University techs build own content managers

"Buy, don't build", is the mantra of many an IT professional. But when two IT managers at the University of Auckland found existing content management systems to be too complicated for their users, they decided instead to write their own.

“Buy, don’t build”, is the mantra of many an IT professional. But when two IT managers at the University of Auckland found existing content management systems to be too complicated for their users, they decided instead to write their own.

Stan Gregec (pictured), internet development manager at the university’s business school, and Ray Jones, webmaster at the faculty of arts, say the CMS they evaluated put too much emphasis on features and not enough on ease of use.

The systems were “all right for an IT person, but for an Average Joe it was too complicated,” says Jones. “The biggest thing — and it took us a long time to understand — is the user interface is everything. Not all users are clever.”

Gregec says none of the commercial systems were well suited to the university’s requirements. “They had all the bells and whistles that we actually didn’t need.”

More important for the school was confidence that their users would be comfortable with the system, and the ability to tailor the package to university requirements.

“It’s really important that we have got control.”

The business school started deploying their CMS, named Originator, in November 2002. Gregec says 98% of the school’s online content has been moved and the transition has gone “remarkably smoothly”.

Introducing a new system is often an intense and stressful time, Gregec says.

“Probably the first month was like that.”

Over 30 web authors were trained to use the system. By January this year the migration of over 1500 web pages was largely completed and the development team started to add new features. A dynamic form builder, templating system and authorisation method have been added.

In-house development is often discouraged in favour of pre-built solutions due to concerns about ongoing maintenance costs, but Gregec says maintenance of Originator has not been a burden: the equivalent of half to two-thirds of a fulltime programmer to maintain and improve the system.

“[With] a third-party system, I suspect our maintenance costs might have been higher.”

The faculty of arts website is both larger and serves a wider range of users, containing the equivalent of 10,000 pages spread among 32 departments and 72 schools. It serves about 1.5 million page views each month. Webmaster Jones says the arts CMS, named Smarts, was developed with a particular focus on scalability and speed, keeping in mind an imaginary user accessing the site with a 33.6kbit/s modem.

The existing website was large enough to have become practically unmanageable. A range of tools had been used in its construction, making maintenance difficult.

“If we have achieved nothing else, at least we’ve got a standard platform,” Jones says.

“The other thing we suffered badly from was a lot of dead material that we could never find with a manual system. We found stuff that was from 1996.”

Website visitors would act on the information only to be told later that it was obsolete.

Even so, none of the existing solutions Jones looked at offered reason enough to switch.

“If we’d built nothing, we would have stayed where we were.”

The argument that maintaining inhouse solutions is expensive doesn’t sway Jones.

Support for third-party tools was often slow, expensive and ineffective, he says, and the experience has taught him the importance of including the cost of training and support in the total price of any solutions.

“Now, we don’t have to rely on support from outside. You can spend a lot of money on support — that would at the end of the day have cost us more than the product.”

Starting from the database schema developed by the Originator team, Smarts was constructed by developer Uniweb. The result is a program Jones says is “so scalable, we could run the whole university or a corporation on it”.

The arts faculty now faces the challenge of migrating the existing data to the Smarts system by the end of the year. Once that is completed, says Jones, the faculty will be “really very happy where we’re at with this thing. It’s very reliable, very robust.”

Both Smarts and Originator are built with Macromedia Cold Fusion 5, IIS 5 web servers and SQL Server 2000 databases running on Windows 2000 servers.

Although pleased with the development of Smarts to date, web development is a moving target, and Jones is continuing to look at other options. He has Smarts running on Linux servers and testing has shown the system would get a “nice performance increase” if it were ported to use PHP and MySQL, although he agrees that would require a complete rewrite.

He is also keeping an eye on OpenCms, an open source system written in Java. It shows a lot of promise, Jones says, and he’s considering using it in a real-world trial on the faculty’s intranet, serving 860 staff.

The Business School’s Gregec says the next goal for Originator is to access more of the data available around the campus.

“What we need to do is integrate it more effectively with our bigger databases, like courses.”

Links

University of Auckland Business School

University of Auckland Faculty of Arts (existing site)

OpenCms Project

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