Everything You Need To Know To Get Started With Content Management Systems

Free and low-cost enterprise wiki tools and open-source content management systems are plentiful. Here's a quick guide to the available options.

September 10, 2007

13 Min Read

It can be easy to dump thousands of dollars into a content management system that no one in your company will want to (or can figure out how to) use. Here are some solutions that keep costs in check but deliver a useful, easy-to-use system with lots of capabilities.

In this article, we'll give an overview of the concepts behind enterprise content and document management, take a look at some practical applications for different types of organizations, and then discuss specific software packages, such as MediaWiki, Drupal, and others, that can be easy to use but also pack lots of functionality.

Content And Document Management Concepts

Whether yours is a multinational corporation with 100,000 employees or a small nonprofit with a staff of 5, virtually every organization shares the challenge of knowledge management. Getting your mission-critical information into a centralized place that makes it easy to create, update, and find is daunting. Enter content and document management.

The concepts behind content management are fairly universal whether you're purchasing a sophisticated system with a price tag in the hundreds of thousands of dollars or using a simple wiki. Both content creators and end users will be reluctant to use a system if it isn't easy to search and it isn't easy to add and edit content. Keeping that user experience in mind is critical.

Deciding what solution will work best for your organization relies on having a strong understanding of what your content management goals are. If you're creating a simple knowledgebase for a small tech support team, then a wiki will probably serve your purposes. If a robust Internet or intranet site with constantly changing content is required, then a more full-featured content management system is more likely to meet your needs.

The good news is that you can set up a world-class content and document management system at little or no cost. Full-featured open source content management systems like Drupal and Mambo rival the functionality of off-the-shelf systems that may command many thousands of dollars. There are quite a few free options for wikis, including MediaWiki, the open source software that runs Wikipedia. We'll also take a quick look at Basecamp, for small workgroups and project teams for whom a full content management system or a wiki may be overkill.

Open Source Content Management

In terms of creating a centralized location for all of your organization's information and documentation, a content management system (CMS) will generally offer the most flexibility, although they can have a steep learning curve and tend to require a good bit of administrative care and feeding. Many of the open source options are programmed in and require PHP, and run a MySQL database on the back end with an Apache Web server front end. Thus, having a comfort level with PHP, database, and Web server administration makes managing the systems easier. Managing access, setting user rights, and general system administration can also be a bit time consuming, and may require a dedicated resource. That said, there are several excellent open source content management systems available, most of which have a strong user community willing to assist with questions. We'll go into detail on a few of them below, but to try out a live demo of many of the CMS and wiki systems discussed in this article, visit OpenSourceCMS, which features over 50 different installations, all of which you can log into and test drive.


Drupal is among the best known and most well-regarded content management systems, open source or not. This is due, in part, to the availability of dozens of plug-in modules that support everything from standard functions such as adding content and blogging, to calendaring, bulletin board forums, and photo galleries. Virtually anything most organizations could need is available, and there is an active, helpful user community to assist with getting everything to work. Drupal is programmed in PHP and requires a MySQL/PostgreSQL back-end database. Since it's open source, if you can't find a module to do what you need, a programmer with some PHP skills can create one.

If you're looking for evidence that Drupal is up to the task of running a high-traffic site, consider that popular destinations such as Ain't It Cool News, The Onion, and Spread Firefox run on the platform.


If your organization is already using the open source Zope as its Web application server of choice, Plone may be a logical choice for the CMS, as it's designed from the ground up to run on top of Zope. Assuming that you have Zope installed already, Plone is easy to set up, and flexible, with dozens of available modules. Discover Magazine and Wimax.com are among the sites that run Plone CMS on top of Zope.


Like Drupal, both Mambo and Joomla were created in PHP and require a MySQL database. The platforms are close cousins; after a 2005 disagreement about the direction of Mambo, most of the core development team split off, and Joomla 1.0 was released shortly thereafter.

Both systems are well respected, and both have done a pretty good job of thriving since the split. Like Drupal, the user communities for both Mambo and Joomla are helpful and passionate, and while modules built for one tend to work for the other, this may not continue to be the case as the code bases diverge.


Although Wordpress is primarily considered a blogging tool, its ease of installation and use has driven development of a multitude of plug-ins, including CMS-focused modules.

While the fundamentals of blogging and content management are similar, Wordpress is probably not the best choice for a site with a lot of static content. It can, however, be an excellent choice for a site with a significant blogging component or for an administrator who is already comfortable with Wordpress. A quick Google search for "Wordpress CMS" should turn up the relevant plug-in modules.

Wordpress is available for free download, here. PHP-Nuke And Its Offshoots

In terms of the number of releases and user community, PHP-Nuke is one of the more mature open source content management systems available. PHP-Nuke is a rarity in that it charges a nominal fee -- currently $12 -- to download the latest version of the application, although older versions are free. Don't let that put you off though; it's very much worth a look, and like many of the other systems we discuss here, can be test driven for free at OpenSourceCMS.com.

Also worthy of note are the multiple PHP-Nuke fork projects. Forks are new applications based on modification to the original code, and in the case of PHP-Nuke, most look to improve or modify the way that it handles certain aspects of administration and content management.

Among the best of these is XOOPS, which was the First Runner-Up in Development in SourceForge.net's 2006 Community Choice Awards.

Enterprise Wikis

When most people think of wikis, they think, of course, of Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia whose content may be created and edited by anyone. That ease of use has certainly driven growth -- over 1.6 million English language entries exist on the site today.

