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CMS Questions


CMS FAQs 1 - this page
CMS FAQs 2 - continued

Lots of CMS questions here! These pages are an extended CMS Q&A, and answer questions the site gets on various content management system topics that have either not yet been included in the main content, or because it is possible to give a more specific answer here. It is a useful guide to the issues people enquire about.

We also set up a whole new page for the most frequent question of all:
Compare Joomla and Wordpress for CMS
Here, on these pages, the questions are sometimes logical, sometimes pretty weird - so we kept to that agenda with the answers...

CMS questions on this page:
A good ASP CMS that uses the Access database?
Why is there no good .NET CMS?
Best cms for running a business website?
Best ecommerce CMS?
Best basic PHP CMS?
CMS v Dreamweaver?
CMS drawbacks?
Joomla ACL explanation?
Difference between ecommerce and cms?

Q : A good ASP CMS that uses the Access database ? 
A : No way.

The Microsoft Office suite database application Access should never be used on a website in any circumstances. It is strictly a PC app and was never intended to run on a server. Just because it's easy to install it on a Windows box that is being used as a server is no reason to use it.

It is impossible to harden Access effectively against Internet attacks, and where it has been used there have been some famous exploits with severe consequences for those affected.

The Microsoft server database app is called MS SQL Server, and this is what should be used on any MS server. Alternatively, you can install MySQL and PHP on a Windows server and use that instead. All properly set up Windows servers have PHP and MySQL on them.

If you find your proposed host has Access running on the server, you should seriously consider their competence to operate servers. And don't try to build your own server using Access - if you are trying to do this, you clearly don't have enough knowledge to do the job safely and someone will get hurt.

Q : Why is there no good .NET CMS ? 
A : Interesting question with several answers.

1. There are, but you're looking in the wrong place.
2. The open-source ASP CMS field is tiny compared to PHP CMS, and even smaller compared to all CMS.
3. There doesn't need to be, because a CMS is a better version of .NET anyway.

Taking answer (1) first: I think you need to look at Umbraco (www.umbraco.org) or DotNetNuke (www.dotnetnuke.com). Did you know of their existence? These are successful open-source ASP / .NET CMS.

As regards commercial .NET CMS - there is a much higher ratio of commercial offerings to OSS offerings in the ASP CMS field, than in the PHP CMS field. If you want to go commercial there are plenty of very capable offerings.

This isn't our area since we know a lot more about PHP CMS (mainly since the world is biased toward PHP v ASP for CMS in a proportion of around 50:1 or thereabouts). Microsoft code-based CMS applications are very much more restricted in the choice of server and ancillaries, so are a minority choice. Those we have worked with have been of excellent quality - often better than some PHP solutions - but the problem for us is that because of the server restrictions, in the real world they are much harder to manage efficiently. And more expensive to host of course.

This is mainly because of two factors: whether your ASP CMS needs to run in a Medium-, High- or Full-Trust environment; and also because you'll need MS SQL Server database on the server, which is rarely free, in contrast to the MySQL and PosrgreSQL databases on LAMP servers. Therefore, in general, ASP CMS costs more to run, even for very small sites, which still need the basic facilities and have to pay for hosting that would suit much larger websites.

And answer 3: this refers to the fact that, essentially, .NET is a way to manage hand-coded sites, and is not therefore necessary with a CMS - which is a hundred times easier to manage in the first place. Certainly, .NET is popular in ASP CMS, but is a restricted coding method compared to XSLT. In PHP CMS, few use WebDAV (sort of an equivalent) as that is hardly necessary, though eZpublish is an exception here.

Q : Best cms for running a business website ?
A : A reasonable question, naturally. What budget?

In CMS you start with the budget - the field is so big, you need to start by whittling it down somehow. If you are in the over-£20k market, then canvas the big commercial CMS suppliers, and in open-source / semi-commercial eZ Publish or Alfresco are big hitters with similar-cost solutions.

For the £3k/$5k to £20k/$30k range then you can pick any one of the value commercial CMS; semi-commercial CMS (which are big players here); or enterprise-class OSS CMS; if you are going to do the job properly and have a commercial install and support package then the cost can be in this area even with OSS solutions. The latter group includes Drupal, Plone and eZ Publish.

