Content Management Systems (CMS)
This information paper explains what a content management system
is and why you need one. It also explains how to set about finding
the best one for your project, including some tips.
What is a content management system?
A content management system (CMS) is a database which organizes
and provides access to all types of digital content - files containing
images, graphics, animation, sound, video or text. It contains
information about these files (known as 'digital assets'),
and may also contain links to the files themselves in order to
allow them to be located or accessed individually. A content management
system is usually used to manage digital assets during the development
of a digital resource, such as a web site or multimedia production.
It might be used by staff digitizing images, authors and editors,
or those responsible for the management of the content development
process (content managers). Content management systems range from
very basic databases, to sophisticated tailor-made applications.
These more complex systems can be integrated with the eventual
digital resource in order to enable access to digital assets and
to allow regular updating.
Why does your project need a content management system?
Content management systems are essential for large or even small-scale
projects which involve the capture or creation of digital assets.
They also are increasingly necessary for the creation of any but
the most basic web sites.
Similarly, managing a web site with even a few pages is a time-consuming
task when updates are required from different divisions and different
departments perhaps when a page is added which requires the navigation
menu to be updated on other pages, or when a logo changes which
then needs to be reflected on all pages. For this reason, the
use of templates which draw on content held in a database, is
a vital management tool. Without this type of application, the
web site would either fall out of date very quickly, or would
require ever greater staff resources to retain its currency.
What do content management systems do - and how do they work?
Holding information about digital content
Content management systems hold information describing digital
assets. This information is known as 'metadata' (information about
other information). The metadata held in a content management
system can be used to manage and provide access to, digital resources.
Metadata held in a content management system might include:
- capture and creation information (e.g. author, editor, date
captured, image resolution, type of scanner used, etc.).
- descriptive information (e.g. subject, caption, reference
to the original document or object, associated people, places
or events, etc.);
- rights ownership (e.g. copyright owner, licensing information,
Holding digital content
Content management systems may store narrative text for publication
on the web. Text can be recorded together with author, version
and currency information, which enables the publication of information
online to be managed more effectively. Systems may also provide
direct links to digital assets, enabling users to browse through
images, sound or video clips as part of the authoring process.
The system should enable content managers and editors to keep
a close eye on the digitization process, including monitoring
the capture of images, or tracking the authoring and editing of
narrative text. This can be done using simple checkboxes or by
completing data fields which document progress. Some systems allow
the pre-publication process to be tracked more visually, using
workflow management tools which represent the progress of a piece
of text through the authoring process - for example, using colored
'traffic lights' to indicate when a piece is ready to be published
online, or alternatively by displaying a 'route-map' with milestones
indicating how far an article has progressed down the editorial
Any content management system should have a mechanism allowing
it to make this content available to a web site. Depending on
the complexity of the system, this might be done in different
At a basic level, the system might export the content in a predefined
format, to a separate database used to run a web site. This would
require regular exports to be made as content was updated, and
is an effective, if labor-intensive means of enabling the online
publishing of digital content.
An alternative would be to use a content management system able
to be integrated with a web site. In this type of arrangement,
a web manager would create templates for different types
of web page. Layouts for different types of page could be set
up, predefining the type of content which would be displayed in
each template. For example, an organization's logo might always
be displayed, as well as a navigation bar, and a special template
might be designed to hold information about an items held in a
This template might then be selected to create a page containing,
for instance, an image of an illuminated manuscript, together
with a caption and a transcription. This could be done
by hand - for instance an image or text could be copied from the
content management system and inserted into the correct place
in the template. However this would mean that whenever the text
was updated, the web page would need to be recreated by hand.
For this reason, it is better to create a web page by linking
the database directly to a template.
This could be done by selecting the template to be used for a
specific page, then instead of adding in the image or text by
hand, inserting a database query for each component of the page
which includes a digital asset to be drawn from the database.
Immediately before the web page is 'published' (i.e. copied to
the live web site), a program is run which ensures that the web
pages are updated by running their database queries on the content
management system. The image of the manuscript, the transcription
and the caption are retrieved directly from the database, copied
to the web page and displayed whenever the page is called up.
When content is changed (for example, the caption might be updated,
or a better quality image created), the web page is republished
using a single command - i.e. one or more database queries are
rerun - and updated images or text are automatically uploaded,
replacing the previous versions. In this type of system, the database
is held within the organization's security firewall and the newly-published
web pages are mounted externally.
More sophisticated content management systems can deliver digital
content direct to web pages which are constructed 'on-the-fly'
as users browse through a web site. For example, a user might
wish to select items from a collection by searching on a keyword.
The relevant items would be retrieved directly from the content
management system, based on the metadata describing the
subject of each digital record. A web page is then created to
display details of each item online, using a template designed
for that specific purpose. As before, the template places the
relevant content for each item within a predefined layout as it
is displayed on the screen. The web 'page' however, only exists
at the time of display, and is effectively a temporary composite
of design, layout, text and images. The benefit of this type of
system is that it allows updated content to be constantly updated,
rather than published in batches which may take time to upload.
