Home arrow Compare CMS - 1
Compare CMS - 1 - Intro
author: Chris Price
originally published: 2007-09-01
last update: 2009-09-08

Compare CMS - Part 1 - Introduction

Here is a guide to CMS, and a comparison of website Content Management Systems.

Our CMS guide is intended to do three things:

  • Tell you about the world of content management systems
  • Point out the most important features
  • Compare the most popular software
We will look at:
  • Open-source CMS and commercial CMS
  • PHP-SQL CMS on LAMP servers versus ASP CMS on Windows IIS servers
  • Flat-file CMS applications - an alternative for no-MySQL or even no-SQL situations

This large CMS FAQs section is concerned entirely with
WCMS - that is, website content management systems, rather than applications for managing an enterprise's internal content.

If you are a newcomer to the world of dynamic website applications, then you are lucky to have landed here. This is the Guide To CMS And Everything we wish we'd had, when we started. It generally takes techies at least a couple of years to get to the stage where they start to comprehend all the issues we lay out for you here; so use it and be thankful. It's written so that there is nothing left to guess and wonder about: all you need to start out is here in these pages. The ecommerce section just down the menu fills in the gaps for shopping cart applications. If you appreciate what we provide, you can do one thing to show it: link to us from your site, or use a social bookmark service like Reddit (more info here) if you have no website, Thanks.

Who this section will be of use to

  • Website owners who are planning a change from a hand-coded flat site
  • Web designers investigating the world of CMS, and who need to add to their skillset
  • Webmasters who need more knowledge
  • SEO personnel who need to learn about database-driven website applications
  • Anyone who needs more background, for better decision-making
  • Anyone who needs to know what the upgrade options are, when moving up from HTML sites

CMS Section Index   Start here for all the WCMS-related pages on this site.

Part 1: This page, an introduction to CMS
Part 2: Looks at choosing a CMS, and the features to check
Part 3: Examines popular CMS apps
Part 4: Looks at no-MySQL CMS: MS servers; flat-file CMS
Part 5: Discusses how CMS works
Part 6: Provision of SEO-friendly CMS: CMS implementers
Part 7: Could be, CMS isn't right for you: Why you might not need a CMS

More CMS tech resources:

CMS Terminology guide
CMS Q & A: specific CMS questions
Compare Joomla v Wordpress for CMS
Drupal v Joomla - a PHP CMS comparison
Compare CMS v wiki v blog v forum

Hosted CMS
Go here for CMS hosting resources

Part 1:

CMS introduction
Is CMS the wrong choice for you?
What is the best CMS?

Best commercial CMS
Best free CMS

Best CMS for image-based websites

Dynamic applications
Choosing a CMS
Large commercial CMS implementations
SEO for CMS - search issues

CMS Introduction

CMS definition: a website Content Management System, in its usual form, is a server program that stores web page text and publishing details in a database, instead of as HTML-format pages. The pages do not exist until requested by a browser, and are built on demand, sourcing any associated files required such as images from local folders. Many types of content can be organised and published, and the layout, appearance and structure of the site can be changed easily and quickly, since it is based on templates, and therefore content is separate from presentation - unlike a normal hard-coded site. The content can be edited online and goes live immediately. Functions and features can be added rapidly in the form of plugins. Different content can be served to different visitors, according to their language or location. Visitor interaction with the site is more easily arranged than with a static or HTML site.

A CMS can be extended, sometimes radically, in order to add new functions and features. Because the system is dynamic (ie changing, both as a fluid rather than static website engine, and also the pages themselves when required), it can perform many more tasks, more completely, than a static or semi-dynamic site, aka a hard-coded site.

This dynamic system clearly has numerous advantages over the more usual static-page  website. A CMS is now the preferred choice for those who want easy content changes, simplified control of large amounts of content, a choice of plugins to accomplish a wide variety of tasks; and above all, the ability to do a lot more, a lot easier, and a lot faster than with any other system.

A CMS has so many advantages over a conventional 'flat' or static site, or even a semi-dynamic version, that most enterprises will change to one. It is likely that CMS penetration of the enterprise sector will achieve 75% or higher, since costs go down and facilities improve radically.

