Apr 28 2002

A Content Management System

Published by at 12:00 am under Technology   

KCMS is Kyle’s Content Management System – a working name for the content
management system which “powers” this web site. It is an early work in progress, “version 0.1”
system. I put it together last fall to facilitate updating this site more easily.
It is composed of two parts:

On the web server, a few kilobytes of PHP code extracts content from a database,
applies a template, add in other elements (such as the advertisements), and thus
renders the page.

Unlike many other CMSs, the admin / authoring application is a
Windows application – not a web application.
It is shown here.


First, a login screen. This is logging in to an Interbase server on my machine;
I edit everything here, then push it to the production machine when it’s ready.
Although currently only I am editing content, this system would support multiple
users easily.


I use Internet Explorer as an ActiveX control for the "home". In
a business app, I would display some meaningful data there – some kind of current
snapshot of the problem space. For example, the number of orders placed so far
to day, month-to-date sales, etc. For the CMS I could indicate things like how
many articles need to be uploaded to the server.


The find / list screen is not all that helpful yet – it only filters on two fields (title and
full text), and sorts on one field at a time.


This is the above screen, filtered to articles that mention Delphi in the title.


Here are the details for one article / piece of content. This screen again
uses embedded IE to display a preview of the content. It uses the same style
sheet as the real web site, so the fonts and spacing match.


Right now, the only editing control is straight, un-high-lighted HTML. The
"edit content in DW" button launches DreamWeaver to edit this item
there. I may also provide an ability to launch GVIM or another HTML-aware editor
for syntax highlighting later.

Were this a commercial app, I could get a syntax highlighting component for Delphi
and provide good HTML and passable WYSIWYG. For an internal-use system,
using DreamWeaver works quite well.


The client software can connect to both the local development database and
the production database, and copy all updated data to the production system
on the web site. An alternative solution would be to apply templates and
generate static HTML locally, then FTP it to a non-database-equipped web
host. That would be quite useful for people who don’t want to pay for and support
database-capable web hosting solution.

That’s where I am so far. It’s all quite alpha – certainly many hours of work
would be needed to polish it up. It’s good enough to start using for content
though, so that’s what I did.


Motivation and Observations

Why did I do this, instead of just using FrontPage or DreamWeaver?

  • It’s my mechanism, I can add hooks as needed.
  • The template is stored just once, and applied as needed. This is a nice
    parallel to desirable software engineering practices, since it lets me tell
    the computer about the page layout "once-and-only-once".
  • The content is stored without any template applied. DreamWeaver applied
    each template "statically", so what I updated a template it would
    update every single page on the web site.
  • I can apply more than one template to the same content (i.e., printer-friendly
    version of each page). Because of the above points, I was able to add the
    "printer friendly" feature in less than an hour, and it works on
    every page powered by the CMS.
  • I can query the data, and automatically show the most recent additions on
    the home page, list everything on the listing page, etc.

What about other Content Management Systems?

Frontier / Manila looks quite nice, but I host all of this on a Linux machine.

I looked at a number of "open source" content management systems,
and it seemed like the effort to customize them to do what I wanted could easily
exceed the effort of building this from scratch.

Background on the URLs Used

When looking at some existing CMS systems, one of the things that bothered
me was the URLs they used. For example, I saw that BroadVision uses URLs like
this:

http://www.broadvision.com/OneToOne/SessionMgr/services/services_svp.jsp
?BV_SessionID=NNNN1165913018.1004016458NNNN&BV_EngineID=cccca
dcdgllkkdfcefecefedghhdfjl.0&serviceType=SolutionValueProposition&
channelname=Solution+Value+Proposition&channelRuleset=Services+Channels
&program
Name=Solution+Value+Proposition+Overview&programRule
set=Solution+Value+Proposition+Programs

Fortunately, I cannot afford Broadvision 🙂 . I suppose all of those characters in the URL
cost a lot of money.

With some excellent feedback from the St. Louis Web Developers’ user group
and elsewhere, I ended up with URLs like this:

The NNN is a number, and the other-text-here is a very short summary of the
page topic / title. These URLs have several advantages:

  • The look "static", so there is no risk of a human or search engine
    confusing them with per-user content (like a shopping cart, etc.)
  • They are short, and can be emailed without wrapping to multiple lines.
  • The CMS can key off of just the NNN part, so as I change page titles, old
    bookmarks will still work.
  • The URLs feel "harmless" to the end user who sees them.
  • There is some indication of the page content in the URL, which is quite
    helpful is a URL somehow becomes separated from its descriptions. I think
    this is superior to the approach used in Frontier Manila or in Vignette, both
    of which only have an identified.
  • It’s trivial to map these URLs to the proper content generation script using
    Apache’s mod_rewrite.

Why PHP?

PHP is ideal for small, simple needs like this. Although I use Java heavily
for enterprise web application development, the effort to install
and support a Java solution would not be justified for this app at this time.
The server part of this software consists of 2-3 PHP files and nearly zero installation
effort. I’ve implemented and personally deployed a number of Java web applications,
and it would still take me a good while longer to get such a solution running
here.

Why a Windows application for the authoring / admin?

Most content management systems use a Web interface for the administration
/ authoring interface. I found that I can build a good interface much more quickly
as a Windows application than as a web application – so why bother? I don’t
have any need at all for widespread, zero-deployment access to the admin interface.
I do have a need to work on the content when not even connected to the Internet.
Therefore, a Windows app was a good solution for my problem.

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