What types of Content Management Systems are available?

Introduction

If you are interested in learning more about content management systems, and what options are available the following article may be of interest to you. There are a wide variety of systems each with their own pro and con. I have organised the following in order from low-level editor to high-level code generators.

HTML editors (Hotdog, Homesite etc)

Hypertext markup language (HTML) editors represent the most basic type of Web editor. One needs a good working knowledge of HTML in order to utilise their power. HTML code is unattractive and for nontechnical people, difficult to get a handle on.<br> Many professional Web designers still code using HTML editors. Their argument is that it gives them more control over the final product. Further, they argue that after coding in HTML for a longtime they find it just as fast (or faster) than using more sophisticated editing products.

These editors don't really represent content management systems. I really just mention them here for thoroughness. If there is only one person editing and maintaining the content, and that person has a good working knowledge of HTML code, then they work well as a means of updating the website.

Web editing software (Dreamweaver etc)

Sophisticated editing tools such as Dreamweaver allow complete control over the appearance of the website and its content. They also allow true content management in the sense that more than one person can be editing the website simultaneously without conflicts arising. It is excellent in team environments.

Unfortunately, software such as this is very expensive to purchase and difficult and time-consuming to learn how to use effectively. It is designed primarily for professional use, for people who use it everyday to earn a living.

I don't recommend using Dreamweaver as a CMS solution to any of my clients for the above-mentioned reasons. However, it does work well with other CMS systems which is why mention it here.

Database driven content management systems

Database driven content management systems abstract the content on the site from the design and implementation of the site. This means that the data which appears (the text and graphics) is stored separately from the actual website design. The beauty of this is that all one needs to do to change the content, is to change what is in the database - the website will update 'itself'.

If you've ever been to a website with file names such as ' aboutus.asp' chances are it was a database driven website. Whenever you browse such a page the Web server 'constructs' the page by combining what the Web designer created (usually in Dreamweaver), with what is in the database for that particular page. It then spits out the merged results to your Web browser.

Database systems of this kind are usually much more expensive to create initially but easier to maintain in the long-term. Those modifying the content never need to know anything about Web design or HTML programming. They just edit the content in the database and leave the rest to the Web server.

I find these systems overly complex and therefore susceptible to more things going wrong. Web servers hosting such database systems usually cost more to operate. Finally, my clients still need training on the use of the database system.

In my opinion, for most small business websites this method of content management is excessive. For larger businesses, or businesses where the database is confined to stock items etc it can be extremely effective and well worthwhile.

Browser based content management systems

Browser based content management systems represent another kind of content management system which presents a simple interface to the client, the convenience of being able to edit the site from any terminal they happen to be at and it's cheap.

These systems allow you to use your browser to remotely edit the website through a friendly point and click interface. It's a little bit like using Microsoft Word by remote control over the Internet. The fonts, colours, text and images can all be modified with ease.

The other neat thing about these systems is that you don't need to install any special software in order to make it work. You simply login to your website, supplying username and passwords to authenticate who you are and to verify that you have permission to edit the site. You are then presented with an easy-to-use graphical user interface (similar to MS Word) allowing it to affect the changes which you require to make.

The fact that you don't require any special software means you can edit the website from anywhere in the World where there is a Web browser. You can edit some of the site at work, then go home that evening and being inspired, you connect up from home using a Web browser and make some more changes from home. The following day you catch a flight to Brisbane find yourself in an Internet cafe and decide to make some more changes from there.

Browser based content management systems offer a great deal of flexibility for those who travel a lot but still want to maintain their website.

The downside is that they are only as fast as your Internet connection. If your Internet connection is slow, the editing process will also be slow. They are also usually less powerful than the other options. For most people this is not problem as the majority of us simply want to correct spelling mistakes and add or remove the odd paragraph. They are also more time-consuming to initially set up.

Dedicated content management systems

These content management systems are 'the real thing'. They are powerful, easy-to-use, relatively inexpensive, and designed especially for the purpose of managing the content of a website. Training on the systems takes a matter of hours, even from novice. High-speed Internet connections are not required in order to use them.

They also allow additional features such as 'rollbacks' (a sophisticated form of undo), the saving of drafts which can later be published when complete, and the ability to use templates to forge new pages. Once the framework of a website is in place these systems allow the client full autonomy.

The downside of these systems is that they require special software to be installed on your computer thereby precluding mobility.

Code generators (FrontPage, Fusion etc)

Code generators are specialised software applications which take the layout of a web page and automatically write the HTML code necessary to produce that appearance on a browser. They abstract the 'what' from the 'how'. All you need to know is what you want the page to look like, and what content goes in it and the code generator figures out how to do it.

They are wonderfully friendly to use and do a lot of the hard work for you. Many of them can automatically generate site maps and navigation bars thus allowing you to concentrate more on the content and less on the technicalities of how to implement it.

It should be noted that code generators cannot be truly considered content management systems in the true sense as they do not allow any kind of sharing or multiuser environment.

Unfortunately, the code generated by these systems is often inefficient and messy. There is nothing like a human mind when it comes to writing solid code - or writing anything for that matter. The reason for this is because the computer needs to interpret what the user is trying to achieve. Interpretation often leads to error. Many assumptions need to be made about the content in order to render it effectively. The technical challenges are awesome and all things considered these editors do very well. The reason they generate messy inefficient code is because unlike a human being they lack imagination. They are unable to make the sideways leaps through thought which we do so easily.

The other problem with code generators is that they don't edit the code, they generate the code. This means that they store a database containing the definition of the website in a special format which only they understand. When the published button is pressed the code generator swings into action creating the HTML code and uploading into the server. This means that these systems are good if one person is in charge of the website maintenance. They don't work for multiple users.

My business website (www.vidoni.com.au) was created and is maintained using a code generator. As I'm the only one maintaining it this suits me very well. Further, by creating the HTML for me I can concentrate 100% on the what it is I want to say and leave the details to the software.

Having a good technical understanding of how code generators work allows me to keep an eye on the outputted HTML to make sure it's not excessively inefficient. I'm also able to use a few 'tricks' to keep it simpler than the code generator would otherwise have it.

The best thing about code generators is the speed. One can construct a very excellent website from zero in less than a day. If you are the only one who is going to be maintaining the site these systems represent a viable alternative.

Keywords : cms, content management systems, generator, dreamweaver, database driven content Author : Daniel Vidoni Daniel Vidoni Graphic & Web Design is based in Sydney, Australia and has almost two decades of experience with business solutions ranging from brochures and posters to e-commerce web site design. Its primary focus is the creation of custom web sites for small to medium businesses. http://www.vidoni.com.au/

Related links

* http://www.audiencedialogue.org/cms.html