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The nuts and bolts for
Creative web development

Foundations of CMS

Content Management Systems (CMS) automate the process of creating, publishing, and updating web site content. They make maintaining and updating the content of a web site easier, giving the content contributors, not just the web team, the means with which to manage their own content. They are usually made up of a front-end editor for inputting content, a back-end system for storing the content, and a template mechanism to get the content onto the web site.

This sample is taken from Chapter 1: "Foundations of CMS" of the glasshaus title "Content Management Systems"


Defining the Problem

Shhhh. As we peer through the window, we can see a figure hunched over a computer across the room. There is a steady drumming noise, like the rat-tat-tat of a machine gun. As our eyes adjust to the dim light, we can see the blur of fingers dancing across the keyboard.

Finally, the typist leans back, yawns, and stretches. Then she grabs a pack of cigarettes off the desk, and heads out of the far door. This is our chance. We slip into the room. There is the bookshelf of web design books, arranged by the color of their spines. Printouts of HTML code and e-mails, and a stack of CDs clutter the desk. Dilbert cartoons adorn the side of the monitor. On the wall, a large whiteboard is covered with boxes and arrows and scribbled lists: "Need to fix: broken links, search, left navigation&" A URL in bold lettering is splashed across the top, followed by a colon, and in all caps, the word 'RELAUNCH'. Next to the whiteboard is a large calendar with a big red circle; some sort of deadline next week.

We look, finally, at the monitor. The cursor blinks in an e-mail window, and we can read the last few paragraphs of a long, rambling rant. The sentences are sharp, bitter, and weary. I print out the e-mail - that's all the evidence we need: another confirmed sighting of the increasingly stressed, beleaguered, web professional.

Back at the office, you read over the e-mail. It's a sad, familiar story. "If only I had a dollar for every developer I saw suffering like this," you say.

"If only I had a dime for every broken link on her site," I reply. We get to work on our report.

Web Sites Are Hard Work

I'll start with a statement:

The care and feeding of the average web site has grown (and keeps growing) far beyond the capability of most web professionals to handle on their own.

This is not necessarily a bad thing - it means that there is demand for the work that we do. While it's not exactly job security, it is nice to be needed. However, the days of a lone webmaster wrangling all aspects of a web site are long behind us.

Even if you think you have been doing a pretty good job of managing your web site up till now, web sites will continue to be challenging work, at least for the foreseeable future. Let's explore the reasons why.

Tidal Wave of New Content

The amount of content that your group or company wants to make available on the Web will continue to grow. Old content doesn't die; it just goes into the archives. And the spread of technology means that the tools to create content - music, video, and plain old-fashioned text - have become ubiquitous. Like it or not, people have always had the will to communicate and now they have the means. Your job is to get it up on the Web.

"But my web site is small", you say. And here's where I respond with one of my aphorisms: inside every small web site is a huge web site struggling to get out. There is probably a lot more content that your company or group wants to get onto the Web, if it could.

Some of you may be skeptical and unwilling to take my little truism to heart, so let's do some math. How many authors do you have? How many items (news, press releases, short tidbits, calendar events, articles, etc.) does each author create or change per month?

  •        3 authors @ 5 items a month: 15 updates a month; 180 per year.
  •        5 authors @ 10 items a month: 50 updates a month; 600 per year.
  •       100 authors @ 12 items a month: 1200 updates a month; 14,400 per year.

If we assume that we will continue to have more authors, posting on average the same amount of content, the curve of the graph will continue to go up, year on year.

It's not uncommon for sites created just three or four years ago to have more than fifty thousand pages. University web sites, with their sprawl of student and faculty publications, easily range upwards of one hundred thousand pages. Today's businesses are incredibly information intense. Corporate intranets can often have page counts in the millions.

There is no doubt that the amount of content will continue to grow. The only real question is whether you will be able to keep up with the load, the way you work now. If not, it's time to start thinking strategically and develop a plan to co-ordinate the production of the site.

An Ever-Changing World

Time doesn't stand still. A number of external factors make developing web sites more and more challenging. As we wait for final approval on the press release copy, technology presses on. Browser upgrades, plug-in incompatibilities, new wireless platforms, and the latest W3C recommendations come raining down. It's difficult to keep up with it all - let alone implement best practices for your web site.

When web sites carry information that is more current than other media, it can change the flow of information in an organization. Previously, some web sites may simply have duplicated print publications in an online form. Now, those web sites drive the production of print documents. One site may now export the company's print product catalogue; another may produce the documents that an integrated voice response system reads to telephone callers.

Although this book is very web-focused, content management should not be applied to web sites alone. There are many paths and destinations for content, and your content management system should be able to support the paths and platforms you choose. Technology changes the way an organization creates and manages content - it has also expanded the scope of the web development team, and raised the bar for the web professional.

Sometimes change forces its way onto your site. A search engine upgrade or adding a personalization feature to the site may have a wide impact. For instance, converting every HTML file on the site to a Java Server Page (JSP) could cause a few late nights.

As your company moves into new endeavors, it may run across new legal requirements in disclosing information about their products. A contract with a government agency may impose stricter accessibility requirements on your web site. Financial regulations may require certain types of disclaimers to be added to product pages. In manufacturing shops, ISO-9000-compliance requires you to be able to roll back your product sheets to earlier revisions.

Your organization may begin expanding its reach around the world and your web sites need to reflect this new diversity of language and culture. Being able to manage web sites in different languages, different currencies, and different cultures will certainly impact how you develop and plan a web site.

Linda Taylor

I am part of a new publishing company aimed at web profesisonals called 'glasshaus'.

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