Wednesday, November 08, 2006

A Writer Wading Through CMSes: Part 1 of "The Search for Content Management"

Time for another technology post!

Yesterday I spent part of the day working with content management systems (CMSes). I'm redoing my website for modern organization, easier uploads and article marketing. A CMS is virtually required now for regular content updates, but I've struggled along without one until now. Mostly because it's a fairly high learning curve, and I lack time.

Time to bite the bullet, though. I can't launch a newsletter (*hint*hint* ) without my website ready to post archive issues.

I recently grabbed a refurbished Thinkpad T30 laptop off eBay ($400, heck of a bargain). I intended it as both my mobile workstation and a software testbed.

First thing to test? A few CMSes.

Now, a CMS is intended for use on a Web server. So in order to test one out, I need a Web server. Easiest way to do that without fouling up my existing site? Host a Web server locally.

I'd worked on a local webhost before, when I was testing wiki software. So I already knew about The Uniform Server, an all-in-one server package. A couple clicks and I'm ready to test "http://localhost" with a few open source CMSes.

I picked three content management systems to start out - TextPattern, Nucleus CMS and CMS Made Simple. There are a slew of CMSes available (have a look at the CMS Matrix - it's only a partial list!). But I'm interested in those that emphasize simple publishing & ease of administration.

All three run on the same hosting setup (exactly like the one Uniform Server provides). In theory, all I'd need to do is copy each into the appropriate folder, run a basic setup, and have a working CMS.

However, Murphy reared his ugly head once more.

TextPattern Didn't Like Me
I started first with TextPattern. A fellow copywriter recommended it (thanks Bob!). Reading through its feature list and install guide - by far the most extensive of these three - I felt reasonably comfortable installing it.

I should note that my expertise in PHP and MySQL is nil, though.

And that's where I got my error. TextPattern threw up a bunch of damaged PHP. Clearly, I was missing something. I checked instructions again, and found I hadn't created the right database. Easy to fix; MySQL's database wizards to the rescue.

No more PHP code. No, now there's a Forbidden error. I didn't have the right permissions. I checked. There weren't any higher permissions I could find. I tried fiddling with the server for half an hour. But in the end, I had to give up on TextPattern for now.

Nucleus CMS Got Bored
Next, Nucleus CMS. This one surprised me by automatically finding the database I'd created for TextPattern. The setup went smoothly - no PHP code, no broken permissions. I entered the same information TextPattern asked me for (database name, user login, password, etc.).

But (you knew it was coming) I had a problem at the last Setup page. Nucleus was ready to implement all my information, set up its connections, and boot the new CMS. It stated that the process could take a while. Then it cautioned me to click the "Install Now" button only once.

I clicked once. And waited.

While I waited, I wondered what constituted "a while" for Nucleus developers. After 20 minutes, I concluded they didn't mean that long and restarted the server. I tried the installation again. Froze at the same point.

I suspect there's a tiny problem somewhere in the interaction with MySQL. After making a note to search later, I closed Nucleus CMS and thanked it for a valiant attempt.

CMS Made Simple Ran Ahead
After those two disappointing turnouts, I half-heartedly unzipped CMS Made Simple. I would have been grateful just to get it running. Imagine my surprise when it practically yanked me forward through its install routine. I had to make a new database and use an administrator login, but the whole process took less than 3 minutes.

And after those 3 minutes? A fully-loaded, fully-functional CMS sat waiting in my browser. I was happy as a ferret with a giant gemstone. I spent the next 20 minutes messing with its navigation. Created a couple pages, changed the post order, and read some of the (included) documentation.

My verdict? If I didn't have more CMSes that I wanted to test, I might have stopped right there and chosen CMS Made Simple.

That's not to say I give bad marks to TextPattern and Nucleus. They came highly recommended. I'm fairly sure their problems are situated in my own ignorance. I might try them again, after I've learned a little more about how to setup content management systems.

I blogged about this today because I thought my story could help other writers or self-employed professionals. I'm sure I'm not the only one interested in an easy-to-manage website. Content management systems save a lot of time once you've learned their little nuances. But we're all so busy, doing research on new systems is hard enough. Let alone trying them out. Consider this a vicarious practice run.

In Part 2 of "The Search for Content Management," I'll review my experiences with Mambo, XOOPS and ZervCMS.

When I get to them.



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