It also makes the management of the web site much easier.
Clearly security and access for this type of system need to be
more sophisticated. In some applications a 'source' database is
held within the organization's firewall and extracts automatically
copied to the external version whenever content is updated. Alternatively,
additional security measures may be built into the content management
system to prevent unauthorized access.
The steps to procurement and defining will be as follows:
Developing the a business case
Based on the size and complexity of the planned project, decide
from the outset the scale and scope of the system which is required
to support the development and delivery of the project. Take into
account existing systems and skills.
Draft Operational requirement
Based on the business case, we will draw up a list of the functions
and the recording capabilities which the system will require.
Operational Requirement should include the following components:
- Introduction and background to the project
- Procurement and project implementation timetable
- Functional requirements
- Technical requirements and operating environment
- Contractual requirements
- Form of response to the requirement
The functional and technical sections will contain some requirements
which are 'mandatory' (i.e. any system must deliver these
in order to be considered). Other requirements may be assigned
different levels of importance. Try and restrict the mandatory
requirements to those areas which you really could not do without
Refine and issue Operational Requirement
A minimum of 28 days is normally required by suppliers to respond
to the Operational Requirement.
What a content management system can do for your site
- Scope of system (e.g. metadata recording, process management,
online publishing, integration with other systems)
- Data structure (including the ability to record your required
metadata, to hold links to digital assets and to hold text which
can be edited and published)
- Templates (including design, layout and accessibility for
different types of page; also your ability to update templates)
- Security and access (including access rights for different
types of user, e.g. retrieval only, editors, publishers, web
manager, administrator etc.)
- Workflow management and process control
- Ability to integrate databased information - either for publishing
on-the-fly or in batches
- Ability to generate navigation and links between pages automatically
- Ability to interoperate with existing systems and to comply
with data standards
- Ability to run on your existing technical infrastructure
- Ability of database to search across metadata and narrative
- Ability to manage metadata across the database, e.g. update
or assign values globally or across a selection
- Ability to archive data, and to output reports in digital
and printed form
Future-proofing your content management system
To ensure that your content management system will be useful
in three or five years time, and that your content will be secure
and accessible in perpetuity, there are a number of issues which
you will need to consider including the following:
- Will it deal with existing standards for data - and do the
suppliers take a proactive approach to keeping their products
- Does the system use a standard, open operating environment
- Is the system able to import and export data in formats understood
by other systems?
- Does it allow data to be archived in standard formats using
secure, stable storage media?
- Is the database extensible - for example, can new fields be
added if you decide to extend the range of metadata you record?
- Are the specialist skills necessary to maintain the application
and the underlying technology, both readily available and affordable?
- Is the system in widespread use in similar projects?
- Does the underlying technology fit with your organization's
Divisions review their existing systems and review their metadata
and publishing requirements and find that although the existing
database is able to publish pages on-the-fly, it isn't able to
provide them with the digital asset management and process management
functions they require. Together, the partners draw up a requirement
for these functions, stipulating that the system should be able
to export content to the web site system, and should be licensed
to each of the partners individually, but at a reduced rate, with
shared support services. The system is procured jointly by the
partners, under the oversight of a project committee comprising
a senior staff member from each partner, An individual from each
partner organization is designated the project leader within that
organization, responsible for ensuring that local metadata and
functional requirements are met, and for planning the local implementation.
A CMS driven web site offers many advantages over traditional
static web sites. These advantages include:
- Simplicity of adding new content, pages and sections
- Ease of managing unlimited amounts of content and data (superior
content management environment)
- Allowing team-wide collaboration on all or specific sections
of web site (multiple people can manage site with each having
- Ease of adding a content "search" feature to search all or
specific types of content
- Ease of making instant changes to text, images, files, pages,
or font color or size
- Ease of managing an archive of older data
- Graphical Presentation of Data
- Ease of Communication
- Task assigning and follow back
- Performance output Ratio Analysis
- Eliminating the technical knowledge to operate and manage
- Easily scaling using a "snap-in" design so the web environment
can easily grow and change with the organization's needs,
- Being software and database neutral - the system is not dependent
on any one software system so it can work with the majority
of operating systems and relational database systems, and
- Following an abstract design principle that allows developers
to easily integrate best-of-breed third party software applications
- Removing the middleman from the content management process
- directly empowering the content creator to manage the content
(thus, lowers costs, increases content management speed and
reduces resources need to operate system)
- Eliminating the need to have technical staff managing the
web site, thus freeing any existing technical staff to focus
on other value added tasks.
- Reducing the hardware resources and software resources needed
to operate web environments.
- Reducing or eliminating the amount of training your staff
will need to manage and operate its web environment.