All content management systems try to address one basic requirement: to allow people to build and maintain a website in a way that seems familiar and largely non-technical to them.
Of course, apparent simplicity so often belies considerable complexity. A system which “just” allows people to build a website in a simple way has to cater to a range of needs from a range of users.
The great challenge for a really good CMS is to provide all the things you’re likely to need to build a website, and – crucially – provide a means for adding in things later which you haven’t even thought of yet. This isn’t trivial.
When I first started looking at CMS I found it was easy to get obsessed with lists of features. Until, that is, I realized all my lists were basically the same. I ended up asking the same questions and getting the same answers. How dull.
It’s a bit like shopping for a new car and being told by the salesperson “Hey, this car has 4 wheels, a gearstick, and this amazing new thing called a ‘brake’, which lets you slow down really fast!”. “Oooo a brake?!”, you’d say. “Wow that’d be really useful”. You get the picture.
Admittedly this was just me being a bit naive. But it’s also because the CMS world is young, and it’s still possible for salespeople to get overly enthusiastic about features which are far from amazing. Most CMS companies can provide you with a very helpful checklist with all the features in their CMS ticked off. Seriously, how useful is that?
So, after two years looking at different CMS offerings I’ve found basically three things that truly differentiate CMS: cost, quality of support, and the potential for extending the system.
The best things in life are free
Some systems cost a lot of money. Really, they do cost a lot. For the cheaper ones we’re talking the cost of a rather fast car plus thousands a year in support bills. The middling ones might set you back a small house, and the really big systems will get you a yacht in the Med. In the current economic climate one seriously has to question the return on such an investment.
Some systems are free.
Drupal is open-source and free.
We chose Drupal.
So, the obvious question follows: did we choose Drupal just because it’s open-source and free?
Well, no. (But it helped.)
Will the support be any good?
Anyone starting out in Drupal has plenty of help. If you don’t have a budget at all, you can get by with your own nouse… oh and by the way, the help of some very bright and eager people all around the world.
If you do have some budget there are also plenty of companies offering expert help and development time. The great thing is that you’ve saved a whole load of cash by going for open-source and not paying some company a licence fee to start with. You can therefore focus what money you have on getting the system set up properly, and not worrying about annual ‘top up’ fees.
Luckily at Kent we have some budget, and plenty of bright people to work on adapting Drupal to our needs. An open-source Drupal therefore made perfect sense.
In fact Drupal is so powerful it’s not really a CMS. It’s a sort of a blueprint with which web developers can easily build novel components (modules, in Drupalese) that other people can then use too. Drupal just looks like a CMS because so many people have spent so much time developing with it that the end result is a pretty good CMS.
Given enough developers around the world, you can see how modules provide a vast scope for added functionality. If there’s something you really need in your system, the chances are that someone else somewhere in the world needed it too, and has already written a module for it.
One of the really attractive things about Drupal is the scope for us at Kent to contribute back to the Drupal community, so others can benefit from work we do. The more we help build up Drupal, the more other institutions might start to use it, so the more the system improves, and more people start to use it. It’s this community aspect to open-source software which is so powerful.
Finally, I’d like to mention a recent shift in perceptions of Drupal towards its being a scalable, enterprise-level CMS. Originally Drupal was viewed as something which could be used for small hobby websites. You know, the sort with a single contributor which generally nobody really cared too much about.
In the last couple of years more and more very big websites have started using Drupal. One that springs to mind is Red Nose Day 2009 (http://www.rednoseday.com). They had half a million visits in two days. If you’re telling me Drupal can’t cope with large-scale deployments, what you’re really telling me is your network and/or hardware can’t cope with large-scale deployments. Drupal can cope just fine.
To add to the sense of movement, a company called Acquia was recently set up by the founder of Drupal, Dries Buytaert. Its short-term aim seems to be to make money out of Drupal support, but in the long-term it does intend to help guide the progress of Drupal into the world of large-scale, enterprise-level deployments. Whether the company will succeed or not - who knows. But the fact there there is a demand for Drupal to fill a large-scale CMS role is interesting.
Content mangement systems are numerous. Ultimately they all seem to offer very similar packages. At Kent University we’ve chosen Drupal because it’s open-source and free, and allows us great flexibility in how we build our system up. An added bonus is that we should be able to contribute our work back to the community, and benefit other like-minded institutions.