Choosing a content management system

If you are playing with the idea of using a content management system (CMS), or if your organisation has already decided to deploy a CMS, then you are facing an important but difficult decision. On the one hand, you know that a CMS is the best way to handle your ever-growing content. On the other hand you are confronted with a bewildering variety of products that leaves you at a complete loss. To make things worse, you know that the choice of a CMS has a far-reaching implications on business processes. Choosing a CMS is not an easy task. It is imperative to select your CMS solution wisely. Deploying an inappropriate product may thwart your project, and it may even be worse than deploying no CMS at all.

In the pioneer days of the Web, there was only one way of publishing information: coding it in HTML and uploading it. The extreme simplicity of this approach was offset by its laboriousness. Developing, updating, and maintaining a medium scale website, say a hundred pages and more, required an insane amount of developer hours, and to make things worse, these were insanely expensive. The software industry soon responded to the dilemma by offering WYSIWIG editors and HTML code generators. With these tools it was possible to design and author websites graphically without having to care about nitty-gritty coding details.

The more advanced editors offered design templates, code snippets, plug-ins, and readymade sequences. They could generate the required set of HTML, JavaScript, and graphic files at a mouse click. These files then had to be uploaded one by one. Although this method is more efficient than manual coding, it still has several drawbacks. Whenever something is changed, pages must be generated and uploaded again, which is time consuming. Sometimes a small change in the design template can mean that hundreds of files need to be replaced. Moreover, the uploaded content is static. This means that it cannot change according to defined parameters, such as user preferences, sort order, date, and so on. Hence, static pages offer limited possibilities for interactive features. This drawback is overcome by the concept of dynamic web pages.

Dynamic pages are generated dynamically at request time. A dynamic web page is not a sequence of HTML tags, but an interpreted computer program (=script) that generates an HTML sequence according to predefined rules. This script is typically executed by a script language interpreter which passes on the resulting HTML sequence to the web server. Dynamical web page scripting unfolds its full potential in combination with an information repository, such as a relational database system, which holds the actual text and media contents. HTML code and information are merged when a user requests a page, and the result changes depending on defined conditions. Today, almost all large websites are based on this principle.

The CMS principle

A content management system (CMS) is a computer program that facilitates the collaborative creation, storage, delivery, distribution, and maintenance of “content”, that is documents, images, and other information. Typically the CMS is a web application and its content is distributed via the Internet or via a private intranet. A CMS exploits the principle of dynamic page generation and adds a further abstraction layer. It streamlines the process of web site creation by automating page generation and by applying templates and predefined features to an entire website. This allows the webmaster to focus on actual content creation and management. CMS either come with a special client software that allows webmasters to edit content and construct web pages, or there is a web-based administrator interface performing this function. The tasks of creating page layout, navigation, scripts and adding modules are left to the CMS. At the heart of every CMS is a database, usually a relational DBMS, which holds the information that constitutes the online content.

Types of CMS

Besides general purpose CMS that facilitate general website creation, there are a number of specialised CMS. For example, Wikis or Wikiwebs are CMS for the collaborative creation of knowledge bases, such as encyclopaedias, travel guides, directories, etc. These systems typically make it easy for anyone to change or add information. Publication CMS (PCMS) allow publishers to deliver massive amounts of content online. They are frequently used by media organisations and publishing houses to create web versions of their print media or broadcasts. Transactional CMS couple e-commerce functions with rich content. As in the case of, they are used for applications that go beyond standard shopping cart functionality. Integrated CMS (ICMS) are systems that combine document management with content management. Frequently, the CMS part is an extension of a conventional document management application. Enterprise CMS (ECMS) are large applications that add a variety of specialised functions to the CMS core, such as document management, team collaboration, issue tracking, business process management, work flow management, customer relationship management, and so on.

It is also possible to define market segments by licensing cost. In this case, we can distinguish the following types:

  1. Free open-source CMS (no licensing cost). These products are typically quite simple and focus on general purpose and publishing functionality. Portals and Wikis also belong to this category.
  2. Boxed solutions (up to $3,000.- USD). These products typically offer solutions that allow non-technical users to create and manage websites collaboratively.
  3. Midrange solutions ($3,001.- to $ 30,000.- USD) commonly have a greatly extended set of functions in comparison to boxed solutions, although scope and philosophy may vary significantly. For example there are web development platforms, as well as powerful ICMS in this category.
  4. High-end solutions ($30,001.- USD up) are usually targeted at the enterprise market. Solutions in this class are often designed to handle massive amounts and types of documents and to automate business processes.
  5. Hosted solutions (for a monthly subscription fee) can be found in all of the three previous categories. Instead of a on-time license cost, there is a monthly fee.

