Enterprise Technology: Choosing the Right Content Management System

As Web sites struggle toward profitability, having the right contact management system in place can mean the difference between success and failure.

Fredric Paul
PC World

July 2001

Content is the key to the success of any Web site. But once you've posted even a few pages, managing your material can become daunting. Text, graphics, video, and audio files all need to be organized and made easily accessible, preferably with as little manual labor as possible.

Content management software is the answer--but the wrong choice can produce a financial and workflow nightmare. In this month's Enterprise Technology, we look at CMS options that range in price from a few thousand dollars to upward of $500,000 and deliver a wide range of features and benefits. In some cases you may be better off developing your own CMS. We'll help you decide.

What's the least pleasant part of running a Web business site? Whether they're in a Global 1000 boardroom or in a cubicle at a little dot com, Web people kvetch about CMSs the way farmers complain about the weather--often with the same sense of resignation. But as the following survey of content management products indicates, it doesn't have to be that way.

There are so many content types, from simple text and graphics to video and audio files. A successful CMS must integrate diverse content from various sources, customize it for the user or site, and deliver it in a format appropriate to the user's access device, which could be anything from a desktop PC to a mobile phone. Not surprisingly, vendors haven't come up with a one-size-fits-all program.

"Content management as an industry is still in its infancy," says Gordon Kent, director of product marketing at EBT (EBusiness Technologies), a CMS vendor based in Providence, Rhode Island. According to a small study by Forrester Research, about 70 percent of the companies surveyed that use a commercial CMS have had it for less than a year.

Moreover, like all software, CMS suffers from a serious catch-22: If it includes enough extra features to satisfy every likely customer, it becomes impossibly hard to use. "The system has to try to accommodate a variety of users while still keeping some sort of order and consistency," says Timothy Appnel, director of technology for New York-based Agency.com, which has installed content management systems for many Global 1000 customers.

Though establishing the value of Web-based information as a strategic asset can be difficult, companies spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to try to manage their online content. They hope to gain a CMS that will help them understand and maximize the value of their content, and minimize associated costs by letting customers do much of the work themselves without relying on the Web site staff.

Replacing an Utter Failure

Take BestBuy.com, an online electronics and entertainment retailer in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. "Like a lot of people, we started off developing a home-grown CMS," recalls Greg Perry, manager of the company's Content Systems Group. "Basically, it was an utter failure. It had no workflow and no stability, and it required custom development for everything."

Seeking an off-the-shelf solution last summer, the company looked at products from Vignette ("too expensive," Perry says) and Blue Martini, before settling on Interwoven's TeamSite, citing its strong workflow features and its ability to work with BestBuy.com's existing systems.

It took a team of 12 to 15 developers and business members three to four months to get BestBuy.com's system running. Though Perry wishes that Interwoven had had a smoother interface at installation time, he's pleased with the results overall.

The View at Ground Level

For people who actually work on a Web site, the difference between a home-made system and a good third-party CMS can be dramatic. Before monitor maker ViewSonic engaged Allaire Spectra to help manage its 5000-page site, "users would e-mail me and say, 'Here, this is a new product; put it up on the site,'" says Internet applications manager Amanda Allen. "With Spectra, once you have all the rules set up, it's very simple for them to put in the content themselves."

Those benefits are costly. CMS prices begin in the $15,000-to-$50,000 range, but the average deal size is $300,000 to $500,000, according to Nick Wilkoff, an analyst at Forrester Research. And that's just the cost of the software license. When you take services and deployment into account, Wilkoff says, users spend an average of nearly $2 million and from 8 to 14 months implementing a system.

What do you get for the investment? The answer depends on which CMS you choose. For a features comparison of major products, see the chart.

In general, however, Wilkoff divides vendors into four main camps:

Content management veterans: Companies such as CMS pioneers Vignette and Interwoven have been around almost as long as the Web itself and remain market leaders. Extremely powerful and versatile, their offerings are correspondingly expensive. Some, including Vignette, bundle e-commerce options into their products.

Document management vendors: Companies like Documentum and FileNet have drawn on their expertise in traditional document management to tailor products for Web content formatting and delivery. The resulting CMS programs tend to support strong management of workflow, version control, and the overall process.

E-commerce crossovers: These companies are e-commerce software vendors that branched out into content management. Open Market made CMS its flagship product after it bought FutureTense in October 1999, and BroadVision acquired InterLeaf in January 2000.

