Going with the flow

All the companies that use the Web for business have content problems. Some Web pages are posted for public viewing before they are formally approved. Urgent updates can sit in someone's inbox for days, waiting to be turned into HTML code and posted. Other content remains unchanged on the site for so long that it becomes irrelevant. What's needed is a system that empowers everyone in the company to contribute content to the Web site while maintaining strict controls over where it's posted and how long it stays visible.

Microsoft's CMS (Content Management Server) 2001, as its name suggests, is a complete content management solution for any company running Web sites on Microsoft servers. CMS sets up an automated workflow that guides new content through a four-step process: template, author, edit, and moderate. The system is completely self-contained and extremely easy to set up and use. Be forewarned, however: Its "total solution" approach can leave users feeling fenced in, especially if CMS is brought in to replace an ad hoc content management approach. Moreover, CMS is far better suited to basic, static Web sites than to dynamic Web applications. Nevertheless, if your Web content is in chaos, and you can work with CMS's limitations, CMS 2001 is worth considering for getting your site under control.

We tested CMS 2001 on an AMD Athlon server with 1GB of RAM and 50GB of available disk space. The minimum hardware requirements call for 512MB of RAM; you'll need more if you run the required SQL Server database manager on the same machine. Unlike some content management systems that need to be installed by a team of consultants, the server components of CMS install automatically. We strongly recommend installing the sample site included on the CMS installation disk. The solution's online documentation is very good, but the sample site quickly brings the system's capabilities into sharp focus.

CMS creates order by establishing and enforcing a workflow. The system's approach to workflow definition is its strongest feature. Each participant in the workflow is assigned one or more roles, such as template designer, author, editor, moderator, or administrator. Individuals, who can be conveniently grouped, can be granted permission to access specified Web sites. That access is defined based on the role. Authors can modify pages and create new content but cannot publish without approval. Editors can modify and create pages as well as approve them for publication. Moderators can't modify or create content, but they can approve or block publication of new pages for the sites they control.

CMS's role-based workflow model is surprisingly flexible. It integrates with Windows 2000's Active Directory or any LDAP user-authentication database. Each user can occupy different roles for different Web sites.

The system doesn't require that every new page run the same workflow path. We were able to grant a test user with authoring privileges direct publishing rights simply by neglecting to define an editor or moderator for that site. When we set up an editor for the site, the author's work was immediately subject to the editor's approval. If an editor or moderator assigns an expiration date, CMS deletes the content from the site when that date arrives.

The system's user interface is well-designed and is aimed at providing quick access to information. CMS 2001 maintains a detailed change history of every page under its management. Editors and moderators can pull up convenient lists of all the pages awaiting approval. Authors can pull up a summary of all of the pages they have in production, that is, any page that has not been submitted and approved for publication. The interface makes excellent use of right-click menus and context-sensitive help. Once you grasp CMS's approach to roles and workflow, you can navigate the system without difficulty.

The client component of CMS includes a simplified authoring environment. It's a word processor model that requires no HTML skills. In fact, content can be dragged and dropped from many Windows applications directly into the authoring tool. The system can be set up so that authors are constrained to work within the HTML layout templates designed for them. Granting a user both template designing and authoring privileges leaves him or her free to create pages from scratch.

Workflow controls are meaningless if users can work around them, so CMS maintains a tight grip. It doesn't integrate with external authoring tools, and it won't manage content that's not hosted by Microsoft IIS (Internet Information Server) or Commerce Server 2000. You must be willing to give CMS exclusive domain over the sites it manages. If you can do that, Content Management Server 2001 will bring structure to the process of managing your Web sites.

InfoWorld Test Center Technical Director Tom Yager has years of experience as a Web developer. Send him e-mail at tom_yager@infoworld.com.

The bottom line: consider

Microsoft Content Management Server 2001Business Case: Microsoft's content management solution replaces chaotic, ad hoc content handling schemes with a streamlined, secure workflow process. Its design emphasizes accountability and ease of use, giving management the content control it needs while making content creation easier for users.

Technology Case: The server's flexible role-based authorization system integrates with Active Directory or LDAP. The built-in authoring interface requires no knowledge of HTML and can constrain authors to work within templates created for them.

Pros

+ Very easy to install and use.

+ Good online documentation.

+ Flexible role-based workflow.

+ Seamless integration with Active Directory and LDAP.

Cons

- No integration with external authoring tools.

- Works only with Microsoft Web servers.

Cost: US$42,999 per processor.

Platform(s): Servers: Windows 2000, Advanced or Datacenter; clients: Windows 98/2000, Windows Me.

Company: Microsoft; www.microsoft.com.

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