Some brief points on why a CMS is the best solution in practice:
  • The client, or client's staff, can do their own page text edits. This is simply done online via the browser, using a plugin WYSIWYG editor.
  • A quick text edit can be completed in a couple of minutes or less. It goes live on the site immediately.
  • Users can create new pages and even new website sections.
  • The implementer can get a large site up and running faster than with any other solution - many times quicker than using a PHP or ASP solution.
  • Achieving a clean and impressive look to the site is much easier as a CMS is template-based.
  • The templates can be modified to get an individual 'look'.
  • There are normally a wealth of plugins for many additional functions that would otherwise take a lot of custom work. For example a forum, blog or wiki is often a plugin solution.
  • Plugins like these are properly integrated: they use the common membership database, so that there is a single sign-on.
  • A CMS is the only solution for a large site that needs regular text edits or content changes.
  • Many people would say that a CMS is now the best solution even for small sites that have regular content changes or edits.

Open-source v commercial WCMS

There are a large number of free open-source CMS apps. Open-source does not mean second-class; on the contrary it means that the best in the world can contribute. The Internet runs on open-source, and few would say that Apache or Linux are second-class. This means that a free application can be used in order to trial the concept and refine the requirements.

In fact there are many arguments that open-source can potentially provide higher quality. This is because the wide variety of programming skills and input that a project can attract, and the huge number of man-hours that a finished and fully-developed product will need. As an example, it is estimated that one of the popular open-source PHP applications would have taken $5 million to develop commercially. Obviously, few commercial providers would be able to organise this level of input - which explains why open-source content management systems are frequently of demonstrably higher quality than commercial rivals.

In the end, many users find an open-source (or semi-commercial) product that fills their needs perfectly. One reason for this is that the software cost is unlikely to be the main expenditure, except in the smallest of projects - therefore the initial license fee may not be the key factor (unless it is comparatively high).

Commercial and semi-commercial products are available at all cost levels. An enterprise needs to choose a solution based on budget, quality, functionality, fitness for purpose, future-proofing, and implementation / support options.

Is CMS the wrong choice for you?

And to make sure that the argument is balanced, here are some reasons why you wouldn't want a CMS, or perhaps an open-source CMS:
  • A CMS may be the wrong choice if you have an art or graphics-based site - unless your developers are talented in this area.

  • If you have a four-page site that hardly ever changes, you don't need a CMS.

  • OSS (open-source software) is particularly weak in the area of documentation. It is frequently either missing or terrible. There are a few exceptions, though - which are notable because of their rarity.

  • Community support is very important for OSS, especially because of the lack of documentation. However, an expert is needed to interpret the resulting information.

  • If you are running a large commercial site, and are not a developer yourself, it is inevitable that at some stage you will require commercial support. This is unlikely to be cheap, even in OSS.

You will need to lay out your requirements - and even your future requirements - very carefully indeed before committing to a long-term solution. The best policy here would be to ask the advice of two or three experts (and that in no way includes peoples' opinions on a forum). At least, with OSS, the financial cost of making the wrong decision first time should not be excessive, only the time expenditure is painful. This is one advantage of OSS.

What is the best CMS?

There is no answer to this question. Currently it is estimated that there are up to 3,000 website content management systems available; each has strong and weak points - or, more accurately, is designed for a purpose. The applications can be divided into groups, and then having selected a group you can then add further criteria to sub-divide further and see which may be most suitable. There are numerous ways we could divide these website engines:
  • Free or commercial
  • Commercial cost range: low - medium - high
  • LAMP or IIS
  • PHP or ASP, or other codebase
  • PHP-MySQL, or ASP-MS SQL Server, or other combination
  • Database type: SQL or flatfile
  • MySQL, PostgreSQL, or Oracle database
  • CMS class - provider-consumer, community type, or other main class
  • Main functions available in the core
  • Remote installation, or can only be installed on a local machine
  • Shared hosting, or dedicated server only
  • Your choice of host, or a hosted solution only
  • Backend-only editing; or both backend & frontend
  • Basic operation; or extended, with multiple plugins required
  • Strong ecommerce support - or the more usual token support
  • Defined templating system or grow-your-own
  • Prioritised for a user-type or media publication type
  • Normal server-side operation, and/or client-side generation of site

You can see that it is necessary to be more specific before any question of 'best' or similar is considered. 'Best in class' is perhaps a better classification - for your particular purposes. Since CMS can be divided and sub-divided into groups so extensively, the question may well be answered for you when your requirements are defined accurately.

