Expert Advice on Choosing a Content Management System (CMS)

Yesterday I sent the following note to about 40 of my 150+ connections on LinkedIn. These were the folks with the most programming background. Some are now very senior executives in the IT industry.

Hi,

I’ve been asked by someone close to me to help put together a website start a new business.

Part of that business involves setting up events, entering them on a calendar, allowing folks to sign up, filing after-action reports by those who attended, and so forth.

Routine stuff. Yes, to you likely, but the the person I’m helping is *very* important me, hence this request for assistance.

I’m thinking of using Drupal 7. I’ve tried DrupalGardens. I have some knowledge of Drupal, but not very detailed.

A crucial part of this business is the calendar/scheduling part. It must be rock-solid and accessible via mobile.

Would Drupal 7 be your preferred choice for a CMS?

If not, what would you recommend?

Reply just me if you can help, or feel free to call any day except Saturday, from 9AM to 10PM.

I heard back from several people, most from my IBM days. Here is what they said.

From a former IBM Research Staff Member (that means a Ph.D.) who left IBM ten years ago to start a company, and is still an entrepreneur:

We used to use Joomla but I have recently become a strong fan of WordPress and am finding it quite elegant and easy with which to work.

I’m using it on my new site and am very pleased.

Here’s the reference to their calendar plugin: WordPress events calendar plugin

From a former Courant colleague who helped put J.P. Morgan on the internet back in the 80’s and is now an iOS developer:

I would second using WordPress unless you have a lot of e-commerce related stuff. Drupal is very popular but its code base is pretty chaotic. Also, you have to very carefully choose your plugins/modules, there are a lot of potential conflicts in and among Drupal modules. But at the end of the day, Drupal is widely used, it has a very deep community whose primary users are people with ecommerce sites of some kind, as opposed to WordPress who primary function is as a blog.

For all of these things, it always comes own to how much time you are willing to invest in tweaking someone else’s code (true for Joomla, WordPress as well as Drupal) versus writing the thing that’s exactly what you need from scratch…

From a programmer at IBM’s LTC (Linux Technology Center) who has a great track record of building communities and their associated web sites; for example, a thriving Linux User Group:

I’ve been using Drupal 6, moving my first site — a Linux User Group — to 7 this week. I find the calendaring is pretty good, just realize you’ll need to get to know the code a little to make it do exactly what you want.

I remain with Drupal as my CMS (though not Blog) of choice. We also have a local Drupal Users Group.

From a former IBMer now a senior person at Acquia, the leading company in supporting and promoting the use of Drupal:

Hi Dave, let me give you a more accurate lay of the open source CMS market.

Choose WordPress if:

  1. Content editing and management and administering is your primary activity including site development.
  2. Choose WordPress if you will be doing the site development yourself and your technical skills are limited to downloading plugins through the UI and doing site building through configuration only.
  3. You are prepared to deal with upgrades as frequently as every six months and plug in quality can potentially be hazardous.
  4. Your content will mostly be listed sequentially and you don’t have a lot of needs for rich meta-data and relationships in the presentation of your content.

Choose Joomla if:

  1. You have on a few content editors and site administrators and their differentiation in permissions in the site is small.
  2. When you want to add functionality by purchasing a plug-in for $50-$150 to get complete functionality e.g. buying a full store front.
  3. UX of the site building administration is paramount.

Choose Drupal if:

  1. You want a CMS that’s going to allow you or your developers to build custom applications key to your business
  2. You don’t want a CMS that’s going to introduce a cliff of limitations suddenly when your business needs to add more features in custom way that’s critical
  3. You or your technical consultant thinks powerful and flexible is exciting and you or your developer has got time or interest in becoming a site developer.
  4. You are interested in leveraging a custom application like the conference organizing distribution of Drupal (https://www.acquia.com/downloads) which has tons of event management features and your business can really grow off that platform.

