A Content Management System does exactly what the name describes.

Before CMS’s, websites where usually made by uploaded files, usually written in html, directly to a server. This created either a bottleneck at the webmaster or required everyone involved to have training on a special program.

A CMS on the other hand is a program that lives on the server which will allow anyone (with a username and password) to login and manage the content through their web browser, such as Firefox. This allows the site to be updated in real time by the person needing to do the updating, from any computer connected to the Internet.

With a CMS a webmaster can concentrate on designing and augmenting the functionality of the website, and the CMS allows the users the liberty to add and improve the content of the website spontaneously in real time (edit and add pages, images, sound, video) at no extra cost, long after the web creation is over.

Since almost all sites will have content that must be updated at some point. Even a simple site can significantly benefit from a CMS.

Which CMS ?

First of all, a CMS should be Open Source and tried and tested. After that, the choice mostly comes down to cost.

Design Differences

In Open Source, there is no theoretical difference in design between all the different CMS’s. With enough work any CMS can be made to display any design, because the CMS source code can be modified into anything.

However, with respect to the purpose in mind, the cost and ease of creation and use can differ significantly.

In practice there are Special Purpose, Modular and Template CMS’s.

Examples of a Special Purpose CMS are wiki’s, blogs, and forums. For their respective purposes, such CMS’s are well adapted and can generally be customized to a fair extent. However, doing something else or implementing an entirely different design (though possible) tends to result in the infamous square peg and round hole dilemma.

Examples are Mediawiki and Wordpress. Multiple CMS’s can easily co-exist on the same site so we recommend a Special Purpose CMS in some cases for some parts of a website that calls for precisely that CMS, but never for the unique heart of a website. The structure of a Special Purpose CMS’s is not made to be modified in any significant way and the attempt can be both costly and risky, opening security risks or simply breaking the CMS entirely.

A Modular CMS instead of serving one particular purpose, presents a variety of modules to select from, each of which serves a specific purpose. The advantage is that the possible arrangements are numerous and technical implementation can be fast and simple (staying in the bounds of the multiple choice offered). The disadvantages is that fine tuning the design or augmenting the functionality will often require reverse engineering the modules (if no documentation exists, which is often the case) or creating entirely new modules, which can be a difficult but often necessary task (in order to have a unique design and adapted functionality). A purely technical drawback is that in trying to satisfy as many whims as possible, this sort of software becomes complicated. This can result in performance issues, crashes, and incompatibilities between modules. Also the modules are often created for free and may not be supported in the long term, making upgrading the system painful. Though a good short term solution, in the long term the kinks and problems that result from this approach generally far outweigh the initial extra work of setting up a general purpose CMS.

Though the previous two CMS’s will use templates in one way or another, a Template CMS is built specifically to accommodate the writing of unique templates. This allows the web design to be constructed line of code by line of code from zero.

Though it may seem like a good idea of starting with a pre-existing design and then progressively modifying it to the design your looking for, in reality any unique design is always best to write from scratch. Modifying an already existing design, even if it’s free, is like trying to write an original story by progressively modifying some existing story. The problem encountered is that the whole logic quickly breaks down forcing one back to something close to where you started. To realize an original idea you’re best off starting with an original piece of paper. Even if ideas can be inspired from old ideas, stories from old stories, the practice of progressively modifying an existing story to arrive at a completely original work is extremely rare, and would be considered absurd by most writers. For the same reasons the practice usually doesn’t produce original work in web design.

However, for all the CMS’s, the design will depend entirely on the knowledge and creativity of your webmaster with respect to the chosen CMS. The CMS itself, as long as it’s open source, does not affect what’s possible to design, for the reasons stated at the start.

CMS Practical Differences

Though there is no theoretical design differences between the Open Source CMS’s, there is significant practical differences. The cost of creating your design, making use of your website, and purely technical aspects can vary immensely.

We develop under Spip because it is widely considered the easiest for users to use, and in our experience, it really is.

Spip is also one of the lightest and fastest mature general purpose CMSs. Spip is designed specifically for webmasters who want a CMS to allow the users direct access, but be able to quickly construct the design and functionality from the ground up. To go further, read Why Spip ?

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