If you intend to have a small site then perhaps a commercial Drupal or eZpublish install will not be expensive.

Alternatively, if you do not require complex ACL or features such as versioning, then you can get online for least cost in the shortest time with something like Joomla or Mambo, which have the best visuals despite having among the lowest costs. A very basic site might even use a lightweight cms such as CMS-MadeSimple or SkyBlueCanvas.

To be any more precise requires a lot more background; and also of course, in certain circumstances, the answers given here would be wrong. We need the background.

The best policy is to start with a list of requirements and even constraints: for example, Year 1 budget = £4k/$6k; must use standard web hosting (e.g. hosting cost <£200 per year). So then you know that you are looking at an open-source CMS that remote-installs on a normal shared hosting LAMP server.

You can see how the process runs, from this example. Budget; core requirements; constraints.

Q : Best ecommerce CMS ?
A : Another 'best' question? OK, let's try and help. Firstly, you need to be a little bit more specific. Start with your budget: if it is over £30k/$50k per site then you should look at the big commercial applications as that will be the best route for you.

If your budget is from £5k/$7.5k upward we think eZpublish is a good bet here. It is solid and dependable, with a lot of commercial support options. There are some server issues here so it is not the best choice for a standard shared hosting deal.

If your budget is below £5k/$8k then you are looking at various OSS or semi-commercial options. Here you can take your choice according to what you consider the most important features. Remember that no CMS performs as well in ecommerce as a full-blown ecommerce application - how can it? So if you choose an integrated CMS-ecommerce solution (which is basically a CMS with a simple shopping cart), be aware that you will never get the full ecommerce package as in MivaMerchant5 or osCommerce, for instance. (As an example of what is meant by this, osCommerce has around 500 payment gateways available; the standard CMS-ecommerce package has about 10 to 20.)

You can use a CMS with integrated ecommerce - Joomla-Virtuemart is one of the best here - or bridge or co-install a CMS and an ecommerce app. For instance you could use a budget ecommerce application and link it with a lightweight CMS of your choice. There are two main issues that we have found when going this route: the membership lists and the htaccess files. There are often conflicting requirements here.

If you are not a developer but have a small budget, try Joomla plus one of the commercial add-on carts for it. Alternatively, just go with Joomla-Virtuemart; it suits many thousands of people in your situation. Virtually every CMS - finally, at long last - has an ecommerce add-on; but they are mostly very basic.

It depends what you need to sell exactly:
  • Digital products are the easiest of all and require little or no capability;
  • Selling a very limited range of products that just ship within one country only is the next step up, and may not require much in the way of checkout options (depending on the products of course).
  • Selling a range of items with different tax and different shipping methods, to two or more countries, will start to really stretch your ecommerce backend's capabilities.
For this sort of capability you would do well to start out in this area and work back: define what your backend needs to do first, then find applications that will handle it. It is certainly not the case that a powerful CMS will have a powerful ecommerce backend. At least two big CMS spring to mind immediately where the capability of the ecommerce backend is in inverse proportion to that of the core application.

Q : Best basic PHP CMS ?
A : Well, you may know that we don't really use the term "Best this" or "Best that", it depends on so many factors. However, here you have defined the market quite well so we'll take a chance and give a specific answer. We think CMS-MadeSimple is a good choice here.

Once again, it isn't "The Best", as you may have other requirements that this application does not accord with - but we can't know that. CMS-MS is probably the fastest to set up, and is skinny enough to do the job without frightening people off. It also has some good features that you will find useful later on - like custom metadata for instance.

You build your basic page first in a normal visual editor, then import that as the template. Just create a header, footer and menu if you like, then you're off. The best advice we can give here is this: validate your basic page first. There is no point in building on a shabby foundation, so go to the W3C online validator and ensure that the page you are starting out with as a template validates 100% to begin with.

Another alternative is a cms from the micro-CMS class, a term we invented to describe basic content management apparatus that is essentially a crossover between a blog application and a cms. These are certainly relevant to this question. WordPress and Movable Type are good apps to trial before deciding. WordPress is probably the fastest and easiest of all for simply getting text up onto the webiste. Movable Type offers more options that lean toward the definition of a CMS as against a simple publishing tool. In all probability both of these choices will enable a faster start than CMS-MS, for the average user.

