Enterprise Software

CMS alternatives: Low-cost tools bring high-end results

You can find low-cost alternatives to CMS offerings like Microsoft's Content Management Server. This article makes a case for choosing a system for your business and highlights a few of the choices.

With the recent release of Content Management Server, Microsoft has temporarily stolen the limelight in the CMS space. But if you're looking for alternatives, plenty are available, from no- to low-cost systems for updating your Web site to full-featured application environments that give you access to enterprise document management. Let’s look at why you should include a CMS in your infrastructure, and then examine a few CMS alternatives.

The case for content management
More and more organizations are recognizing the value of structuring public and proprietary information for easy access, controlled updates, and document creation for a wide range of employees and departments, and even for the public. For many small and midsize businesses (SMBs), the move toward content management begins with a need to adapt the company Web site or intranet so non-technical employees can update it easily.

This might begin when your HR director wants to make changes quickly and often to your intranet, but doesn't want to start a 10-step process involving your IT staff to do so. Neither you nor your HR director have time for a two-day training session in HTML. And let's face it—if managing the company intranet or Web site shows up on your list of job responsibilities, you really don't want everyone in the company to have free rein to make changes.

For larger companies, this initial need for basic content management is often coupled with a need to organize valuable documents from a variety of sources—usually with different data types, many of which might be obsolete—for easy employee access. This necessitates a longer view of your company's data management strategy and is going to require something a bit larger under the hood of your CMS.

Tip
If you're trying to figure out whether a CMS is right for you or how extensive your content management planning needs to be, there are a number of great articles on the subject around the Web, and right here at TechRepublic. These are just a few resources to get you started:

The alternatives
CMS systems abound on the Internet. However, a few stand out as excellent alternatives to the more mainstream CMS choices you've probably heard about. I gathered this list of CMS programs for their easy integration and low- to no-cost features.

Cofax
Cofax is a Java/XML CMS that was initially developed by Knight Ridder for easy management of its many news sites. It was released under an open-source license, similar to the Apache license, in early 2000, and is in use by a number of independent sites, as well as all the news sites in the Knight Ridder family. Because it's Java-based, Cofax is platform-independent and is database-independent as well, with support for MySQL, MS SQL Server, PostgreSQL, and any database for which JDBC drivers are available.

If you're in the market for a CMS that will specifically be used to make updates to your company Web site or intranet, Cofax is a good place to start. Although it lacks the advanced document management capabilities of many high-end enterprise management systems, it's simple to install and its browser-based interface is easy to use for non-technical employees who need to manage content on your site. Screenshots, documentation, and examples of live sites powered by Cofax are available on the product's Web site.

Aegir CMS
Aegir CMS is an open-source project that's based on the Midgard application framework and written to run on Apache. Like Cofax, Aegir is focused specifically on managing Web-based content, though the underlying framework will provide you with greater capabilities should you decide to get under the hood to do some extra development. To that end, Aegir is written in PHP, so support for extending its capabilities is widely available. Aegir's one major downside is its dependence on a Linux/Apache/MySQL environment.

If the lack of cross-platform support isn't a problem for you, Aegir provides a good range of features out of the box, including a Microsoft-compatible in-browser content editor (popular with end users), workflow management, and site architecture management. This last feature, combined with Aegir's PHP source, makes the product significantly more flexible than Cofax, because you can expose the architecture of your site to developers and the content to content managers, all within the context of the CMS. Since Aegir is template-based, designers also get to have input through the CMS. In addition to a number of commercial sites, Aegir also powers the Open Source Content Management project.

Zope
If you're in the market for something more robust, you may want to take a look at Zope, an open-source, object-oriented application server written in Python and C. It runs on most platforms, including a variety of flavors of UNIX and Linux, and Windows. Unlike Cofax and Aegir, Zope will provide you with a complete extensible application framework, in the context of which you can build not only a CMS for your Web site or intranet, but also a document management system for all of your distributed and archived data.

Zope is run entirely through a browser-based interface, making it particularly easy for end users to create, edit, delete, publish, and move content from within a GUI that resembles a Windows Explorer interface. The familiar paradigm of files and folders in a directory structure means a minimum of training and support to get employees up and running, and the object-oriented nature of the application means development time is also cut.

The application server makes extensive use of Document Template Markup Language (DTML), which might take a bit of getting used to, but is fairly straightforward and ultimately separates data, function, and presentation so that many of the problems that developers commonly deal with—including database connectivity, persistence, and security—are eliminated. Zope is also well known for its tight security (another built-in function) and extensibility, as developers can create modules for handling just about any type of data management.

Other sources available
So now you're ready to dig in and get started with a content management system. Of course, these are just a few of many options available, and you may want to look at some of the more "traditional" enterprise CMS products such as Documentum, Vignette, or FatWire if your needs are greater. No matter which product you choose, it's important to stay focused on achieving your business goals and realize that the software package involved is only one (often small) part of the equation; research, planning, and communication with other departments are the true keys to success.
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