Choosing an open-source CMS, part 3: Why we use WordPress

WordPress' flexibility and ease of use convinced two organizations to use it as their content management system.

In this last installment of our three-part series on finding the best open-source content management system (CMS) for your needs, we asked two organizations -- online magazine Quartz.com and Carleton University -- to talk about why they chose WordPress over other open-source options and how well that decision has stood the test of time. (Our first installment examined Drupal and the second looked at Joomla.)

WordPress got its start as a blogging platform in May 2003 and gradually evolved, first into a blogging system that let users add Web pages outside of the blog and then into a full-featured, popular CMS. Of the three most popular open-source CMSs -- WordPress, Joomla and Drupal -- WordPress is both the most popular and the fastest growing by far, according to Web technology tracker W3Techs.

"Drupal has long provided a flexible platform, enabling it to meet a broad set of needs. However, WordPress 3.0 significantly bridged the flexibility gap," says Larry Cannell, an analyst with Gartner.

[For in-depth reviews of these three open-source content management systems, see Site builder shootout: Drupal vs. Joomla vs. WordPress. Looking for development tools? Try 10 essential WordPress plugins.]

Unlike Drupal, WordPress has a reputation for being notoriously easy to use -- in part because you don't have to download the software from the WordPress.org site and build your own Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP setup if you don't want to. Many less technically savvy people use the WordPress.com hosting service, which makes getting started easy.

This also means that companies using the higher-end WordPress CMS will find that many employees are already familiar with WordPress' administrative interface.

While Joomla and Drupal have more of a committee-based approach to decision-making as far as the direction and development of the software is concerned, the WordPress community is more hierarchical, which can mean faster decisions. "We have the benevolent dictator for life model," says co-founder Matt Mullenweg. "Ultimately, the buck stops at me."

(Story continues on next page.)

WordPress: Pros, cons and what's coming

WordPress

Matt Mullenweg and Mike LittleBeginnings: First released in 2003Installed base: 17.4% of installed sites (according to W3Techs)

Pros: WordPress is widely considered to be the easiest CMS for the nontechnical user and offers more than 21,000 plug-ins. "People come to WordPress when they want to do something quickly and when they want it to be easy to maintain," says Matt Mullenweg, co-founder of WordPress and founder of Web development firm and WordPress backer Automattic.

Cons: The way in which WordPress handles multimedia could use improvement. "Right now I think it's too hard," Mullenweg says. Over the next year, he says, developers will be working to make that easier.

The WordPress community is also working to improve social integration, particularly with Facebook and Twitter, and to support mobile apps. Right now, Mullenweg says, "If you're a brand-new user signing up for a WordPress website from a mobile device, the process could be a lot smoother."

What's coming: Over the years, WordPress has evolved from a simple blogging platform to a CMS. As people use the platform to build more complex websites, it is now evolving into an app engine, says Mullenweg. "It will be more like a development environment like Django or Rails. It's already happening for advanced developers."

Today, he says, it's possible to use WordPress as a back end for mobile apps and not even have a website.

Quartz covers the world

As Atlantic Media set plans in motion to launch Quartz ( QZ.com), a digital publication covering global business news, project engineering director Michael Donohoe took stock of the capabilities needed in the content management system that would power the new site -- and decided on WordPress.

With a limited staff and resources, Donohoe wanted a responsive design that would allow a single codebase to support desktop, tablet and mobile devices. He wanted a platform that would enable the team to build the site from the ground up within four months, that could support Quartz's six different content types and that could provide lots of out-of-the-box capabilities and plug-ins so his team wouldn't need to worry about such things as creating site maps for Google News and general search engines.

Quartz is a digital publication covering global business news. It needed a content management system that would be easy for its staff to use.

"With a team of three developers, we didn't have the bandwidth to do a lot of building on the front end," he says. So the idea that WordPress offers more than 21,000 plug-ins was highly attractive. "When you're a small team and you have a lot on your plate, that's a huge bonus," Donohoe explains.