Q : cms v dreamweaver ?
A : Often, people ask things like "Compare Dreamweaver and CMS", or "What are the pros and cons of CMS v Dreamweaver" and so on. Here is an explanation.

Dreamweaver is a standard web page editor for hand-coded sites, where each page is built separately and FTP'd up to the site; a CMS is server-resident software that runs a website from a database rather than web pages. There are pros and cons to each system; but if you want to edit your page content quickly and easily, or change the content often, or indeed just have a big website - then a CMS is most likely a much better proposition.

Dreamweaver is the de facto hand-coded web page author and site manager. That means it is the benchmark visual HTML editor, and also a good way of managing a hard-coded (standard, normal web page) site, as it inserts all the links correctly, at varying directory levels; and also syncs the livesite and dev site - it edits the on-server website via built-in FTP, to reflect changes made to the local site, i.e. the developer's version on the PC.

It is now an extremely capable application, though this also means the learning curve for novices is very steep - even though it is a visual editor and not a code-based one. Because it does so much (even PHP and ASP coding for instance) it is a highly complex piece of machinery. It actually takes years of experience to get the best out of it.

However, good though it is, it can only work with standard HTML sites, and close variants such as PHP-format ones. Such sites are all termed 'hard-coded' as they are built on custom code from the ground up - though, with a visual editor, this is transparent to the user. Each page has to be built by hand, although of course there are some shortcuts. There will probably, nowadays, be some semi-dynamic functionality built in. 

Dreamweaver has some excellent validation tools built in. These can be complex if you don't know the score, which is probably why 75% of developers don't even bother to validate their web page code and produce a lot of garbage.

It can also be used very successfully to author CMS templates. For example, there is a Dreamweaver plugin that enables a complete Joomla template package to be created (such templates are not just a single page, they are a group of files such as a PHP master file, graphics, CSS files, and an xml file list). Our favourite Dreamweaver version is DW-MX2004; and also DW3 which gets used as a fast and skinny site sync-and-link app, with its convenient built-in FTP. Sometimes we have DW3 and DW-MX both installed at the same time, as both are good for different jobs.

Incidentally, we also like SiteSpinner, which is the best-supported layer and CSS-based editor. If you know what z-order refers to, then this might be of interest. Layer-based visual editors like this worked using these modern methods, now the recognised standard, before Dreamweaver et al had even heard of divs and were still using things like cells and tables as the basis for HTML pages. Ugh! Remember FrontPage??

A WCMS (website content management system) is a completely different proposition. It could legitimately be referred to as a website generator, and is a program that resides on a server, hooked into a database. There are no web pages on the server. When a browser requests a page, the CMS builds it in a fraction of a second, unless it is in memory due to being requested recently.

This is a fully-dynamic application and can therefore be set up to perform a multitude of tasks under changing conditions. In addition, new features and functions can be added via plugins, which are small add-on programs that contribute more capabilities. Website visitors can have many more ways to interact with the site, and the overall functionality is unbeatable. Add to this the ease of content management - storing it, moving it, repurposing it, editing it; and the clear advantages of a CMS are apparent.

Of course, there are situations where this route is not the best choice; but not that many of them. Dreamweaver still performs some useful functions even in the world of CMS, so it's not quite dead yet...

Q : cms drawbacks ?
A : First, go to these pages which look at this subject in depth:

Why you don't need a CMS
Reasons not to choose a CMS

Then, here's a brief resumé of those pages:
  • CMS is best for fast user content edits - getting complex sites online fast - multi-feature sites - user interaction sites - sites with frequent content changes - very large sites - sites that need a fast business-like solution - straightforward control of large amounts of content - sites that may benefit from extended functionality in the future, by way of easy plugin additions - any site that needs a fast non hard-coded solution.
  • It is not the best choice for custom-coded projects with functionality that is not normally seen within a CMS. If you have a big budget then custom coding may be better.
  • It may not be the best choice for some art-based projects. This specifically refers to sites that major on custom graphic layouts; or wish to present pictures or similar material in widely differing layouts on different pages.
  • A WCMS needs basic server management access and a database. In some cases, where the hosting is of very poor quality or there are external restrictions placed on the site operator, it will not be possible to utilise a standard CMS. In this case an alternative format can be used - the flat-file CMS - but this is not a full-feature solution.
So there are a huge number of sites that will benefit - but not all sites.