The market is highly fragmented and there is a great variety of products in every segment. The largest segment is general purpose CMS with a multitude of proprietary and open-source, commercial, and non-commercial solutions. The sheer number of products makes a comprehensive review practically impossible. It is vital to narrow down the selection of CMS by compiling a list of requirements beforehand. In particular, the requirements should specify what sort of content you wish to manage, which category of CMS you are likely to prefer, and what should be its key features and capabilities. For example, if you wish to maintain documents and web pages in multiple languages, it is important to look for a software that supports this from the outset. Although many CMS can be adapted to handle multilingual content, they do this in different ways. Some may be unsatisfactory to you.

CMS Selection Checklist

Sometimes it is useful to use checklists to determine product features. These can help to narrow down the number of products you might want to review more closely.

Commercial checklist

  • Availability
  • Price
  • Licensing model
  • Total cost of ownership

Technical checklist

  • Supported operating systems
  • Supported web servers
  • Supported browsers
  • Supported database systems
  • Required hardware
  • Programming language
  • System architecture

Functionality checklist

  • Content organisation model (hierarchic/segmented, centralised/decentralised, etc.)
  • Content generation features (editors, spell checkers, etc.)
  • Content attributes (author, publication date, expiry date, etc.)
  • Content delivery (presentation, layout, visualisation, etc.)
  • Content management (moving, deleting, archiving, etc.)
  • Content versioning (multilingual, multiple versions)
  • Media management (images, animations, audio, etc.)
  • Link management (automatic navigation, link consistency checks, etc.)
  • User management (authentication, security, granularity of access privileges, etc.)
  • Template management (design, installation, maintenance)
  • Features for searching and browsing content
  • Special features (email forms, feedback lists, discussion boards, etc.)
  • Extensibility (plug-ins, add-ons, third party modules, etc.)

Integration checklist

  • Integration with external text editors
  • Integration with external image and media editors
  • Integration with external data
  • Integration with static website content
  • Integration with legacy systems

Helpful websites

There are a number of websites that offer CMS comparisons, descriptions, tests, and reviews. These may be helpful in the second phase of selection. After requirements have been gathered and desired key features have been defined, these websites assist prospects in determining concrete products for closer review.


The final step in CMS selection is to review and evaluate concrete products. This step may be fairly labour-intensive. Vendors must be invited. A trial version of the product must be obtained. It must be installed and configured properly. Its basic functions and features must be learned. Test data must be entered. Meetings and group reviews must be scheduled and held. The whole process may have to be repeated with a number of different products. This may sound off-turning, but the do-it-yourself approach is really the only way to ensure that you get the right product.

Management involvement

As always, management involvement is crucial. The decision making process cannot be completely delegated to IT, because in the end, the job of the CMS is to automate a business function, not an IT function. Depending on the nature of your content, it may be a marketing function, an R&D function, a human relation function, or even a production function as in the case of publishing houses. Depending on how you use the CMS it may also have a large impact on organisational communication. Therefore, management should be involved in phase one and three of the selection process. At the very least, management should review and approve the requirements specification and join the final review meetings. Often it is important to get an idea of the “look and feel” of a product beforehand.

After the acquisition

Once the chosen CMS is acquired and properly installed, people may create and publish content as they wish and live happily ever after. Well, not quite. If users are happy with the system, there may be a quick and uncontrolled growth of content. If they aren’t, the system may gather dust and the electronic catalogues may remain empty. The usual approach to regulate this is to put a content manager in charge of the system. The role of the content manager is different from that of a traditional webmaster. While a webmaster needs to be very tech-savvy, a content manager merely needs to be computer literate. The main responsibility is content editing and organisation. Hence, the role of a typical content manager is that of an editor and librarian.

Long term perspectives

Proprietary content management systems are currently expensive, especially in the enterprise (ECM) segment. The overall market will remain fragmented in the medium term. In the long term, however, the CMS market is likely to be commoditised. This means free open-source systems are likely to dominate the market. Currently open-source products are encroaching the “boxed solution” and “midrange” market. There are even a number of powerful open-source CMS with web delivery focus, such as typo3, which are comparable to proprietary high-performance products. As open-source solutions get more powerful, this trend is likely to continue. Extensibility, a large user base, and commercial support will be crucial for a system to assume a market leader position. At this moment, however, there are no candidates in sight.