As compared to the content management systems we've discussed, a wiki can be easier to use, particularly on the content creation side. Both hosted and self-managed wiki options are available; while a hosted option can get you up and running with a basic wiki in minutes, the administration of self-managed wikis will probably require some familiarity with PHP, MySQL databases, and Apache Web servers.

In an enterprise environment, a wiki's greatest strength -- the ability for users to create content easily and edit on a whim -- can also be its weakness. Sloppy writing and editing can make the content tough to find or simply inaccurate, and in some cases, administrators want only a limited group to do the content creation and management. To help address these issues, there are numerous types of wiki installations available, some of which address these specific concerns. An excellent tool for comparing the many wiki installations and their features and options is Wikimatrix.org.

We'll outline some of the most popular and interesting choices below.


As the software that runs Wikipedia, MediaWiki is the gold standard when it comes to building a wiki. Some other wiki installations can claim (rightfully) to be easier to use or manage, but none have the depth and breadth of features and functionality that MediaWiki boasts.

MediaWiki is written in and requires PHP and a MySQL or PostgreSQL database, and is generally served via an Apache or IIS web server. This means that setting it up can be a bit of an undertaking, but for launching an enterprise-class wiki, it's probably the best option available.

It handles images, audio and video files, and documents -- most of the things an organization would want to have readily available and easy to find for its users.


Wikispaces is a hosted wiki, meaning that there's no software to download, maintenance is negligible, and administration is simplified. Your organization can have a wiki up and running in minutes, which can be a real benefit to those without a dedicated technical resource.

The flipside of that convenience is that, because it lives on the Wikispaces servers, power users may find that it's less flexible and extensible than a more complex, robust solution such as MediaWiki. It's also, by default, intended to be public-facing site, which may be an issue for teams that need to keep information confidential. A private wiki is available at an additional cost.


Like Wikispaces, PBWiki is a hosted wiki, and it claims that it makes setting up a wiki as easy as making a peanut butter sandwich. It's pretty darn close.

One fairly significant difference from Wikispaces is that a PBWiki site may be made private, via a password, in the free version. That's a nice feature for organizations looking to kick the tires without incurring any expense.


The sweet spot for DokuWiki is a small organization that wants to host its own wiki, but may not need the breadth of features (and associated complexity) of MediaWiki. DokuWiki stores its pages in text files, so there's no database administration, and its goal is to be fast and easy to use, which it accomplishes.

It's a good solution for creating and managing documentation and tracking changes over time. Plus, lots of plug-in modules have been developed for functions ranging from spec hecking to search enhancements. All and all, DokuWiki is a good compromise -- it doesn't seem to aspire to be everything to everyone. Instead, it's a heck of a tool for managing information and documentation for a small to medium organization.


TWiki is a structured wiki, which is a combination of a traditional freeform wiki and a more structured database. Because content can be added to the system using simple form-based applications, the data is structured so that it's better organized and should be easier to search for and find. TWiki also focuses on providing very granular control over access groups, meaning that it's easier to limit who can create, edit, or even read certain content. This may result in additional administration, of course, but this granular control is welcomed in situations where some information might be sensitive.

TWiki is implemented in Perl and no database is needed, as all data is stored in text files. This will probably appeal to less-technical administrators. Small Team Solutions

Basecamp isn't a CMS or a wiki. Instead, it's intended to be a Web-based project-management tool, but it has some of the key functions we've been discussing throughout this article. For a small team for whom a full CMS is too much but a wiki not enough, Basecamp may be a good fit.

Basecamp's main features include to-do lists, time tracking, and milestone management, all of which tie right into project management. However, its Writeboards work like mini-wikis and it has basic file sharing features. It's a slick package, and while the free version limits some functions and doesn't include file sharing, it's worth a look.


You're bound to find dozens of recommendations and differing opinions on the Web about what CMS or wiki to use for your organization, but we'll add our two cents.

For a large site with a lot of content, consider Drupal. It's powerful and flexible, has a very strong and helpful user community, and the development team has done a good job of addressing user concerns with each release. For example, the installation process, which has long been a source of complaints from people trying to get started with the CMS, has been greatly simplified in the newest release.

Drupal has deep and comprehensive documentation, as well as free online manuals that that cater to all types and levels of users. One particularly good one for a new administrator getting started is Drupal Cookbook (for New Drupallers), which assumes you know nothing about PHP. This is the kind of new-user hand holding that the Drupal community exudes, and it makes the whole process of getting up to speed much easier.

For a smaller site or for a less technically inclined team, Wordpress with CMS plug-ins should meet your needs. It's beloved by the blogging community, and for good reason. The documentation is top notch, the forums are helpful, and it's straightforward to set up. For sites with just a few pages, and a mix of static and frequently refreshed content, Wordpress is a good, manageable way to get started.

On the wiki site, MediaWiki is the way to go if you're looking for a full-featured, enterprise-class wiki. It's the 800-pound-gorilla of wikis, with an active release schedule, excellent documentation, and lots of other users to guide you if you need help. The only down side is that it may be too much solution for a smaller organization or team, but you'll certainly find no lack of features.

For a small wiki, or for those without access to technical resources, it's a toss up between Wikispaces and PBWiki. Since they're both centrally hosted, they're dead simple to set up. There's a free version of each and all of their respective versions are easy to use, so it's worth your time to give them both a try. However, if you'll need you a private, password-protected wiki from the start, PBWiki has a slight edge.

We're in a golden age of open source software, with many of the packages offered for free by dedicated volunteer developers rivaling and even eclipsing their commercial counterparts. With all of the options now available for managing content, the days of painstakingly hand-coding pages for a content rich site are, thankfully, behind us.

Notable CMS And Wiki Links Mentioned In This Article:

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