Q : Joomla ACL explanation ?
A : ACL with reference to CMS means access control levels or lists, or how group privileges are managed.

This has to do with user rights, but in a more specific form: if there are certain levels of user, such as non-members, registered members, and editors - then for advanced ACL we need to be able to pick any members from any of the (registered) groups and assign them to another separate group.

Such assignment then gives additional user rights - an additional role - to these selected members. In practice they will no doubt be able to access additional sections on the site; they may be able to perform certain actions there such as authoring, editing or publishing.

Another role that could be assigned is for a specific group, only, to be able to access a given page; or to be able to see a certain piece of content on a page. Full ACL, then, implies granular control of access and privileges - meaning control of allocations at a very detailed level. This is not present in Joomla.

In Joomla there are just 2 privileged user groups in the core, which must be extended by an ACL plugin in order to improve the capability. The groups are:
  • Guest (no rights)
  • Registered (registered member, a user with varying rights)
  • Special (all backend admins)
Therefore there are just two ACL groups, Registered and Special. There are 8 pre-set user rights levels in total, for frontend and backend access. However, there are no additional group roles available (within the core application), so that we can say Joomla has only basic ACL. For this reason, it is not a true enterprise-level CMS: an application that can be used within an organisation for multiple tasks by multiple groups, with some common access areas. In Q1 2010 we might see the first Joomla version with core ACL, v1.6, which will have more than the current 2 usergroups.

Note that although there are 8 userlevels, there are only two groups with privileges, which is what ACL is concerned with.

Naturally, in the Joomla tradition, some plugins have been written to extend functionality here. It may be found that one of these will suffice for a specific task that needs slightly extended ACL.

Here are the Joomla user levels existing in the core:

Frontend Access:
Public website
Registered member

Backend Access:
Super Administrator

The 3 usergroups (including unregistered guests) line up with content viewing rights as follows:

Public            viewable by all
Registered      viewable by members
Special          viewable by admins only

So to round up:
  • There are 3 total usergroups, of which 2 have rights and privileges and can therefore be called ACL groups.
  • There are no additional ways to create groups in the core app, but this can be added via plugins. This procedure has been strictly for sysadmins in the past as it sometimes involved executing some SQL operations directly on the database.
  • There are 4 registered member levels who have elevated frontend access rights, which include the ability to upload content. They can see 'registered members only' content.
  • There are 3 admin levels with access to the backend control panel. They can see 'special' content.
  • Since Joomla does not have any form of granular ACL in the core, it is not a good choice as an enterprise CMS where different groups own various sections of information. In addition, certain other tools required at this level are not present (such as versioning).

The biggest drawback is probably the lack of versioning - this means pages can be wiped accidentally and there is no way of reverting. There's a plugin though...

Q : Difference between ecommerce and cms ?
A : Similar technology but for a different purpose. A CMS handles content for viewing, an ecommerce app handles products for sale.

An ecommerce application is server software that runs from a database and provides an online shopping facility. Products are displayed, and can be bought with a credit card, via customer interaction with the website. The order is presented to the brick & mortar staff who arrange despatch and shipping. Even this stage can be automated further in some cases, such as digital downloads or drop-shipping.

A CMS or content management system is server software that runs from a database and provides an online display of content, which may be of various types. The most common use is as a simple publishing tool to present text content and images.

However, as the applications become ever more capable, the limits of what is possible for a CMS are being pushed back. An interactive experience using video, music and other media is now possible, and the cms may be repurposed for many different roles such as a blog, wiki, forum, document repository, questionnaire site based on webforms, magazine, or many other uses.

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The biggest potential of all is for combination systems that combine the job of CMS and ecommerce application, and do it well. There are very few contenders in this area at present, but thousands - and potentially millions - of possible business users. The main problem is that this is about the most complex web application possible, and there are fewer teams of coders who can create a viable end product here.

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