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The evolution of the CMS: From SGML to the cloud

Take a trip down memory lane with Nick Hardiman, who looks at how far the Content Management System has come over the years.

I've been working with computers since CMSs (Content Management Systems) were obscure SGML applications used by aircraft manufacturers, the military, and other huge consumers of documents (I'm like well old innit?). Now we've got the web. The web is the world's biggest filing system. Web sites are filing cabinets, web servers are photocopiers and resources are documents.

In two decades of web building, industry applications have evolved from specialist tools for developers only to CMSs (Content Management Systems) that let everyone be a site builder - no developer skills required.

My CMS timeline

Look at these names from the past. How many have you heard of? Of the names you recognise, how many are still around?

In 1995 I was working for Motorola, a huge US telecoms company. I worked in the GSM division, coding my first ever dynamic website. The site helped customers track software shipments.

Like most web developers at that time, I used the Apache HTTP server, Perl scripting language and CGI (Common Gateway Interface). Libraries of Apache and Perl modules saved me from coding the clever stuff. The site was hosted on Sun Microsystems pizza box computers with Sparc chips and the Solaris OS. The job was all about understanding stateless machines, HTML and the HTTP protocol, and not about how it looked in Netscape Navigator (the great-grandfather of Firefox).

Web interaction was very limited, but the simplicity of the web form was a new wonder for the general public, who had by this point been tortured for years by awful computer interfaces. For any remotely complicated interaction we needed a thick client (I coded a couple using the TCL scripting language, Tk and Expect).

In 2000 I was working for BT (British Telecoms), a huge UK telecoms company. I worked in the Openworld division, BT's ISP for residential users. We ran a web portal for customers, which was powered by an expensive piece of enterprise CMS software called Vignette StoryServer. It was buggy, complex, and unfamiliar but it was a new wonder for enterprise customers. Vignette Storyserver combined components like templates, workflow, dynamic page generation, and even a page cache to bring proper publishing to the web. The TCL language was used in templates on the server side and Javascript used on the client side. Expensive consultants were available to build the system and train employees in its use.

In 2005 I built infrastructure for Interwoven Teamsite, another enterprise content management system with one of those eye-watering price tags. Interwoven Teamsite had content authoring tools, push-button deployment, and multiple site management. Expensive consultants were available to integrate TeamSite with enterprise systems.

In 2010 I rented a couple of virtual servers and moved my friends-and-family sites over to Drupal. Drupal did more than those early enterprise CMSs, and did it for free. It had more components than I had  time to check, worked well in highly available, high capacity architecture, was up to date with trends like accessibility, UX and I18n/l9n, was widely supported - the list went on. Expensive consultants were available, but then so was a free support community. Drupal set the CMS base line that commercial products had to beat to keep their customers.

Easy come, easy go

Everything evolves over time, including carrier-class companies like Motorola and BT, their IT suppliers and the technology stacks providing customer services.

One the technology side, the software we ran and the hardware we ran it on are long gone and many alternatives have appeared. In 1995 NTL and Telewest gave millions of consumers an alternative to BT dial-up by laying cable to homes. In 2000 PHP was gaining popularity as a web development language, and proved longer lasting than TCL. In 2005 PHP web frameworks starting appearing, and by 2010 there were more frameworks than there were coffee bars.

It's the same on the business side. In 1995 e-commerce spread across the web and the erosion of bricks-and-mortar commerce started. Business entities were replaced - Autonomy bought Interwoven and HP bought Autonomy. The BT team I worked in, the Openworld division, and even the BT logo are all gone.

Better or worse?

Two decades ago, the only way to get a dynamic website was to hire a programmer. Now the term site builder is on the rise, meaning someone who builds a sophisticated website using a point and click interface. All that development is automated behind the scenes.

The CMS has democratized website building by freeing it from the realm of the enterprise programmer and making it available to all. Website building now is a lot more complex. It was all so simple then - my perl-coding self from the past didn't have to worry about adhering to standards like accessibility for blind people, responsive design for smartphones, or language translation to Arabic. With great power comes great responsibility.

State of the art

How far have we come? What does the advanced territory look like? I turned to Acquia for the answers. Acquia is the company at the forefront of enterprise Drupal. Christopher Rogers, Senior Marketing Communications Manager at Acquia, said "The New York City MTA has moved to Drupal and Acquia Cloud to power the transit system's website. The site plays a critical role in alerting travelers to service disruptions and delays, particularly during storms and emergencies. Site traffic would surge threefold during such events, beyond the capacity of the MTA's former site infrastructure. Real-time transit information is critical to public safety during such events, and MTA needed an agile, resilient platform for its web properties."

"Today Acquia Cloud provides resiliency to serve up to 30,000 concurrent visitors to the MTA's service advisory site, with resiliency to handle traffic surges during weather and emergency events. With its Acquia implementation, MTA kept commuters informed through its website of dangerous conditions and service disruptions during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Additionally, the site today features a dynamic, engaging experience with real-time service data. Content managers are able to easily update site contents and keep commuters informed with up-to-the-minute transit information."

So there you go. The New York Metropolitan Transit Authority's cloud-based CMS helps 30,000 concurrent visitors with real life. How incredibly far we have come.

Share some of the CMSs you've worked on or worked with over the years.

About

Nick Hardiman builds and maintains the infrastructure required to run Internet services. Nick deals with the lower layers of the Internet - the machines, networks, operating systems, and applications. Nick's job stops there, and he hands over to the ...

2 comments
DecibelTechnology
DecibelTechnology

I'd welcome feedback from the community on the functional needs of a CMS, and whether they feel that there is an opportunity for new CMS developers to leap-frog historic market leaders by providing innovative new products? As an agency side marketeer I've long been frustrated by what was on the market, both licenced and open-source, which led me to create Decibel CMS from the ground up. Following incredibly positive feedback from existing clients, we took Decibel CMS to the market last year, and this week launched a free developer license. Decibel CMS is based upon an open API (Application Programming Interface), which opens up Decibel’s advanced, enterprise level framework and CMS to be fully extensible so that developers have complete control to build new or extend existing features. After integrating the website design into Decibel, they simply write their code in an app, and plug and play. Importantly as Decibel can’t be edited directly, it retains its integrity, stability and security. Decibel is particularly well suited to PHP 5 object-orientated developers with experience of MVC frameworks. Decibel can be used for developing a broad range of websites, extranets, intranets and web-based business applications. With its sophisticated caching solutions Decibel is ideal for developing high-traffic functional applications, while the platform provides an array of extensible objects that simplify common web development tasks, from creating a new type of content module to writing an authenticated web service. If anybody would like to register for a free developer licence it can be found here: http://www.decibeltechnology.com/developers. I'd love to hear people's feedback on the system.

abrennan
abrennan

I have used Ektron for the past 8 years. At the time we started using it their WYSIWYG editor (called eWebEditPro) was being used by other well known CMS... The Ektron CMS itself allows our non-technical users to update & manage content with little or no knowledge of HTML. Empowering our users, reducing reliance on our IT team! The latest verison uses the WYSIWYG editor called ALOHA. To further enhance the user experience... The CMS has defintiely freed website management from the realm of the programmer.

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