System Of An Upload

cms-learning-curve

When considering what Content Management System to deploy today, one question needs to be answered first.

Why not just use WordPress?

WordPress was created to be the software behind the popular blogging service¹, and only a few years ago would have been dismissed as little more than that. It was never conceived as a general-purpose content management system, but designed with the singular goal of getting a person’s words and pictures onto the Internet simply and quickly. The thing is though, that is the core functionality of content management. Do it particularly well, and you’re onto something.

Combine that solid core with the ability to add functionality and you’re really onto something. Though invented for blogging, conversion into a different sort of content management system – say a gallery, a forum, or an e-commerce store – is available through third-party plugins. There is a staggering ecosystem of (the last I checked) nearly 29,000 of these. Consequently WordPress has become the most popular CMS in the world. And not by a margin – almost by an order of magnitude. Sixty percent of all content-managed sites use WordPress, one in five out of the ten million most popular sites on the Web. I’ll give that a second to sink in.

But by the same token, using something so well-accepted feels almost like copping out. We’re students of this technology, we’re assumed to be on the cutting edge. What’s the point in being just part of the crowd? There are innumerable content management systems out there. Many use the same attractive PHP + MySQL open source formula. Others again are based on ASP, Java, Perl. Some are even designed specifically to create online galleries, which is certainly closer to what our client needs than a blog is. But while these are worth looking into, the requirements go well beyond just the presentation of images. There is a great deal of text that needs to be easily and well presented, and a dedicated gallery system might not envisage that. The client also needs to manage membership, promote upcoming events, and automatically archive past ones. We will need something extremely flexible, and WordPress scores highly there.

But it’s not alone. Joomla¹ is also designed to be extended – it seems particularly rich in image galleries – and unlike WordPress it was a general-purpose CMS right from the start. It will have to be on our shortlist, especially as the team has had some experience with it in the past. Perhaps the biggest mark against it is that, with only around 6,000 available extensions – about a fifth of what WordPress offers – it just seems less likely that the functionality to meet our client’s needs will be readily available.

Initially, my instinct was to use Drupal. Also designed from the start to be a universal content management system, this one has put even more emphasis on flexibility. So while with WordPress you can have a usable blog virtually the moment it’s installed, Drupal is at first confusing – all you have is a framework, with few features except basic database and user management. Useful functionality is added by downloading and installing “modules”, over 25,000 of which have been contributed by the community, very comparable to WordPress’s 29,000 plugins.

But while plugins and modules might sound like two ways of describing the same thing, there is an important conceptual difference. WordPress extensions are very much goal-orientated. If you wish for example to add gallery functionality to your site, you compare the galleries available and plug in the one that best suits your needs. Drupal modules are function-oriented. To add a gallery, you consider what additional functions it would actually require – image management, display, cataloguing and captioning for example, possibly also resizing and retouching – and add modules for those functions. You’ve got a huge smorgasbord of features to avail of, what you mix is up to you. Such a level of flexibility is both challenging and exciting. A much more precisely customised result should be possible with Drupal, and this is why it is considered by some to be the best CMS of all. But the learning curve is also infamously steep (see illustration). I have to admit that this is part of the attraction. I’ve built several sites based on WordPress and it presented little challenge; the Drupal one I started over two years ago is still far from finished. It definitely represents the greater learning exercise. But that is not the objective today. Even if the team could become sufficiently skilled with Drupal within the timescale, it seems likely that that time could be better spent.

Plus, with Drupal skills being relatively hard to come by, future site maintenance would inevitably be more difficult. Perhaps a clinching argument in favour of WordPress is that, as by far the most popular CMS in use today, future maintenance and improvement should not be a problem. Indeed as an open source tool with both a strong community and the backing of a commercial interest, WordPress would seem to combine the best of both worlds in terms of support.

I wish we could use all three just to see which came out best, but the postgrad workload is too heavy for that. We should be making our decision shortly. For now though, my money’s on WordPress as the one most likely to deliver the client’s requirements without excessive drama.

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¹WordPress the open source blogging software, sometimes also referred to as WordPress.org, should not be confused with WordPress.com, whose business model is the hosting of WordPress-driven websites. Both the software and the hosting service are managed by the Automattic company. An aside: Though basic WordPress.com blogging is free – this site uses it – the feature set would be too limited for our client.
²Actually they style themselves “Joomla!”, but I have a strict policy on companies that expect you to shout their names. This policy being: Shush. 

Time For A New Future

Bit Blobs
No idea what this is a picture of, but it looks pleasantly technological (Photo credit: Dr. Bleep)

Almost better today. I could bend to do up my bootlaces without wincing! Also a relative had an accident this morning that was properly painful – a broken shoulder – so that gives a bit of perspective. And I had to run to help, which I think finally showed my spine who was boss. It’s just unfortunate that the job I most need to get done right now involves shifting boxes of books up a ladder, through a small awkward trapdoor, into an attic. Eh… No, I’m not going to do that.

