for the same thing.

Content Centric

The biggest problem I have with the CMSs I looked at is that they are very good at the MS (Systems for Management) but they forget about the C (Content). And for most people the priority is safeguarding the present and future of the content. Many don't realise this when starting with a CMS, but after a lot of content creation they do -- and the sick feeling every time some technology change event looks like forcing them to migrate to something else!

For my content I want:

  • Longevity not just for the data, but all extra value I add such as formatting and change history
  • Accessibility not just from searching, but also from search engines and by references in other content on my own system
  • Accessibility to managers/editors with very little training - including for extracting, editing, importing from other sources and printing
  • Safety without a high cost - I want as little complication as possible in disaster recovery and rebuilding from nothing but a backup

Mediawiki Not the Answer

But it is what I'm using.

Mediawiki is not a comprehensive answer my first set of criteria. But it has two overwhelming advantages over everything else I tried. Mediawiki:

  • meets the second set of criteria quite well
  • has very low barriers to migrating to something else

In other words, I chose Mediawiki because it stopped me the least from throwing it away. Or, as I might say in a debate about software, Mediawiki comes with the least amount of lockin.

In the process, I have learned a bit more about Mediawiki including how to modify it so that it has a semblance of user interface design.

Private Namespace

I have modified MediaWiki to give it a private namespace. Although Mediawiki is specifically not designed to give reliable access control, in fact such access controls as there are seem to be very reliable and implemented in a minimum of code. So what I have done is simply take every core reference to the Project: namespace and make it subject to user login. This took very few lines of code and seems to work well. There is one leak, but none of the content is leaked so it gives a practical way of developing articles over time out of public view until it is time to publish -- perhaps with a collaborator, or just having a page of notes and impressions that gradually takes shape over time.

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