Niche players: This segment of the market is composed of smaller companies that specialize in key areas. IntraNet Solutions, for example, concentrates on extranet and intranet deployments, and EBT is known for its work with XML (Extensible Markup Language), whose predecessor was the language HTML.

A subset of niche players consists of companies that offer solutions for smaller customers. These include Percussion Software's Rhythmyx Content Manager, PaperThin's CommonSpot 2.0, Reef's Reef Publisher 2.1, and Ektron's EMPower 2.5. These products cover the basics of content management, though they tend to be less configurable than the offerings of high-end players. Even Microsoft is entering the fray--at least tangentially--with its new SharePoint Portal Server.

Whatever its heritage, every CMS has to address a number of key issues, either alone or with the help of partners. According to both users and analysts, the three most critical areas are workflow and collaboration; integration with existing corporate infrastructure; and the ability to deliver content in multiple formats to a wide range of audiences and devices.

Workflow and Collaboration

Companies most often choose a CMS because they want an automated workflow system for organizing content management tasks into a structured approval process, according to the Forrester study.

At financial services company Brown Brothers Harriman, for example, workflow was a key consideration in choosing EBT's Engenda. The new CMS is now running in a pilot project, but BBH will eventually roll it out to the company's entire 10,000-page Web site. Ed Marcarelli, a managing director at BBH, predicts that 40 to 50 people will eventually be involved in the site's day-to-day updating, and "that number will probably grow as we expand the use of Engenda to the intranet."

Getting the details of the workflow right requires serious effort--in part because Brown Brothers Harriman, as a financial institution, must strictly control who can post material to its site. But Marcarelli says anything would be better than the old way of posting content, when pages were written in Microsoft Word and then e-mailed to the technology staff, who transformed the text into HTML using Dreamweaver and placed it on the servers.

"It was a multiple-step process that took a lot of supervision," Marcarelli says. "We were making do, but we didn't want to compromise quality. We think we've solved that problem."

Streamlining isn't the only way to improve workflow, however; companies also benefit from advanced technology. Observers praise the unique architecture of Open Market's Content Server 3.1. Most CMSs are designed to work smoothly with one or more application servers--from companies like Art Technology Group, BEA, and IBM--which handle tasks ranging from personalization and e-commerce to transaction management and load balancing. Application servers manage and serve apps or services throughout an enterprise and the Web.

The Open Market system promises to let nearly everyone in an organization--not just a few dozen or even a few hundred--contribute to a Web site. As the number of contributors grows, the program could pay big dividends by managing contributor requests just as load-balancing software manages end-user requests. Open Market is the only vendor currently offering this highly scalable architecture, but many others are headed in the same direction.

Enterprise Integration

The CMS you choose must also work well with your existing information systems. "Clients are heavily invested in their application servers, and the CMS has to be able to plug into that," Agency.com's Appnel says. That's why his firm regularly works with Interwoven, whose products support various enterprise architectures.

Telecommunications equipment maker Nortel Networks chose Interwoven for the same reason, says Larry Morton, Nortel's manager of Web application infrastructure. Nortel's public Web sites and extranets needed an open-standard tool that would work with any app laid on top of it. "We didn't want to go back to where each new commerce application had its own content-entry system," Morton says.

So should you buy an all-in-one solution or invest in an array of standards-based components? Both approaches have advantages, but the key issue relates to the technological infrastructure already in place. Often, larger content management systems have their own application servers, complicating efforts to tie them into the enterprise. Smaller firms may be able to avoid integration hassles by basing their entire e-business operations on a large-scale CMS system.

Sometimes, companies find, earlier decisions largely dictate what CMS to select. Infoworks project manager Robert N. Campbell says that for sharing internal technical and reference information at his company, engineering giant Bechtel in Houston, "It made sense to stay with Documentum [which relies on outside application servers and Web servers to deliver the content] because a lot of our content is already in Documentum formats."

Personalization and XML

Another consideration in appraising a CMS is how well it tailors content to specific system users, showing them what they want to see based on stored user profiles. Mike Maziarka, director at consulting firm Cap Ventures in Norwell, Massachusetts, says most high-end CMS products handle this aspect of personalization fairly well. The challenge, he says, is to deliver content in a format appropriate to a wide range of reception devices.

The key to success here is XML. This language is designed to provide context for each bit of content, making it clear that the number 86 in a Web document, for example, is a price and not an inventory quantity, the temperature in Miami, or an order to eject someone from the site. "It's like TCP/IP was for the Web," says Nazhin Zarghamee, vice president of marketing for Documentum, "a lingua franca for content management."

