Looking for open source CMS and portal software options

Over the past year or so we've seen a definite increase in the number of questions we get about open source content management and portal software at NetRelations. I'm not quite sure of the reason for this trend, but nevertheless it's refreshing to see people beginning to "think different" in the otherwise very Microsoft-dominated country that Sweden is.

It may be a welcome change, but I find choosing a CMS incredibly difficult, and evaluating them is very time consuming and often frustrating. There are hundreds of options, one worse than the other. To date I have never come across a CMS that doesn't have serious flaws. Even if a CMS looks good at a glance, once you start digging deeper you will always encounter problems with usability, accessibility, and front-end code.

Content Management Systems

A couple of times in the past I have asked my readers for CMS suggestions, but it's been a while now. Last time we ended up using Plone, which was a real pain to work with. I don't know if the situation has improved by now (it's been three years), but just thinking about working with it gives me a stomach ache. So we want to look at other options, and I'd like to ask what you all think.

We've been looking around for a while and two of the very few systems that look like they could be worth spending more time with are ModX and Drupal. Their approaches to content handling are quite different, so they would most likely suit different kinds of clients.

The first thing I would like to get some input on is how good ModX and Drupal really are. I'm thinking both for developers who will need to customise the CMS to fit the clients' needs and for the end users who will work with the admin interfaces to create content and structure sites. I'm looking for answers to the following questions:

  • How easy (or hard) are ModX and Drupal to develop for?
  • How easy (or hard) is using them to create content and administer websites?
  • Are there any problems creating fully standards compliant and accessible websites with either system? Do they allow full (and I really mean full) control of HTML, CSS, and JavaScript or do they contain uncustomisable black boxes?
  • Are their admin interfaces reasonably accessible? If not, can they be made accessible?

That's one bunch of questions. Next, the vague topic of "portals".

Portal Software

Some large organisations are asking about open source portal software to use instead of commercial solutions like IBM WebSphere (WPS) or Microsoft Sharepoint (MOSS). I have some experience with both WPS and MOSS, and while making a public-facing website based on either system standards compliant and accessible is achievable with a bit of work, fixing the interface presented to a logged-in user seems more or less impossible. In other words, to be better than either of those two in the web standards, accessibility and usability departments should be really easy.

It seems that most open source portal platforms are Java based. Liferay, JBoss Portal, and Apache Jetspeed are some. They all seem like incredibly complicated pieces of software that are beyond my capability to understand. That has got me thinking... would it be possible to use Plone or Drupal as a portal? Yes, I know I complained about Plone being hard to develop for earlier, but compared to others it is pretty good at web standards and accessibility.

Does anyone reading this have experience from open source portal software? The questions I'm looking for answers to are the same as for the content management systems.

Their standards aren't our standards

As a sidenote it's pretty fascinating to note that when CMS and portal software vendors boast about "Standards compliance", "Open standards", and "Interoperability" they do not mean what you might think they mean.

To them, those terms have little to do with the front-end, so having a "Standards compliant, interoperable" portal solution does not mean that it outputs valid HTML and CSS and will work in any browser. Instead, it means it will run on any server that means the requirements. Huge difference.

To summarise this little call for input: any suggestions, hints, and recommendations on open source content management and portal software are welcome.

Posted on February 7, 2008 in Content Management