what exactly is a CMS? part one (sponsored post)

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If I'm going to be a shill, I figure I can at least try to mix my shilling with something useful to my readers.

For some time now I've been meaning to write a beginner's guide to what a CMS (Content Management System) is, and what they're used for. So I'm using my 'paid blogging' gig for Marqui to subsidize some of that content here. Since Marqui is a CMS (though they call it a "communication management system" rather than "content management system"), it makes sense to combine my required (and slightly late) weekly post with that tutorial and some link-loggery.

So, if you'd like to know more about what a CMS is, and why people use them, read on. If you're so put off by the scent of paid blogging that you can't bear to read any more, that's okay, too. :)

At its simplest, a CMS is simply a system that allows you to create, collect, store, and disseminate content. That content can be (and most often is) text, but can also be images, binary files, or other digital media.

If you're a blogger, you probably already use a specialized kind of content management--tools like MovableType, Blogger, and LiveJournal are all essentially CMS. They allow you to enter content (your blog entry, title, descriptors, etc), they store the content in a database, and they allow you to output the content using specific templates.

But blogging systems are typically considered to be "lightweight" CMS, because while they work well for the specific task of blogging, they don't have the flexibility and extensibility to serve the needs of more complex publishing environments. Larger-scale CMS systems provide more customizability, a greater range of "roles" for people working with the content, and scalability (which any long-time user of MT or Blogger can tell you is a weak spot for most blogging apps).

There's a pretty good tutorial at ERPToday.com which outlines the basics of what I just described. It goes on to talk about three key roles for users of a large-scale CMS: content authors (who create or input the content for the web), content editors (who decide what content to publish and where), and content publishers (who publish the content on the web).

What a CMS facilitates is something called separation of concerns. When I talk to my students in web development classes, I talk about using HTML and CSS for separation of concerns--HTML for content and structure, and CSS for presentation. But a CMS allows you take that separation further, by separating out content and structure. If you've ever tweaked templates in a weblog system, you have a sense of this. Think how valuable this is for organizations whose business is the management of content. You really don't want authors tweaking HTML templates or writing SQL queries. And you also don't want your programmers writing your marketing materials or documentation. With a CMS, different people can have different levels of access and control over the publishing process.

In a business production environment, there are usually more roles than just author, coder, and designer. So higher-end CMS packages provide for varying roles and workflow management. An author can create content, an editor can approve it and/or schedule it, a publisher can output it, a designer can edit templates and someone else can sign off on them, etc.

One of the reasons that people (like me) have adapted tools like MovableType to do non-blog-like things (such as my courseware setup) is that CMS systems tend to be either very complicated, or very expensive, or both. So adapting MT (or other blog programs) provides an inexpensive, though at time kludgy, way to accomplish CMS tasks.

In Part 2 of this essay (coming later this week), I'll talk about a number of different approaches to CMS, the costs and tradeoffs associated with them, and my first impressions of Marqui.

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FWIW, there is a great CMS that is geared towards online magazines, called Bricolage, and it's opensource, with a growing install base. It grew out of a project that still publishes Salon.com, and I was lucky enough to be a part of it, back in the day.

It runs the World Health Organization's site, and macworld.com, as well as others, and it's a good example of what a good CMS should be: easy for content people to publish, in a workflow that they understand. So many CMS's are built/written/designed by technical people without any input from the actual users, and that's when problems can happen.

I can't help but be reminded of the product placement scenes in the Truman show.

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