The big stumbling block for XML, of course, is what to do about legacy data--the content companies created back in the days when they posted information in flat HTML files. "Most Web sites don't have their content in reusable form," observes Nortel's Morton, "and we need tools to automate the process of making content available to be categorized or tagged." In many cases, the prospect of recoding tens of thousands of pages is too daunting.

Interwoven addresses legacy-data issues with MetaTagger, which automates tagging--adding metadata to--enterprise Web content. MetaTagger enforces tagging of new content as part of standard workflow. For existing content, the program's batch mode simplifies adding tags by establishing preconfigured categories for vertical industries and enabling users to tailor tags to their particular needs.

Managing People, Not Content

In the end, content management is "as much about managing the users as it is about managing the content," says Forrester's Wilkoff. The employees responsible for content are typically scattered across the organization. Unless all parties involved find that it helps them work more effectively, no amount of spiffy technology will make your content management system a success.

Company Product          Price1             Implementation time Intended for         Comments                                          
Redwood City, California
One-to-One Publishing 5.5 Average, $470,000 3 to 6 months Global 2000 companies seeking to build complete e-business operations Content management integration with rest of BroadVision's e-business suite remains incomplete. Partners with Interwoven and Documentum for some CMS functions.
Pleasanton, California
Documentum 4i EBusiness Platform Ten-user system, $50,000 and up; larger systems, $250,000 and up 3 weeks to 3 months for point installation; 3 to 6 months to start enterprise installation Global 1000 firms, especially those with large content volume Strong transition to content management from document management origins. Good workflow controls, XML handling, and scalability. Single virtual repository based on object model can be distributed across multiple servers.
Providence, Rhode Island
Engenda 4.7 Depends on number of users; base, $75,000; average, $150,000 Minimum 30 days Manufacturing and financial firms, and large publishers and media organizations Analysts say authoring interface is confusing, but program has graphical workflow creation and good XML support. Distributed authoring capabilities; works with existing file servers.
Costa Mesa, California
Panagon Content Services 5.1, Web Services 3.1, Web Publisher 4.1 Average, $200,000; full enterprise installation, $500,000 to $1 million 2 weeks to several months Insurance companies, financial services firms, and government agencies Excellent document management functions, but still lacks key CMS features. Inconsistent user interfaces and tools. Best for serving static or infrequently updated content.
Sunnyvale, California
TeamSite 5.0 Average, $298,000 Average first project, 8 weeks Large multinational companies with complex sites and many types of data Solid content management with good workflow features. Focused on creation and publishing, not delivery, so it's often used with ATG or WebLogic application and Web servers. Has strong technology partnerships.
IntraNet Solutions
Eden Prairie, Minnesota
Xpedio 4.0 Average, $199,000 A few weeks Government; financial services, health-care, manufacturing, and high-tech firms Strong transition from knowledge management to content management. Solid authoring and workflow tools make Xpedio a good choice for companies with lots of content types, lots of contributors, but few developers.
San Francisco, California
Spectra Pricing begins at $15,000 per server 6 weeks to 3 months Applications where in-house ColdFusion expertise exists Built around Macromedia's ColdFusion scripting language, Spectra is basically an application framework for building Web systems.
Open Market
Burlington, Massachusetts
Content Server Enterprise Edition, including Content Server 3.1 Base, $100,000 to $150,000; average, $340,000 Minimum 4 weeks Publishing, entertainment, manufacturing, and financial services firms Company moved from e-commerce software to CMS with purchase of FutureTense. Its Java-based system--with support for XML and JSP--is deeply integrated with application servers to leverage their performance.
Austin, Texas
Vignette V/Series E-Business Application Suite 5.6 Base, $125,000; average, $405,000 to $540,000 Minimum 30 days; 6 to 12 months for larger projects Global 2000 financial services, manufacturing, and telecommunications companies Content management pioneer now moving toward e-business. Version 5.6 aims to change perception of it as a tool kit rather than a finished solution. Strong delivery, personalization, and development tools.

1 According to vendor.
Sources: Forrester Research/Doculabs, which tested content management software on approximately 600 different attributes, including integration, performance architecture, reliability, security, and customer support; and PC World.

CMS Decision Tree

Choosing the Right CMS for Your Company

"Content management is quite a broad umbrella," says London-based Alan Pelz-Sharpe, principal consultant for Ovum, a research, consulting, and analysis company, "but some systems are better than others for specific purposes." Here's how he describes the major categories of CMS users--and the types of systems they should consider.