But the biggest driver was WordPress' ease of use for publishing new content, and the fact that many on the editorial side already had experience with WordPress as a blogging tool. "The editors had been bitten by CMSs in the past," he says. WordPress was both friendly and familiar.

"People hate CMSs, but they love WordPress," says Paul Maiorana, director of platform services at Automattic, the Web development firm started by WordPress co-founder Matt Mullenweg. Automattic was hired to develop and host the new site through WordPress.com VIP, a service designed to host large, enterprise-scale websites. WordPress' popularity as a blogging platform has raised the bar for Web content publishing even as WordPress has evolved into an enterprise-class CMS, he says. "Users expect that same level of spit and polish in the workplace as well," says Maiorana.

Donohoe briefly considered the Django CMS framework, which was already in use at Atlantic Media. But Quartz's requirements were very different. "The ramp-up time to set up the framework, do the heavy prototyping and have the site come together didn't meet our aggressive time frame," he says.

He dismissed Drupal after hearing "less positive" feedback from colleagues. "Drupal can be a bit of a mess. It's also more Python-based, and while we do have Python skills in the larger company, we didn't have those in Quartz at the time," he says.

The creators of Quartz wanted a responsive design that would allow a single codebase to support desktop, tablet and mobile devices.

Donohoe explains that WordPress' support for HTML5 allowed Quartz to deliver "a defining experience online" without the need to build native apps for each mobile platform or to create separate versions of the site for tablets, mobile devices and personal computers.

"[Quartz] is a good example of what's possible in the WordPress world these days," Maiorana agrees. "The fact that [it] has a single, unified codebase that allows it to reach people on iOS and Android smartphones and tablets as well as desktop computers is pretty compelling. It looks the same no matter what device they're using, there's no duplication of code and you can manage that with a small team."

Yes, he admits, native mobile apps generally run faster. But, he says, "It really depends on what you're trying to do. The Quartz site works amazingly well from my iPhone."

Quartz also leverages WordPress as a JSON API, in addition to using WordPress' templating feature, Donohoe says. In all cases a JavaScript app makes a call to WordPress to get the data and, using client-side templates embedded within that page, renders different views for different screen sizes.

"For any given page we use the same WordPress template," Donohoe explains, "regardless of whether you're hitting the main page, a post, a slideshow, sponsored content, an author archive or tagging pages. As you navigate from one post, you're not loading a new page from the server. We're dynamically generating the content and updating within the same page. In that sense it allows us to have a single-page Web application."

Not everything was easy during the design phase, however. "We couldn't work with the JSON API as it stood. We had to do some workarounds, but we knew that from the beginning," Donohoe says.

His team added several custom fields and post types to WordPress that usually aren't represented in the default API, and integrated output from plug-ins they wrote to manage which categories should be prominently displayed at any given time. "Creating our own API gave us more flexibility where we needed it," he says.

Overall, however, Donohoe is pleased with WordPress. "It comes with a community, you have full access to the code, it's well-documented and it's easier to hire competent developers than with proprietary systems," he says. "The community has been outstanding in terms of enthusiasm, technical proficiency and well-thought-out code examples. We're very excited," he says.

Carleton University creates over 260 sites

Since adopting WordPress as its blogging platform in 2008, Carleton University -- located in Ottawa, Ontario -- has expanded its use. The CMS now powers 260-plus websites (80% of the university's websites), including 250 standardized departmental sites and more than a dozen custom sites. "We're so embedded with WordPress here that I've had people ask me if it also does blogging," says Danny Brown, manager of Web services.

Most recently, Brown's team, which includes two Web developers, used WordPress to relaunch the university's newsroom, which nontechnical staff use to post stories, photos and videos. The newsroom employs custom post types, a new feature in WordPress 3.0, to associate each news story with a list of experts maintained by the university. "Now when you look at a profile you can see news posts that related to that individual," says Web developer Troy Chaplin.