From a former colleague at IBM Research. She’s a graduate of MIT:

I’ve been using Drupal 7 for the better part of a year for my pet project. In general, I am very happy with it, though there have been a few glitches over the months.

  1. Drupal 7 is a known database hog. I had to upgrade my web hosting service to handle database accesses even when very few folks were hitting at it.
  2. The out-of-the-box leaves much to be desired. Be prepared to add modules galore. For example, dates and urls are module add-ons
  3. It is based on PHP, a language that leaves me luke warm. It’s good in that I’m finally forced to look into the Web stack, but the language is all over the place.
  4. I’ve had, on average, to do security upgrades every 2-3 months (roughly).
  5. It is very flexible, and hence can be slow.
  6. Modules often need to be patched (about 1 in 5 or so in my experience), though the community tends to make this easy and the modules really help get function going quickly.

However, I would not have gotten everything done without such a framework, and the community is really active and supportive. Short of my core function, everything I’ve wanted to do, I’ve found that someone else had already done so I could just leverage their work. The model they use for adding function is fairly robust (though can be slow as mentioned above), and I think is easy to comprehend – once you get used to it. They are now working on Drupal 8, which will hopefully clean up some code, though I’ve not looked into it yet.

In short, I’m fairly happy with what I’ve managed to accomplish with Drupal 7.

There is another CMS/Portal, one based on Java/Tomcat, called Liferay. I used it (lightly) about 2 years ago and it could be an alternative if you prefer to stay away from PHP.

From a former IBMer who has held senior executive positions in IBM, Google, and Microsoft, in the BRIC country where she now resides:

I am a fan of Drupal. What people here say is true, that it takes customization of modules to get it right, but it is powerful and has
authorization and access-management/security capabilities that WordPress does not. Once I got my head around Drupal, I can bring up a new site in a weekend.

Don’t rule out Drupal 6, which is not as bad of a database hog, is not as slow, and works even with some cheaper web hosters. I run 3 sites on Drupal 6.

From a former IBMer who played a key role in IBM’s involvement with Apache over a decade ago, and has since held several senior executive positions:

My thoughts go along with (the Acquia person’s) summary. But if a conference is what you are trying to organize, use open source conferencing software
like github.com/igal/openconferenceware. Described opensourcebridge.org.

Or I might use Ruby on Rails, and bolt on a calendar app. See Five Best Open Source Calendar Servers For Linux.

Drupal is very powerful, but you have to wrap your head around nodes.

My experience is once you are over the learning hump, you can really customize it. This is a tool for rapid site development.

Don t use Liferay for its calendaring. It is my companies Intranet and is good for that, but you would have to either build you own calendaring, or fix theirs. (it is java, so you could easily do that).

Not knowing what you are designing, Google for an open source package that does what you want and modify. That usually works for me. Surprising what you will find.

Just after sending the note out I realized I had left unsaid an additional requirement: since there will be lots of user-generated content, the CMS must support roles and privileges. I didn’t send a followup to point this out, as that would have favored Drupal.

I expected mention of WordPress. I’ve been a big fan of WP for years. That’s why I use it to write this blog.

I expected more mention of frameworks such as Zend, Zope, Joomla, Rail, and such.

The net? The clear winner is Drupal.

I tried Drupal via DrupalGardens in March of last year. I only played with the free version, sort of losing interest when I read all the blog entries and noted the absence of Calendar support.

That was no surprise. The change from Drupal 6 to Drupal 7 was not just another version upgrade. It is a major change that requires extensive recoding.

Happily, things are now much better. I brought a month-by-month “professional” account from DrupalGardens last night, and in just an hour trying things out I concluded that the situation is *much* improved.

What are we going to do?

We’ll use Acquia Drupal, so we make use of the plugins we need. We will let Acquia do the hosting.

If any code needs to be written, then we’ll get in touch with our friend in the BRIC country, and outsource development to someone she trusts.

If this results in any new code of general interest, then we’ll contribute it back to the Drupal community.

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