At least the injury has left me free for the other, less physical stuff I’ve been avoiding. The new website for an obvious one. At this point I have more or less persuaded Drupal to do what I want. It wasn’t easy – but it turned out in the end to be a hell of a lot easier than it was looking just a couple of days ago.

So next up there’s my college application. I haven’t mentioned this before but I’m working towards going back to do a Master’s degree, in what I’ll loosely refer to as new media technology. The reason I haven’t mentioned it is that I almost certainly won’t qualify for the course. I was thinking I’d maybe nonchalantly try, fail, and tell no one. But it is just too interesting not to write about.

Why would I fail, when I have a more than minimal level of relevant technical knowledge and creative ability – or mad skillz as I prefer to call it? Well, the course I want to do is a prestigious one, and competition for places is fierce. I’m 47 and gnarled, racing against lovely people in their 20s. And my primary degree is not up to the minimum standard they require, so I’m basically hoping they’ll somehow just make an exception. It’s a bit depressing really when you think about it. Describing it as a long shot would be like calling William Tell a fruit picker.

And say I did get it – how will I pay? How am I going to afford to even stay alive while studying full time? I do not have the first idea.

But if somehow I do qualify, it could be life-changing. So there will be a way.

My career so far has been entirely in publishing, but publishing is transforming out of all recognition. The last decade or so has been all about adaptation to constantly-changing technologies, constantly-changing possibilities. This is not a problem, on the contrary it’s made it a fascinating time to be involved. But adaptation is not enough anymore, I want more than just to keep up. I want to do a bit of the changing.

A Walk In The Bog

Nesting swans

Web design with Drupal is weirdly impressionistic. Even after turning off all the parts of it I’m sure I don’t need – well, almost sure – there are still so many options and switches that I really can’t hold them all in my head. Maybe one day, but not yet.

And it’s difficult to know what consequences changing any one of them will have. It may achieve the goal of fixing an annoying behaviour, while elsewhere making half the site drop off. So progress has been a slow mix of careful testing, frantic searching to find a setting I know I saw earlier, installing several new modules in a vain attempt to gain one missing function, and just pressing buttons randomly to see what’ll happen.

All four strategies work about equally well.

So I went for a walk. Partly to take a break from this madness, but more because I’m still in mild but constant pain. To the point where I’m just annoyed with myself now. Even if I’d done nothing more than occasionally walk around a bit I wouldn’t be so prone to back injury.

My excuse all winter was that it’s just too wet outside to walk. But is it really? It doesn’t rain every day, even here. And there’s no shortage of roads worth walking, even a canal that goes right past the village. Our own canal! Built in the 19th century to drain the bog. I don’t think it works, but it teems with wildlife, and it is full of sky.

So some Desolate-West-of-Ireland pics:

One of my favourite trees
If I had a rowing boat, I wouldn’t leave it face up in the rain
Sky. For you. In the sky.

My Web Design Hell

image

You know when you’ve got some news or an idea you’re dying to tell someone, but can find no one who has the faintest idea what you’re on about?

Good.

I’m trying to learn some advanced Web design. Briefly, websites were originally done pretty much like you might lay out a document or design a magazine spread. You put things in their place, they stayed there. The more modern way is to use a ‘content management system’ (CMS). With this you just design the template of your page, then upload your content. The user enters search terms, and a page containing what they want is created for them.

This is obviously a lot more complex, as your website is now essentially a computer program. But there are plenty pre-existing systems you can use. WordPress, the one behind the blog you’re reading, is a fine example.

I’m using the CMS called Drupal because it’s widely said to be the most flexible and capable of all, and if I’m going to the trouble of learning any it might as well be one I can use for other things. But lord, I bit off something chewy. It has that vast sprawling-ness so typical of popular Open Source Software projects, and the learning curve is vertiginous. It’s made out of modules; a core with all the basics built in, then countless others you can add for greater functionality (and complication). I parachute into this jungle with little idea of how to tell a tree from a tiger.

But sometimes things are hard for wholly wrong reasons. I was stuck there for weeks – well, hours spread over weeks – because something really basic didn’t work. You see I want a site I can upload cartoons to, so that people can search through them. But Drupal 7 flatly refuses to display images in search results. Imagine how annoying that would be on eBay. Of course I thought that this was my fault, that I’d just got one of its (many, many) settings wrong. But I discover eventually that it’s a bug. The only solution – or at least the only one simple enough for me to implement – was to add a whole other module that did it right.

So I have solved my first real CMS problem, and went to bed tonight with the basics of my new site actually working. Whereon I find I’m too excited about the damn thing to actually get to sleep.

Thanks for listening.