Open source CMSes prove well worth the price

We look at five free offerings boasting solid Web publishing features that challenge their commercial competitors

When last surveying open source Web CMSes (content management systems) I provided some common-sense advice. For example, it's important to look for not just functionality but also frequent updates, a healthy user community, and the availability of professional support. Some points are still true today, but new offerings may get you rethinking the role of these products in your enterprise.

That point is one of my takeaways in my most recent foray into the world of open source CMSes, during which I looked at the latest offerings from Alfresco, DotNetNuke, Drupal and Joomla, and Plone.

The one constant among these offerings, as with any open source area, is there's no such thing as free. You'll still need to budget for datacenter staff to install and maintain applications, consider costs for custom programming and commercial add-ons, and factor in training. Today's CMSes, however, are friendlier for IT staff to maintain and generally don't have the extreme end-user learning requirements of a few years ago.

Another positive is more standardization, which may translate to lower development costs. For example, Alfresco's based on a JSR-170 repository, integrates with JSR-168 portals, and can be extended by those with Java skills.

Still, think carefully about each product's nucleus,and how that fits with your existing infrastructure, commercial or open source. The other solutions in this roundup -- DotNetNuke, Drupal and Joomla, and Plone -- were respectively constructed with VB.Net, PHP, or Zope (Python). You can certainly find programmers and other support resources skilled in each technology.,You may find it more difficult, however, to integrate your PHP-based CMS with other systems compared to working with a .Net or Java foundation.

Another potential shortcoming of open source products - especially in high-performance environments -- is the underlying database. There's nothing inherently bad about MySQL (that Dupal, Joomla, and Plone use). But in certain situations (or even just an IT bias), a CMS's database may influence your selection. So remember that you may need to include the license and hardware cost for Microsoft SQL Server, which Alfresco and DotNetNuke support.

Still, across these products you'll probably discover overall cost savings compared to their commercial counterparts. That, and open source products' continuous feature and usability improvements, can make them a very good fit for particular enterprise Web or document management projects.

Alfresco Community Release 2.1

Alfresco has a superstar lineup of experienced executives and developers previously with Business Objects, Documentum, Interwoven, Oracle, and Vignette. The result of their work shows in the quality and depth of Alfreso's Community Release, earning it the top spot in our evaluation. When I last reviewed Version 1.2.1 of Alfresco, it was primarily a document management system. That's changed, though, over the previous year. Alfresco 2.1 extends Web content management while adding record and image management, federated search, and better ease of use through the Alfresco AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML) Web client.

Another plus for Alfresco is its flexible licensing with the FLOSS (Free/Libre and Open Source Software-only) exception. This lets you embed the Alfresco JSR-170 content repository into other projects -- without having to license the entire Alfresco community package.

Installation went fast for both Windows and Linux, and you can run Alfresco with JBoss Portal 2.2 or Apache Tomcat. For most of my testing I used Windows Server 2003 and Tomcat. The main Alfresco work area continues to be well organized, with breadcrumbs to jump around quickly and summary areas that show available actions. Additionally, each user can create custom views to their documents and tasks. On top of this, Alfresco 2.1's portlet container enables users to access their spaces, tasks, documents, and Web Forms from JSR-168-compliant portals.

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Mike Heck

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