Content management grows up
- By Michael Gallagher
- Oct 20, 2005
Whether on the Web or across the enterprise, tools are more powerful
Government Web sites have changed dramatically over the past five years. The number of pages published by state, local and federal agencies has grown exponentially ? as have the expectations of citizens, businesses and other government agencies.
The need for compliance with regulations for everything from record retention to accessibility highlights the need for more than just simple editing and posting tools.
And with the growing number of e-government initiatives involving online transactions and interactive content, the old approaches to managing Web content just don't cut it. Web content management is becoming tied to the core business processes of agencies at all levels.
Today's Web content management systems are increasingly joined to larger enterprise content management strategies. Many let users contribute content directly from office applications without having to use HTML.
And most offer ways to enforce standards for content, including accessibility as well as approval processes that correspond to different types of content.The evolution
Previous generations of Web tools often relied on a mish-mash of application program interfaces and scripting languages.
Today's Web content management systems are moving to open standards and, in some cases, even open-source software.
They're using technologies such as WebDAV, a Web file-sharing protocol, and Web services based on Java and Microsoft .NET. The adherence to standards such as Java Enterprise Edition means WCM tools can be integrated more easily with high-end Web portals and other enterprise applications.
These changes have created new choices for agencies in need of a better system. As established players such as Vignette Corp. have moved their products' architectures to open standards, they've forced customers to either move with them or move to new technology.
Many organizations have opted to build their own systems or adapt open-source solutions rather than pay for a new system.
Government agencies already using enterprise content management systems to handle massive volumes of documents, e-mails and other collaborative data are looking to consolidate those functions with their Web content management.
But for many smaller organizations, these software packages are too expensive and too complex to implement, and they're often not easily integrated with custom applications.
As a result, many organizations are taking a hard look at the returns on investment of their enterprise content management systems and considering Web content management systems as a more open alternative to complex content management solutions.
An emerging class of software, christened "basic content services" by analysts at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn., has grown in the gap between standards-based content management systems built for the Web and more sophisticated and complicated ECM systems. These Web-based tools do more than manage Web sites.
The Defense Department's Joint Forces Command adopted standards-based content management software from Xythos Software Inc. called WebFile Server. It's used for collaborative content on the Multi-National Force Iraq Portal, providing a secure way to share data through the open-source Exo portal server.
Because the software is Web-based, no additional software had to be deployed in the field.
For organizations with reasonable software development resources in-house or those wanting a truly customized solution, there is open-source Web content management tools that rival many commercial systems for functionality.
Plone, for example, is an open-source content management tool supported by a variety of commercial software and consulting companies.CALL FOR CONTENT
Regardless of whether you're managing content on a portal in Iraq, an agency intranet or a public Web site, the software you use is worthless unless content gets into it.
Increasingly, content is coming from deeper and deeper within the organization and from people who have never coded HTML.
"The business case for WCM is to give organizations a way to get information they already have to new audiences," said Vern Imrich, chief technology officer of Percussion Software Inc. "But most content that agencies have was written by people that have never written for anyone but themselves and other people in their department."
That means there has to be a thorough, automated process for converting content and filtering it into forms that are appropriate for the audience. "If you force the users to do all the work, the process fails," he said.
The content that audiences need isn't just HTML anymore, and it isn't viewed in a Web browser. There are syndication feeds such as RSS, mobile applications and other delivery formats to meet various needs, including compliance with Section 508 of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
While most Web content management tools offer some sort of workflow for collaboration and content approval. Some, such as Serena Software Inc.'s Collage, offer ways to ensure that compliance and target application requirements are met.
"You can take the approach where Collage suggests areas for accessibility," said Nathan Rollins, director of product marketing for Serena. "Or, they can be enforced? you can prevent content from being checked in if the Section 508 requirements have not been met."
And because Web pages are records, too, Web content management systems must be able either to provide records management functionality or integrate with software that does.
Jim Tiller, vice president of marketing for Xythos, said the demand for records management functionality from federal customers is driving the next release of the company's products, which he said would meet the Defense Department's 5015.2-STD standard for records management.
"We fully intend to have a 5015.2 solution by next year," he said.
For systems based on Java Enterprise Edition, there's another route to records management compliance. A recent Java Stand- ard Request has opened the door to a standardized way for Web-based content management systems to integrate with other document repositories.
JSR 170 offers an interface that lets different content management systems share a common repository. So far, most major enterprise content management vendors have announced support, including EMC Documentum, BroadVision Inc., Interwoven Inc. and Vingnette.
While most Web content management systems now take advantage of WebDAV and Web services in some form, their architectures vary widely.
Some systems are built as a single-point solution, acting as both content management system and Web server, while others use standard interfaces to publish to any platform, from static Web servers to enterprise portal platforms.
There are some advantages to the all-in-one, single-point approach. Bill Rogers, chief executive officer of Ektron Inc., said site searches are one example.
By searching through Ektron's CMS400.NET, the user can "customize what part of the site you're searching on," Rogers said. "You can do more advanced searches, based on what's changed recently, what author created the content, and on any other metadata you've created around the content."
One concern about an all-in-one architecture is Web-server performance. But Rogers said that isn't an issue for Ektron's customers, which include the city of San Francisco. He said that site gets more than a million visits a day, and it runs one server and one database.
Still, while traffic scalability may not be an issue, breaking off the content management system from the Web platform allows for more flexibility, and lets one system serve multiple applications and Web servers.
Larger organizations will need to pick a Web content management system that can mesh easily with their architectures. But for smaller state, local and federal agencies, an all-in-one solution might be the most practical ? and the most affordable.
Bottom line: Web content management is a rapidly evolving area. How it's done depends largely on needs, architecture and other business processes.
It's hard to slap a label on Web content management systems. Many technologies can reach the goal, so do some homework and shop carefully.S. Michael Gallagher is an independent technology consultant in Baltimore.