Choosing an Open Source CMS -- Planning, Playing, and Page Views

by Ostatic Staff - Dec. 31, 2008

There are a number of full featured open source content management systems out there. Content management systems (CMS) are used increasingly in lieu of more "traditionally" managed web pages, on various sites with diverse audiences and very different goals. They can be updated quickly, easily, and require very little (if any) knowledge of how the inner plumbing works.

There are, of course, proprietary CMS platforms. Many -- from individuals to businesses -- opt for open source alternatives. Cost is naturally a factor, but having used both closed and open CMS platforms, it's been my experience that the open alternatives offer better features, an increased ability to modify and customize easily, and behave with more consistency in different browsers than most of their closed counterparts.

Finding the right open CMS for your needs is the hardest part. But there are a few considerations and rules of thumb that can make this decision a little easier.

The major open source CMS/blogging platforms -- Drupal, WordPress, Joomla, Alfresco and Mambo -- have features that cater to administrators with varying levels of technical expertise, as well as specific visitor and site functions.

Know your audience

It makes sense to consider the people who'll be coming to your site. The appeal of open CMS platforms to many is that besides a number of customized themes available in the respective communities, they are simple to customize (at least on a purely aesthetic level) with relatively little programming knowledge.

That's where it's easy to go off-track. The curb appeal of your site is important, and open source solutions are great for making your site stand out, even if you are using fairly standard design templates. What your site looks like is somewhat CMS dependent (for instance, OStatic uses Drupal, which presents a bit differently -- color schemes aside -- than GigaOM's WordPress installation), but it's almost always negotiable, and even very different platforms can get the "look."

Presentation is important to site visitors. It's what's on the site that keeps them coming back. Of course, this is largely content dependent -- and it may be that a major component of your content is visitor/user driven. Some open CMS lend themselves more readily to a "community" setting.

Tweaking the "look" of the site is usually much simpler than tweaking visitor-centric features. Drupal, Joomla, and Alfresco, like other open content systems, offer a modular configuration. Adding community features in this way is similar to adding extensions in a browser. How these modules are installed on the CMS, and how they ultimately behave, are important to consider.

Joomla, for instance, installs and manages modules in a very visual, "friendly" manner. While this is ideal for those who don't have extensive experience with mucking around behind the scenes, it makes it a bit more troublesome to roll out unusual configurations, or sometimes even tell why something isn't working as expected.

Drupal tends to require more "hands-on" work with deploying modules. Depending on how different pre-existing modules are from what you'd like to have on your site, a site function might take minutes to roll out, or significantly longer.

WordPress has historically been a blogging platform, but there are a number of features and plugins that invite further visitor interaction (in a more limited sense than the aforementioned content systems). If your site relies on internally driven content (WordPress supports multiple author accounts) with visitor interaction and input as a secondary focus, it might be a better match for your needs.

It is key, especially if you've not mastered the finer points of the traditional programming languages used on the web, or in specific module design, to choose a CMS that has a majority of the modules that mostly closely match what you'd like to offer your visitors. Checking out the platform is important, but look at the extensions you'd want to use, and do some detective work on how well they work on sites with similar audience demographics as you'd see visiting.

My tech skills are...

Most of the mentioned open CMS platforms are relatively simple to deploy, and the respective communities are helpful for ironing out any wrinkles. Some are decidedly more intimidating to install and update than others, however.

I've found Joomla is one of the friendlier "true CMS" applications in terms of installation and maintenance. If community is a lesser focus, WordPress, with its now famous five minute install, and automatic update feature can make life simpler.

The others, while possibly more intimidating, and requiring varying amounts of manual labor, are almost liberating to the right administrators. While all of these projects are open source, some of the traditional "heavy lifters" make the process of getting in and seeing how all the components fit together less convoluted.

Webhosting providers often offer automated installs of these content management systems. This is helpful -- with installation. It's also good to keep in mind that installation happens, ideally, once. Keep the bigger picture in mind.

If you are able, testing on a local machine is always recommended. It will allow you to experiment if you're having trouble making a decision, or test (and configure) the CMS you've chosen. I'm partial, of course, to using the LAMP stack (Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP) to test sites locally. There are a number of options (XAMPP, WAMP for OS X and Windows) that make testing locally on other operating systems easy.

There are a lot of good, strong, open source content management systems out there. Thinking beyond installation -- considering long term goals, audience, and tech skill involved -- will increase the likelihood of choosing one that not only "sticks," but works exceedingly well.