Choosing a CMS for small business

With so many content management systems (CMSs) out there choosing the right one for small businesses and organisations can seem daunting. This article looks at some of the key considerations.

If you aren’t sure what a web content mangement system is, or even why you would care, then have a look at our article: What is a content management system.

Content management systems have been around for about 15 years or more — and they come in all shapes and sizes. They range from proprietary systems that cost 100s of thousands to buy, to “no cost” systems. (No cost, in the sense that the software itself is available for free — but there is always some cost in setting them up and running them.) There is also an amazing range of variation in the functions they offer, with some being developed for very specific types of web sites (for example, a photo sharing site), and others being highly flexible and configurable. Despite the fact that they have been around for quite some time there is no one system that is considered “best of breed” — in the sense that Microsoft Word® dominates the word processor market, or Adobe Photoshop® dominates the image editing market.

With such a wealth of choices the advice that is generally given to those looking at adopting a CMS is to carefully document their content management requirements and then pick the system that best meets those requirements. That, in itself, is quite daunting — because if you haven’t used a CMS before it can be difficult to know exactly how you want to use it. It is often only once you have a system up and running that you start thinking “Gee, it would be much better if it could only do (this other thing) as well”. 

In my experience there are really a few key requirements that need to be considered in choosing a CMS suitable for small businesses and organisations:

  • cost
  • support
  • system requirements
  • flexibility
  • security
  • usability

Cost

As with most software CMSs tend to be either proprietary (built by an organisation that owns the software, and generally sells it at a cost) or open source (developed either by an organisation, or just a loose community of developers and generally made available at no cost).

Proprietary CMSs can be prohibitively expensive to purchase and set up, with annual licensing fees and per-user licensing adding further to those initial costs. These costs can easily be in the 10s of thousands of dollars, if not in the 100s of thousands. (There are also a few proprietary systems that are available at much more reasonable costs.)

At the other end of the spectrum there are many highly capable CMSs that are open source — often with no purchase costs or ongoing licensing fees. There are still costs involved in setting up and running these systems, but they are a fraction of the cost of some proprietary systems.

Support

So why would anyone even consider a proprietary system? The answer is the level of support available. If you purchase a proprietary product you can expect to be able to call on specialist support to help you if anything goes wrong. For large enterprises, who invest heavily in their websites, this level of support is critical, and worth paying for. 

But many large corporations still choose to use open source systems anyway. Support for these systems generally comes from freely accessible online communities devoted to each particular system. This model of support has proved so effective that even many proprietary products now use it (though you often have to pay to access it.)

Some companies specialise in providing open source CMS solutions for free, but charge to provide support for them.

System requirements

Along with the wide variety of CMSs comes a wide variety of system requirements for running them. Consideration of the system requirements can get quite technical — but there are a few key points to bear in mind.

  • Some CMSs require additional proprietary software to work. So you may not only have to pay for the CMS, you may have to also pay for the other supporting software required to run it. This is more often true for CMSs that are themselves proprietary (although not all proprietary CMSs have proprietary system requirements).
  • Some CMSs require that you have some specialised IT capacity within your business to look after both the hardware and software required. (This can be the case, even if someone else sets the CMS up for you initially.) Many small businesses and organisations don’t have this IT capacity available internally. 
  • Some CMSs are available “as a service”. That means that you don’t actually need to buy any software or hardware — but instead you pay a company to provide you with access to their CMS as a service. Using such services generally requires that you have a web designer in-house.
  • Some CMSs can be easily hosted by any web hosting service, while others have more specialised requirements, which can make hosting them more expensive.

So, there are a range of options with more, or less, appeal to small businesses. In the long run the most commonly used CMSs are those that can be hosted easily.

Flexibility

Some CMSs are built for a specific purpose, for example running an online photo sharing site. They might support those specific types of websites very well, but are not very good for running different types of sites.

Others are designed to meet the most common requirements of websites, with little or no flexibility to meet specialised requirements.

Yet others are very highly configurable. You can make them do just about anything you want.

To some extent, the best choice is determined by what you need. If a CMS that is designed for photo sharing sites meets your requirements exactly then it may be a good choice. But what if, down the track, you want to allow users of your site to be able to sell some of their photos? If the CMS doesn’t support online purchasing you might be stuck.

You may decide that your website is going to be really simple—and so a simple CMS that doesn’t require much configuration will meet your needs nicely. But it just takes one extra requirement that you hadn’t thought about upfront, and that simple CMS no longer can meet your needs.

The highly configurable CMSs might seem like the safest bet, as you can probably make it do whatever you want. Even if your needs do change you’ll likely be able to make the CMS meet them. The downside is that flexible systems generally need a more work up front to make them do what you want.

Security

Stories of websites being hacked are pretty much a daily occurrence. Some times this hacking is just mischievious, other times it can result in serious consequences such as disclosure of personal details. 

As discussed in the article “How a web server works”, static web sites are often seen as more secure than dynamic sites. While some CMSs are capable of delivering content statically, the vast majority deliver content dynamically. For these security is an important consideration.

All software has the potential to suffer security breaches, whether it is a proprietary or open source. For larger businesses, one of the attractions of a proprietary CMS is that if there is a security breach they can reasonably expect the manufacturer to fix it, and fix it quickly. The same can’t be demanded of open source software, which is normally distributed with no warranty.

Never-the-less many of the better known open source CMSs have high levels of built-in security, and world-wide networks of developers who will quickly fix any security issues.

Usability

Usability refers to how easy software is to use. The key to usability is keeping things simple. 

The CMSs that have the potential to be most usable are those that are the least complicated, such as those designed to support only one type of website, or to do only meet most common needs. (That doesn’t mean these CMSs are necessarily more usable, just that it is easier to make them usable.) 

More flexible CMSs are necessarily more complex - and thus likely to be less usable. In flexible CMSs much of the usability is determined by how they are configured in each instance.

The ContentEssentials choice

At ContentEssentials we have chosen a CMS called ProcessWire as the best choice CMS to implement for small businesses and organisations. Processwire is an open source CMS that is fairly new, but attracting a lot of attention.

Cost

ProcessWire is open source and free to download from the ProcessWire web site

System requirements

ProcessWire is itself based on other open source software such as PHP (a scripting language) and MySQL (a database system). These are two of the most widely used internet technologies and most web hosting companies include support for them in even their basic web hosting packages. Though powerful, ProcessWire is a light-weight framework that performs well on the shared hosting environments that many smaller businesses use.

Flexibility

ProcessWire is highly flexible and designed so that any capable developer can change or extend its functions. Unlike many other CMSs, most functions can be achieved using the core CMS, with little need to download extra modules. This makes sites easier to develop and maintain and ensures your site performs fast.

Security

ProcessWire has been developed with security in mind, with many features integrated into the product. As a relatively new CMS though, it needs to establish a track record in this area.

Usability

ProcessWire has high levels of usability, both for content authors and publishers, and for web developers working in the back-end.

Other options

There are other capable open source CMSs, some of the most popular being DrupalWordpress and Joomla. These systems aren’t as light-weight in their design as Processwire and can have considerable learning curves, as well as slower performance.

MODX is another powerful CMS, with a number of features in common with ProcessWire. It provides a great web application development framework.

Textpattern is a less well known open source CMS. It is simple and lightweight and has great flexibility in some areas, but is more constrained in others.

ImpressPages is a relatively new open-source CMS with a great user interface that is also worth keeping an eye on.

Published: Monday, 13 August 2012

Last updated: Sunday, 4 August 2013