Consumer E-Commerce Site

Business-to-Business Site

Multiple Corporate Web Sites

Knowledge Management

CMS Self-Service Solutions

Grow Your Own CMS: Get What You Need, Done Your Way

For some companies, even the best CMS isn't good enough--or affordable enough. That's why firms like San Francisco-based AllBusiness, a leading provider of online resources for small businesses, have chosen to build their own CMSs rather than investing in an off-the-shelf product.

"When we started," recalls Michael Mimeles, vice president of network product, "we had to move fast and cheap. We figured that once we got to a point where we knew what we needed, we'd spring for a real CMS. But once we knew what we needed, we couldn't find one that was exactly right--every product was missing one piece or another. So we kept building our own content management tool, and after a while, we had a pretty cool product that does exactly what we need--mostly because it does only that."

AllBusiness did not investigate other roll-your-own technologies, but there are other options apart from relying on Web authoring tools like Macromedia Dreamweaver or Microsoft FrontPage. In-house developers have three choices, says industry analyst Frank Gilbane, editor of The Gilbane Report in Cambridge, Massachusetts. First, they can work with open-source scripting languages like ZOPE, Perl, and PHP. Second, they can build a database application to track the metadata associated with each file. Third, they can write scripts to supplement the basic content management capabilities built into many e-commerce and application servers.

In many ways, homegrown CMSs behave like commercial packages. On a day-to-day basis, Mimeles says, the AllBusiness system allows contributors to do most things themselves, including creating and posting content and making small changes that don't affect the site's format. "The only problem," he says, "is that every time we want to make a big change--like altering the way a set of templates works--it takes three to four days of an engineer's time."

(Disclosure: The author spent 18 months as vice president of content at AllBusiness.)

CMS Shopping List

The Ultimate Content Management Goodies Guide

Though no single CMS provides all the capabilities on this list, analysts suggest that you look for a product that offers as many of the following attributes as possible--either built-in or via well-integrated partners:

Wireless Networks Find a Home at Work

For several years, the practical wireless LAN has been an enticing mirage, hovering on the horizon but never arriving. Wireless LAN products have been used predominantly in schools, hospitals, warehouses, and similarly specialized workplaces. Mainstream firms, meanwhile, have tended to stay away because of performance glitches, concerns about security, and various compatibility issues.

Recently, however, wireless LANs have become much more attractive. Vendors have finally settled on communications and security standards, and the hardware has become considerably more reliable. Though wireless networks cost more and run slower than traditional ethernet networks, they offer some compelling advantages: Workers can access the network from anywhere in the office, and administrators get a streamlined, cable-free network setup.

So are wireless LANs finally poised to take off in the enterprise? Jason Smolek, a research analyst who covers corporate networks for IDC, thinks it's possible. "Last year was the first time the enterprise market as a whole came to see wireless LANs as a real possibility," Smolek says. "But many old-line firms still consider wireless LANs a luxury--unlike a switch or a router, which they consider essential." According to IDC, wireless LANs could become a $1.5 billion business this year--if vendors can beat a slowing economy and resolve lingering technology issues.

One of the biggest obstacles--the lack of common standards--has already been overcome. Every major networking company has embraced the 802.11b wireless LAN standard, and most networks use the 2.4-GHz frequency band to transfer data--a combination that provides stable bandwidth at speeds up to 11 megabits per second, about one-ninth of the 100-mbps speed supported by newer ethernet LANs.

Cisco's Aironet 350 system is a typical example of a modern wireless LAN. The Aironet 350 has two main components: an access point that provides a bridge between the wireless LAN and an existing ethernet network, and wireless network interface cards for PCs and laptops. Cisco says an Aironet 350 access point has an effective range of about 250 feet indoors and up to 1300 feet outdoors.

Many vendors, however, are vague about the difference between a system's maximum range--where bandwidth may top out at about 1 mbps--and the normal range within which a customer can expect to obtain maximum bandwidth. With the Aironet 350, Cisco says, you'll need to stay within 100 to 120 feet of an access point--depending on the building type and interference sources--to get bandwidth anywhere close to 11 mbps inside an office.

Security is another major concern. The vast majority of wireless LAN vendors support the Wired Equivalency Privacy protocol security standard, and many wireless LANs provide additional levels of security. Cisco offers customers 128-bit WEP encryption for the Aironet 350, along with both hardware and user authentication. Most other vendors provide similar security schemes with some minor differences.

Researchers have identified weaknesses in WEP that could make it vulnerable to hackers, however; in light of this weakness, future versions of the 802.11x specification are expected to incorporate improved security.