WordPress now powers Carleton University's 260-plus websites, including the university's newsroom, which nontechnical staff use to post stories, photos and videos.

Other recent projects include an athletics site, which, Brown says, shows that designs can be modified to such an extent that even experts can't tell it's a WordPress site, and a student housing site built using WordPress' support for responsive design that can accommodate mobile, tablet or desktop screens from a single codebase.

"You can't keep building versions for every new device that comes out without killing yourself," Brown says. "We are currently moving the frameworks for all of our WordPress websites into responsive design themes."

The university gradually migrated onto WordPress from the Luminis Content Management Suite (LCMS), which Brown describes as cumbersome and difficult to use. Brown was shocked to find during a visit to the vendor, Sungard, that LCMS had just two developers. "That was an eye-opener for me," he says. WordPress, on the other hand, has a community of thousands of developers.

Brown also tested Drupal for about two months before deciding on WordPress. "In my mind Drupal was the broader, more scalable solution, but it kept coming back to the fact that I couldn't do stuff as easily as I could in WordPress."

And, he says, WordPress had another compelling advantage. "The one benefit WordPress really has over Drupal is that it's so much easier to use on the back end," he says. "The user interface for administration is light-years ahead."

"The one benefit WordPress really has over Drupal is that it's so much easier to use on the back end," says Danny Brown, manager of Web services at Carleton University. "The user interface for administration is light-years ahead."

But that doesn't mean that WordPress was a perfect fit. "The one thing missing from WordPress is multilingual support," Brown says -- a particular concern in Canada, where both English and French are recognized as official languages. Drupal does a better job handling bilingual content, says Web developer Mike Corkum, who came to the university from a large, high-tech firm that used Drupal. "I've done it on both platforms and with Drupal it's much easier. WordPress has ways of handling it, but it's not as fully integrated, and it doesn't have the same level of support that Drupal does."

"We're also not fans of the media-management capabilities," says Brown, adding that "the word on the street is that huge improvements are coming." ("Over the next year the focus is on making multimedia easier to use," says Matt Mullenweg, co-founder of WordPress).

On the other hand, WordPress's multisite capabilities have made updating the university's many sites easier. "If I spend a day or two beforehand planning, I can update 200 sites in less than three days," says Web developer Troy Chaplin. He adds that the university expects to move to a setup that will allow simultaneous updates of 250 sites in five minutes.

"What people don't realize is that Drupal and WordPress are pretty similar now -- WordPress has come a long way," Cokum says. When people claim that Drupal is more extensible, he explains, "that's more because Drupal does it on the surface, while WordPress has a back-end codebase that people don't know about. You can create custom taxonomies and hierarchies. People who aren't developers just don't know about that because WordPress doesn't promote it."

Getting management approval to move off LCMS, the university's ERP system -- a commercial product that was part of Sungard's Banner and is now owned by Ellucian -- and onto an open-source CMS wasn't easy at first. "The hardest thing was to get people sold on open source here. They were scared about a lack of support," says Brown.

Using WordPress as a blogging tool got the system in the door, he explains. Then he signed up for commercial support from Automattic to appease user fears -- but never needed it. "There's nothing we haven't been able to solve with the community," he says.

Moving to an open-source system has had another, unexpected benefit. Shortly after making the move to WordPress, Brown received a letter from Sungard stating that it was discontinuing the CMS. "It felt good to know we weren't stuck," he says. "It all comes down to extensibility and community. We feel like we can do anything with the platform."

Don't miss the rest of our series on open-source CMSs: Part 1: Drupal and Part 2: Joomla.

Robert L. Mitchell is a national correspondent for Computerworld. Follow him on Twitter at @rmitch, or email him at rmitchell@computerworld.com.

See more by Robert L. Mitchell on Computerworld.com.

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