Best commercial CMS

Again, this is an imponderable - you will need to be more specific. Firstly, what price range are we looking at? Here are some possible groupings:
  • Up to $10,000 - up to £5,000 - up to €7,000
  • $10k to $30k (£5k to £15k, €7k to €21k)
  • Over $30k (over £15k, over €21k)

Here are three price groups, for the cost of a single license. Then, you can decide the other classifications. For example, a codebase or server type. In commercial CMS, a single license cost is often only a small part of the implementation cost overall (although this tends to apply more as requirements expand upward).
Multiple licenses, multiple locations, and custom build requirements can mean costs escalate to the point where the one-off license fee is not a critical consideration. As an implementation project becomes larger, the initial single license cost is less relevant; it is more important at the lower end of the scale, for one-off projects.

Best free CMS

We must again look at sub-dividing and classifying your requirements much better before this question has a chance of being answered. Free or open-source applications - which are essentially the same thing from our point of view, though the specific license name may vary - are very strong here. This is because a website CMS of any capability is a highly complex piece of software that benefits greatly from multiple distributed developer input. In fact, such large group efforts are more correctly termed a project; so it is quite correct to call a CMS a project here. This in no way denigrates it as the best of the best are so termed; the wider the developer base in OSS CMS, the bigger and better the result may be. It seems that the more who contribute, the better the result - at least in the OSS area. Small teams of course work well in the commercial area, but the big projects are the most successful in open-source.

You should look at precisely specifying your requirements first. Having done so, then research the CMS applications that fit that profile. At this point you will be able to move forward and select two or three website CMS to trial on your LAN.

That process will show you very clearly what questions you then need to ask.

The difference between commercial and open-source CMS

In function or quality, there is none. In some areas, open-source applications are more complete, due to the vast number of plugins available. Commercial CMS allows the enterprise to select a single supplier for all aspects of the application, which is often a core requirement.

As regards cost, obviously an open-source solution tends to be cheaper. This isn't a given, though, as the one-off license cost in a large implementation may not be the largest cost. For small and mid-size installs, though, OSS is cheaper.

All CMS require commercial support, unless there are in-house staff for this function. Therefore, support costs are always a factor. Support in the open-source area tends to be cheaper as there are far more options - if harder to find.

Documentation in OSS is often of poor quality or missing. This is probably the most obvious area where there are shortcomings. Naturally, corners have to be cut somewhere as the product is free.

It's a worthwhile question to ask, exactly how does a complex web application come to be offered free, when others are charging many thousands of dollars. The answer is in the attitude of the core developers, and varying business models. An open-source CMS is normally a software development project started by one programmer or a very small group, then others join the team. The originator normally decides to write the application as a spare time interest, and a hobby; possibly with altruistic aims, or possibly just because it was fun at the time. They are normally commercial software authors who work for corporations in their day jobs. An important reason that cannot be overlooked is the matter of status - a developer who is part of the core team on a big open-source project has very high status among their peers, as this is seen as the pinnacle of coding.

Eventually, if the CMS proves popular, the authors can earn a living by supplying, supporting and customising the program for clients.

Open-source CM systems are free to own in perpetuity, including upgrades. The code is a matter of public record, so anyone can decide - if sufficiently interested - if the coding is suitable for their purpose. Extensions are often a mix of free and commercial. Extensions are always required unless the purpose is just to publish text and basic images in the simplest possible format. Many CMS are in essence a framework to attach plugins to - a fine method as it allows you to choose what functionality you require.

Semi-commercial CMS will have plugins that are much more expensive. Here, the core, basic application is free, but plugins cost. And they will cost much more than for standard open-source apps, where many plugins are free.

Commercial CMS is paid-for at every step. It costs more but is a reliable way for an enterprise to organise the specify - install - train - extend - support chain. In open-source, organising that process can be interesting unless you deal with a one-stop-shop.

The secret to choosing an open-source CMS is finding one that precisely lines up with your current and future aspirations. As far as the technology is concerned, it needs to be standards-compliant and with page code that validates 100% with the W3C out of the box - if you omit this test, the risk levels become much higher. The key requirements form a long list but you'll first have to look at whether you need an enterprise-class CMS or not, with extended publishing funtionality; very high page number capability; frontend editing; ACL; and rich media capability.

In commercial CMS you start the list off with the budget - and don't forget to factor in the large number of possible additional costs. After that comes your choice of support companies, and this is of course critical.

Commercial CMS quality issues
Just as with open-source, it is vitally important to choose software that creates high quality websites that are standards-compliant and search engine friendly (aka SEO-friendly). In fact this factor may be even more important with commercial CMS software, since unfortunately there seems to a be a much greater proportion of offerings that are demonstrably sub-standard here.

With either option you can look at either takeaway or hosted solutions. You can buy outright and sort it all out yourself thereafter; or you can lease a hosted solution with a simple monthly fee. This is becoming a more attractive option now as the field becomes so incredibly complex that it's useful to have an easy pay-by-the-month arrangement you can walk away from and choose more wisely next time.