For network management, vendors generally provide both Web-based and console access, treating each access point as an independent unit. Proxim's Harmony wireless 802.11b system is an exception, using an access point controller that allows a network administrator to manage multiple access points from a single location. Unlike most current wireless LAN products, the Harmony system's access point controller is also compatible with next-generation IEEE 802.11a 5-GHz technology designed to boost bandwidth to 54 mbps. When 5-GHz systems arrive, Harmony customers will have to replace only the less expensive access points and network interface cards.

Wireless LANs are still expensive compared to their wired counterparts. Most access points cost between $1000 and $2000; a wired hub and router combination may cost slightly less than $250. And wireless NICs can cost up to $200 apiece, compared to as little as $20 for a standard wired NIC and about $100 for a PC Card version. Wireless users do save about $200 per workstation on the labor-intensive process of installing a wired network, however--an expense that recurs every time you move or make a change, and one more reason to consider a wireless LAN.

--Matthew McKenzie

Managing E-Mail: Disappearing Inc.

Can e-mail hurt your company? Just ask Bill Gates, whose e-mail exchanges came back to haunt him during Microsoft's antitrust trial. E-mail is notoriously easy to forget, hard to destroy, and often filled with sensitive information.

"E-mail is now a factor in almost all business-related litigation," according to Michael Overly, a partner at the law firm of Foley & Lardner and an expert on e-mail-related legal issues. "Businesses routinely destroy paper documents to manage their liability, but that doesn't translate well to e-mail."

But there is a way to make your e-mail unintelligible. Disappearing Inc.'s Disappearing Email allows companies to set an expiration date on e-mail; when that date rolls around, the message content becomes unreadable.

The system consists of two parts: a client that works as a Microsoft Outlook plug-in (a version for Lotus Notes is in development) and a Web-accessible key server maintained and mirrored by Disappearing Inc. When a user creates a Disappearing Email message, the system encrypts it with a key from the server. People who receive the e-mail automatically download the key, which remains valid for a period set by the system administrator. When the key expires, however, no one is able to unscramble the message.

Disappearing's approach means that people don't need special software (other than a Web browser) to read encoded messages, and e-mail that has expired becomes gobbledygook no matter how many times it gets forwarded and regardless of where it is stored. The enterprise edition allows system administrators to prevent users from sending plain-text e-mail, to set default expiration dates for messages, and to suspend the destruction of e-mail encryption keys if the company needs to keep copies of messages.

All this isn't cheap. The enterprise edition starts at $75,000 for a 1000-user package, which may be a bargain, however, if it keeps sensitive business information from outliving its usefulness.

--Matthew McKenzie

Keep Track of Your Customers Online

Customer relationship management has become a very hot topic for many businesses. And though lots of companies would like to use CRM software to track, measure, and facilitate communication with customers during every part of the business process--including sales, marketing, and customer service--only the largest are able to handle the cost and complexity of traditional CRM systems.

A handful of online start-ups, including Salesforce.com, SalesLogix, and UpShot.com, offer an alternative: inexpensive, Web-based CRM tools. These products can't match the power and flexibility of traditional client-server enterprise software, but they can provide many of the same functions at far less cost.

For a long time, application service providers have offered outsourced versions of enterprise CRM software from companies such as Oracle, Siebel, and PeopleSoft. But most of these programs aren't designed for the Web's speed constraints, and they require individual site installations.

According to Denis Pombriant, research director for the Aberdeen Group, subscription services from Web-based companies like Salesforce.com sidestep some of the difficulties. "These services have a very short implementation cycle: There's no hardware to install, no long-term support requirements, and no ongoing maintenance," Pombriant says. "Plus there are no out-of-pocket capital expenses--just a monthly per-user charge." You can also arrange to get locally stored backups of your data, and the services typically haven't had downtime problems.

Customer relationship management can produce enormous savings: A Web-based CRM system for 30 users can cost as little as $23,000 a year, versus $208,000 for a typical ASP installation and more than $370,000 for a client-server application.

Nevertheless, Web-based CRM isn't a good fit for every firm. "Some executives simply can't abide the notion that their data is going to exist outside the firewall," Pombriant notes. And even though these services tend to have strong sales-force automation tools, Pombriant says, they often lack the marketing and customer-support packages found in full-fledged CRM suites.

Ultimately, tough economic times may obviate most of the countervailing concerns, and Web-based CRM could find itself in greater demand.

--Matthew McKenzie


Copyright 2001