To CMS or Not to CMS. That Is the Question.
January 04, 2016
Development Technical Lead
No one enjoys driving on roads under construction. Building a brand-new highway with four exits and no traffic is a lot easier than adding three exits to an existing – already crowded – one-exit highway. In this analogy, cars are your site’s features and the highway is your content management system (CMS). When under construction, a “traffic jam” will no doubt occur when you introduce new features (or “cars”) to your content-managed site (or “highway”).
This is why the question of using a CMS is so important. Throughout my career of building websites, I have worked with a lot of different CMS platforms. I think at least half of them could have been built and maintained more easily without a CMS. Opting for a CMS takes time and money.
CMS systems are great, but none are an effortless solution to all problems. On the plus side, CMS platforms provide reusable templates, reduce the time necessary to post fresh content and are a good solution for non-tech-savvy clients. However, they don’t make the job of a developer easy.
Here are some considerations to weigh before committing to a CMS.
How Often Will Content Updates Really Be Necessary?
If the site is focused on a consistent stream of fresh content such as blog posts, press releases and videos, chances are you will want a system that easily allows for that. Do you have an internal editorial team that wants an approval workflow? Does your site require heavy use of localization and multiple languages? A CMS can be the answer to many of these questions. However, you may not need a complex one – a hybrid solution may suffice. If content updates are rare, building a static HTML site may be the best option.
How Much Flexibility Do You Need?
When you integrate your site into a CMS, you are purposefully defining a limited structure to your content. This can be a great thing if done right; everything looks consistent and good. However, this breaks down when changes to functionality or look and feel become commonplace. Then you are left with a developer having to hack his way into a system that was never built to accommodate that level of customization. If you have a highly custom design (with minimal content changes) or you are considering a redesign shortly after launch, a static HTML site is probably a better fit.
Are the Up-Front Costs in the Budget?
Whether you are considering an open-source or enterprise system, no CMS is free. Usually a significant investment of planning, building and testing is required up front to integrate a site into a CMS. Not to mention that every additional piece of editable data adds more time to a project.
Are You Prepared for Ongoing Maintenance?
Implementation of a CMS has its ongoing costs as well. Your entire site is run by a piece of software that requires system-wide updates, QC testing and possible hotfixes as a consequence of any updates. Any new features will also require additional planning, implementation and testing, particularly if this feature is something the system wasn’t designed to do. A CMS’s architecture can be tough, especially if the changes are on a short timeline.
Most clients don’t realize there is a growing market of lightweight solutions that deliver the limited functionality of a CMS without the big overhead or complex customization. A system, such as Pico or Pagekit, is a great offering when you only need basic pages and simple content entry or you want to leverage prebuilt plugins and extensions. These systems typically give you a dashboard to manage your content with a slim and simple interface. They also reduce the amount of server-side complexities, which can cause issues with load time and workflow.
Making the Decision
In some cases, a CMS is a great way to manage your site, but, in many others, a CMS can get in the way of productivity. Things to consider when making this decision are ease of use for your team, costs to build and maintain the system, and how much control you have to compromise in choosing a system.
In theory, a CMS sounds great. However, in practice, you must realize that a CMS is not the only solution; it is one of many tools from which to choose.