Master the Web
Take control of your site with a content management program
- By Patrick Marshall
- Aug 27, 2001
The World Wide Web has brought about fundamental changes in the way agencies and departments work. Not long ago, most government Web sites were simply electronic bulletin boards with largely static information posted periodically for public consumption. Today, however, government Web sites have matured into interactive forums for the public and for internal workgroups.
The downside of this transformation is that it is a lot harder to maintain Web sites that are constantly changing, especially if multiple authors are adding content. Whether your Web site is designed to accommodate customer transactions, document posting, collaborative editing or communications, users have come to expect up-to-the-minute updates. Given the size and complexity of many sites and the need for speedy updates, it's simply not feasible for the content to be funneled through a Webmaster.
The answer is a Web content management program. Although most require quite a bit of elbow grease to set up and configure, once you've got everything the way you want it, multiple authors can publish content directly to your Web site. The result is a site that is updated almost instantaneously and with little, if any, ongoing maintenance.
Web content managers can do a lot more than simply lead authors through the process of posting content. Most solutions, for example, help you create templates to ensure that the documents authors publish to your site will have a consistent look and feel. Separating the format from the content also enables you to reformat all content when your organization decides it's time to redesign the site or to deliver the content to another type of browsing device, such as a handheld or a kiosk.
Most Web content managers also provide at least basic workflow tools, making it easy to route documents for editing and approval prior to publication. That can be critically important at agencies and departments that need to move content to the site for the public or contractors. As any agency Webmaster can attest, a system that relies on manual approvals virtually guarantees delays in making content available on the Web.
Apart from the basics, there are important differences among the available content management tools. Some programs, for example, enable administrators to set user roles and grant varied levels of access to users. High-end enterprise-level content managers can support multiple workgroups and generally provide configurable audit trails.
Most content management programs support version control at the page level, and some higher-end solutions support such control at the element level, enabling you to, for example, revert to an earlier version of a company logo without having to redesign pages. Higher-end solutions also offer such features as site rollbacks, which enable you to return an entire site to an earlier version in a few quick steps.
Higher-end enterprise solutions also generally support a wider range of platforms and file systems, enabling them to be deployed across larger, more diverse organizations.
The more expensive enterprise-level systems also offer the ability to integrate them with site-monitoring, diagnosis and reporting tools.
Not surprisingly, the more expensive programs, such as Inter.woven Inc.'s TeamSite and Vignette Corp.'s content applications, are also highly customizable and designed to be integrated not only with site-monitoring tools, but also with enterprise application suites and back-end databases. The flip side is that these applications take a good deal of time to install and configure, and the job can only be done with the on-site help of a consultant.
In addition to the high-end enterprise-level content managers, document management companies such as Documentum Inc. and FileNet Corp. have added Web publishing and workflow capabilities to their products. Such solutions tend to be especially strong at version control and comparison.
Similarly, if your site is heavily oriented toward e-commerce and involves user transactions, you may want to look more closely at Vignette's product, which has an e-commerce module, or tools from Open Market Inc. and BroadVision Inc., which were built on e-commerce foundations and expanded to include content management capabilities.
Given the range of options available, choosing the best content management solution for your department or agency requires a close examination of your information systems infrastructure, your output requirements and, just as important, the workflows of the staff members who will be using the system. Because automated Web content management is designed to put content authoring and management in the hands of your staff, your selection will have impacts that may ripple throughout your agency or department.
You'll want to consider how often your site needs to be updated and the types of content that need to be supported (besides text, these may include video and static images). There are, however, other less obvious factors to consider. For example, although you might not immediately need to connect to external data repositories, if your agency has information in, say, an Oracle Corp. database, it would be embarrassing to find out later that the Web products you chose don't make it easy to access that data.
If your staff is widely dispersed, you might also need to consider support for multiple languages and for time zone synchronization.
In short, with Web content management systems—even more than with many other productivity applications—it is critical that administrators make a detailed assessment of the information technology infrastructure and the specific workflow needs of teams and departments before selecting a program.
We compared two popular departmental-level solutions: CyberTeams Inc.'s WebSite Director Pro 2.0 and Info.Square's openshare 2.2. Both have packages that begin at $10,000 for a base system. If neither of these relatively inexpensive, out-of-the-box systems satisfies your needs, you might want to look for a more customizable solution that integrates with enterprise application or e-business suites. Be prepared to spend anywhere from $70,000 to several hundred thousand dollars for the privilege.
WebSite Director Pro 2.0
WebSite Director Pro delivers a surprising amount of power in a relatively inexpensive package, and it is easy to set up. With minimal help from Cyber.Teams, we had our system up and running in just a couple of hours.
WebSite Director relies exclusively on a Web browser for administering the system, a choice that offers both advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, of course, you can administer the site from anywhere without installing special software. However, the administrative interface is a bit clunky, requiring users to move progressively through a sometimes confusing array of windows.
WebSite Director's biggest strength is clearly its workflow tools. The program allows you to configure workflows of up to 32 steps for processing documents using simple point-and-click methods. The program also supports scheduling the posting and removal of Web pages. You can even publish in multiple formats to multiple destinations from a single source. And you can configure the program to automatically send e-mail notifications to users at each stage of a process. WebSite Director also makes it easy to assign users defined roles that carry with them predefined permissions.