Best CMS for image-based websites

An interesting question; a couple of years back the answer wouldn't have been promising, but things are different now. There are three approaches:

1. Choose a CMS that uses a DIY template method. This way, you can have what you like as a basic layout, and graphics can be a big part of that. You build an HTML page layout in Dreamweaver for example, and that becomes the template; editable areas are defined, metadata areas, and so on. These types of CMS don't usually have the easiest content changes (and possibly not frontend editing), so a slightly slower backend editing process is likely. The options range from CMS-MadeSimple (very basic but efficient), through Radiant (needs a Ruby on Rails developer to build it), to custom commercial options.

2. A CMS with an excellent templating system that can accomodate all sorts of layout styles will perhaps suit. The obvious choice to trial on the LAN are the OSS PHP applications. As far as the practical side of editing is concerned, an image-capable visual editor (WYSIWYG editor) is required, and some are not fully capable here.

3. A CMS with a variety of image gallery plugins will also suit. The best choice would be a rich media CMS with many plugins of this type. You also need to take into account that possibly 50% or less of the plugins for any given job will actually be of any use, for various reasons.

As stated, you can easily trial an open-source CMS on your local network in order to find out how the land lies. After this you will be better equipped to make choices.

The image gallery route is probably the best choice for those who are not keen to get involved with the way their templates work. It is the automatic choice for photo displays, and will also suit those displaying pictures of any kind. Since many plugins are free, you can experiment with them to see what will suit your site and chosen template. In the end, even for open-source applications, it may be found that an inexpensive commercial plugin will be the best choice for a fully-professional look.

Dynamic applications

A CMS, like an ecommerce application, is normally a dynamic server-side program using a text-based code and a database. There are exceptions, but this is the norm. In addition, it is probable that the majority of installed applications, that is to say working websites actually in existence, are PHP-core apps on LAMP servers. All these terms are explained later.

Dynamic = moving, changing; as against static, which means stable and unchanging. A dynamic application is one in which the pages do not normally exist until the browser calls for them, at which time they are built by the CMS mainly from the database and then transferred to the server (or are kept ready in the cache). The advantages to this system are that edits and content changes can be made rapidly, and changes go live across the whole site immediately; content can be quickly repurposed; content is completely separate from design and function; individual page layouts can be changed instantly; major style changes can be made quickly, via templates; visitors can interact with the site in numerous ways; the owners can edit their own pages in seconds online; and the list goes on.

The majority of CMS and ecommerce systems use this approach. The first method originally employed on the Internet was static pages, still used now of course, where pages are pre-built then uploaded to a website. None of the features above apply to this type of website. Next, semi-dynamic pages were constucted, using PHP or ASP scripting. These sites have some of the features of both types: some of the advantages, and also some notable disadvantages compared with either type - especially dynamic CMS sites. Chief among these is the amount of development work needed to get a new site off the ground - work which has already been done on a CMS, which will provide a multitude of functions and features out of the box.


Even ten-page websites are starting to use CMS now because of the advantages. A flat site, one built using static HTML pages that probably need a web publisher or webmaster to edit, may still be the best choice if the content rarely changes. In addition, this method allows the best use of a web designer's skills, since the integration of whole-page art layouts, different on every page, is not something that CMS is good at now or likely to be in the near future. However, only a minority employ this type of website look in any case.

Semi-dynamic sites, that is to say those using technologies like ASP, dot-NET, Coldfusion, and PHP have been popular up to now because of their ability to do things that static sites cannot. It is probably fair to say, though, that like Microsoft's FrontPage web editor, these applications have had their day, especially in the medium implementation size range. An enterprise choosing to employ them needs to realise that they will be able to do much less, at a much higher cost, than with a CMS.

Frankly, PHP or ASP-based solutions in the semi-dynamic website area look like a very poor choice now, when you consider the page-editing costs and how restricted that system is compared to a CMS. A page owner in an organisation with a CMS who can carry out a quick edit on the livesite in under a minute, or get a new page live in under five minutes, is hardly likely to be enthusiastic about going back to the old 'ASP developer > web publisher > wait a month for a result' method. And their accountants won't like it much either. Added to which, the need for yet more ASP or PHP development work to enable the smallest additional feature doesn't make any sense at all.

However, when considering very small sites; those with specialist custom coded functionality; and those of very large size and budget, then hand-coded websites still have a place. Even that market area shrinks year by year as CMS become more capable and take over. Many would say that even if they need to build a 10-page website now, they will undoubtedly use a simple CMS, the benefits are so great.

