There’s no such thing as a content management system

During a meeting at work today, someone remarked, “No one I know seems happy with their content management system.”

Somehow, that’s unsurprising. The problem, I think, is that there’s really no such thing as a content management system. Think about how absurd that term is. It’s a system (it’s organized and has structure) that manages (performs operations) on content (er, stuff). Well then… what piece of software isn’t a CMS?!

When people talk about a CMS, they really mean publishing software. The website I maintain was written specifically for managing news articles. It does its job reasonably well, despite needing some cleanup and refactoring. What’s devious about the term “CMS” is that people start to expect all sorts of things from it. After all, it manages content right? So why can’t it easily integrate with other sites, offer social networking features, do fancy AJAX tricks, and make dinner, with cpu cycles to spare?

The fact is, no software can do it all. There’s sometimes the wishful thinking that if we were using a pre-packaged CMS instead of a custom solution, we’d be better off. That’s just not true. A pre-packaged CMS can be a good option for simple needs, but customization is often a huge headache. The end result is that you’d have been better off writing something custom tailored to begin with. The most flexible (and therefore “best”) pre-packaged CMSes are often not ready-to-run software, but actually well-designed frameworks (like Zope) that require coding for the specific content you want to handle.

So why is no one happy with what they have? I suspect it’s because they didn’t give enough thought to what they wanted, or their expectations were too high, or both.

There’s nothing magical about a CMS. It follows the same rules as any other kind of software: the requirements for what it does should be clear, and the proper code abstractions should be in place. It’s like any other project: it should support a set of features, but also be able to change and grow easily. And you can only achieve those goals with proper planning and good code design. Not confusing lingo like “content management system.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *