Building MOREnetworking: Selecting a website publishing tool

When the decision was made to convert MOREnetworking, the MOREnet member newsletter, from a print to a Web-based publication, some of the first tasks were to determine exactly how we would build the new website and what we wanted to do with it.

One thing we knew that we didn’t want to do was create a static website. We wanted a site that would allow us to manage and update content quickly, while at the same time position the site to eventually deliver content to different platforms and integrate interactive features to help MOREnet members’ users create their own communities online.

Over the past year, MOREnet’s website hosting platform, kinetic, has been enhanced with access to PHP and MySQL servers, essential infrastructure for the dynamic website we wanted to build. Like our members, MOREnet has limited resources with which to conduct this research, so we concentrated our efforts on the content-management systems available as free, open-source software. Even with that limitation, though, a brief glance at websites such as OpenSource CMS showed us that there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of free, open-source content-management systems available.

It just as quickly became apparent that all CMSs are not created equal. Like most free, open-source software applications, many of the CMSs we examined are maintained, not by a corporation like Microsoft or Adobe, but by groups of individual developers who often volunteer their time to work on the product. In some cases, these developers have formed non-profit foundations to ensure the development and support of their products proceeds in a sustainable and reliable manner, just like a commercial software publisher. In others, the developers are loosely organized and contribute to a particular project just because they want to participate in its development.

As one might expect in such a wide-open environment, the quality and features available in the CMSs we evaluated occupied a pretty broad range. Ideally, whatever system we adopted would be, essentially, a toolbox to construct whatever type of website we wanted. Unfortunately, at least at this stage of our evaluation, it became apparent that we needed to define what features we required for specific projects in order to evaluate the available systems and determine which system would be best suited to which project.

For MOREnet’s new internal website, for example, we needed an online application that would allow MOREnet staff members to publish webpages on their own, without needing any technical knowledge of XHTML or CSS, share documents, publish internal announcements and so on, while at the same time creating workspaces restricted to the individual working groups inside MOREnet. After carefully evaluating over a dozen candidates for the job, we selected a CMS called Plone because it met most of the requirements defined for this project.

When searching for a system to power the REAL EZ Web pilot program, however, it was determined that a CMS called Drupal offered the best mix of features and support for that project.

The MOREnetworking site had its own parameters that we had to address. The experience we gained working with Plone and Drupal, as well as the other CMSs we evaluated, suggested that it would be a significant challenge to create a site that did everything we wanted to do. To facilitate the project, we broke it into phases, the first of which would be to develop a system to publish an online newsletter. Of the tools available to us to perform that task, we determined the best was a CMS called Textpattern.

Unlike Plone, which is a well-developed online portal application, or Drupal, which is more of an online community system, Textpattern was created by a website designer who also happened to be a programmer. His goal was to create a basic toolkit to enable him to create and maintain a variety of websites using the same sort of workflows often found in print publications such as magazines and newspapers.

Like most CMSs, Textpattern separates the content of a website from its presentation, storing the content in a database and applying templates to it to control how that content appears. Unlike most CMSs, however, Textpattern focuses on the language used to create these templates. Many CMSs come with layouts and organizations that can be challenging for nonprogrammers to alter to create their own websites with their own unique design and organization. Textpattern, however, is all about supporting the individual design and organization of the websites that use it.

Now that we had the tool we were going to use for the MOREnetworking website, it was time to settle on the specifics of what we wanted to do with it.

Next: Spending some time on information design

hendersonl | Wednesday, October 24, 2007 | |


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