Choosing a CMS

So, now we know why they are a good idea; all we have to do is choose one. First, precisely what purpose do you intend to use it for? Most CMS are for websites, but there are some specifically for internal content management within an organisation. Other potential CMS uses include LAN installation, for teamworking purposes in an office. Since a good CMS, correctly chosen, is one of the best team-building tools available, this is an appropriate choice.

Another possible use is for a firm's intranet or extranet. Although these terms are still used in management, in web publishing they have tended to be replaced by portal CMS (intranet) and VPN (extranet), as the technology has changed. A portal CMS publishes content for all of an enterprise's different sections or partners, and various VPN systems are used to connect distributed locations that may or may not have access to private or web publishing facilities.

A capable CMS provides public and private sections, which saves costs but needs a strongly secure CMS.

There are around three thousand CMS applications now, so choice is difficult unless expert advice is sought. Even then, of course, two consultants might well give a different answer. It's a wide field, and because there are a large number of open-source applications available, a prospective customer can easily try out several types to see which might suit their purpose best.

Any CMS comparison is going to feature open-source software (OSS) strongly, for reasons that will become clear later. In fact it is difficult to prevent the appearance of simply being an OSS CMS comparison, as it is so easy to compare open-source WCMS.

Because OSS is particularly strong in this field, there are plenty of solutions to choose from. If nothing else, running an OSS CMS for a while will clearly show you what features are important to your enterprise, before you shell out the big bucks. On the other hand, you may well find, as many household names have of course, that an OSS or semi-OSS system will suit just fine.

Another valid route is to choose a hosted CMS, as this has three advantages: you don't have to get involved with supplier trials, specifications and paperwork, and implementation management; you can try the CMS website scheme of things without penalty; and you can walk away without too much pain if it doesn't work out. Here is the relevant page on hosted CMS solutions.

See the next page for an examination of the different classes of CMS, and features to examine.

Large commercial CMS implementations

In this connection you should consider the fact that software costs are not necessarily the largest expenditure. If your requirement is for a very large, very robust, very capable system - then there are certainly open-source CMS fitting that profile. These particular applications, though, will require considerable developer input to enable any kind of custom facility that is not directly available out of the box. Dev costs are never cheap, and of course, with large commercial CMS implementations for big enterprises, costs can run to millions of dollars - $4 million-plus in some cases. As stated, the software costs here are not a major factor, even if a commercial application costs $70k per license, as some do. A Java CMS developer can cost £850 ($1,400) a day in London.

Smaller enterprises who have the budget may find that a semi-commercial CMS will suit their purpose, as these can embody the best of both worlds at a very reasonable cost: commercial support and dependability, with costs driven down by community support.

The biggest names in commercial CMS are:

Interwoven Teamsite
Vignette Storyserver

...a single site license for any of which will run to many $000s, from Broadvision at the top and the most expensive, downward. On the other hand there are commercial CMS at a single license of a few hundred dollars. However, it is likely that implementation fees will raise this to what is often considered the baseline cost of the cheapest commercial install, £2,500 or $5,000. This figure also applies to semi-commercial CMS, which are normally those with an OSS core but extensions at a full commercial price, such as eZpublish.

A full-OSS CMS can be implemented for less than half this, though one needs to be sure the implementers have some background as there are a multitude of offerings in this market. Prices vary widely, from a basic and simple economy install, to a custom template from a top provider costing $1,200 or more by itself.

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Until recently, search optimising and CMS were not commonly referred to in the same sentence. It is an unfortunate fact that many web applications developers have never heard of SEO, or do not consider it a core requirement; or perhaps think that what worked three years ago is still relevant.

You will find numerous CMS that cannot possibly assist you with the imperatives of a commercial website: maximising revenues, brand visibility and reputation. There is only one route here and it is optimal search engine compliance.

The best way to achieve online success is full web standards compliance and correct, up-to-date ethical SEO. This can mean different things to different people, so you should demand to see successful examples.

A CMS implementer, now, needs to be fully aware of the SEO impact of their work. It is not the case that all developers and installers have realised this; don't pay for their ignorance. Possibly the most remarkable thing about modern large commercial CMS implementations is the very visible low quality of the code of so many of them. Caveat emptor.

There is some more material on SEO for CMS here.

Part 2 - see the main menu.

This section describes CMS comparison and features, compare CMS tech spec, how to choose CMS.
Web Business Managers