We were, however, a tad disappointed that WebSite Director does not integrate well with outside applications for template design or for content production. The only HTML editors that are directly supported by WebSite Director are the bundled EditLive! from Ephox Corp. and the optional eWebEditPro from Ektron Inc. If you want to edit using a third- party tool such as Microsoft Corp.'s FrontPage, you'll have to download templates, load them into your editor, then upload the files back into WebSite Director when you're done.
Nor is there any direct integration of WebSite Director with end-user applications such as Microsoft Office or Lotus Development Corp.'s SmartSuite. WebSite Director Pro, however, is compliant with WebDAV (Web-based Distributed Authoring and Versioning), a set of extensions to Hypertext Transport Protocol that enables users to collaboratively edit and manage files on remote Web servers. With WebSite Director, it is possible to open and save content from WebDAV-compliant applications, such as Office 2000. The WebDAV add-on for WebSite Director must be loaded on an Apache server, which can run in conjunction with your other Web servers.
WebSite Director is available for Microsoft Windows NT and 2000 as well as a variety of Unix platforms—unusual for a low-cost content management solution—and the program supports a wide variety of Web servers, including Apache, Lotus' Domino, Sun Microsystems Inc.'s iPlanet and O'Reilly & Associates Inc.'s WebSite Professional (now Deerfield WebSite), in addition to Netscape Communications Corp. servers and Microsoft's Internet Information Serv
Unfortunately, the system is a bit too complicated to install without help from CyberTeams. In fact, the standard installation requires an appointment with a CyberTeams specialist who will lead you through installing and configuring your server. Bear in mind that there is an additional charge of $2,500 for this service.
Also note that although the base program costs only $10,000, which accommodates only 10 users, the price climbs quickly from there to $24,000 for 40 users and $37,500 for 80 users.
Limitations? There are a few. First, WebSite Director currently supports output only to HTML 2.0- compliant browsers, not to handhelds, kiosks or other client devices. If you want to output to such devices, you'll have to create your own templates from scratch. Second, while CyberTeams offers to convert WebSite Director to run on platforms other than Windows NT/2000 and several flavors of Unix, it will only do so for an extra cost.
We were disappointed to find that WebSite Director does not include a search engine, nor does it offer tools for tailoring content for users or groups of users.
The bottom line, however, is that we were impressed with the amount of power delivered in this relatively low-cost package. WebSite Director offers many of the tools you would expect to find only in an enterprise-level program costing thousands of dollars more.
InfoSquare's openshare 2.2 has a lot going for it, although those with large workgroups and complex Web sites will find it falls short in several critical areas.
Openshare's strengths, however, are obvious from the beginning. First, the program carries a price tag of only $10,000. Second, it is simple to get it up and running. Just pop in the CD, answer a few configuration questions and you're ready to go.
Out of the box, we found that openshare offers a solid set of basic tools in an easy-to-use browser interface. Administrators can generate and edit templates for pages, users can check documents in and out, and the program supports basic version management, content comparison and access controls. A concise System Administration utility allows administrators to assign roles and permissions to users, select templates and perform other administrative chores.
On the downside, we found template design to be rather tedious. Conveniently, you can use any HTML file as the basis of a template, but you'll need to go through it and manually insert openshare tags. Once you've built your basic set of openshare templates, however, the system is easy to use.
Openshare is also extremely easy for users to employ. Instead of forcing them into a forms-based environment for contributing content, openshare enables them to work in their standard desktop applications. The content is added to the Web site by simply selecting the final file in its native format—whether it is a Microsoft Excel file or a Corel Corp. WordPerfect file. Openshare will convert the document to HTML, applying the selected template for the destination folder as it does so.
We were also impressed with openshare's version comparison tools.
Once we tried to go beyond simple content management, however, we found the base version of openshare to be sorely wanting. If you want to do anything beyond the most elemental workflows, for example, you'll need to buy the openshare Enterprise Edition, which carries a price tag of $35,000. Likewise, if you want to schedule the publishing of pages to Web sites, you'll need to move up to the Enterprise version.
Openshare Enterprise offers a Replica module that enables you to work on a Web site on a "staging" server and move it to a live Web server at specified times. The Enterprise version also includes a Document Profiler that enables you to add searchable keywords, classifications, descriptions and other metadata about documents.
Unlike most other Web content managers, openshare stores content in HTML pages rather than in databases. As the product's documentation notes, that approach protects users against delays that might occur if the company's database is down or heavily used. Unfortunately, it also means that reusing content is much more difficult, and tailored delivery of data to users is out of the question.
IT managers will also want to keep in mind that openshare is tied closely to Microsoft technologies. Openshare runs only on Windows NT and 2000 servers, and it will work only with Internet Information Server. All administration, however, is performed via a Web browser, so it doesn't matter what sort of client system you're using.
It is, in part, this limited platform support that makes openshare so easy to get up and running. For example, the program automatically recognizes Windows NT/2000 user lists, so adding users is a snap. But for those with mixed platforms, openshare's reliance on Windows may be a drawback.
In short, if your department or agency is already standardized on Windows and other Microsoft products, openshare has a lot to offer at a relatively low price. Even then, however, most agencies will probably want to consider the more expensive Enterprise version of the program.