Feeding the beast of content

The web and corporate intranets have complicated matters for document management, mixing in graphics, sound and video with text. Dave King looks at how large organisations manage online content.

The web and corporate intranets have complicated matters for document management, mixing in graphics, sound and video with text. This feature looks at how large organisations manage online content.

Large web portals must have efficient and comprehensive content management systems simply because of what they are and the multitude and complexity of services they have to deliver quickly.

“There’s very little that’s more important to us than the management of our content,” says Corin Moss, Auckland-based lead developer at Nzoom, TVNZ’s news and information portal. “Unless we can manage the content we deploy and disseminate, we really don’t have a product.”

Television New Zealand’s nzoom.com portal, and that of Telecom’s Xtra, which provides nearly 400,000 New Zealanders with access to the internet, are pioneering content management (CM) on a grand scale. The appetite of a big web portal for up-to-date material is so great that satisfying it has been called “feeding the beast”. Nzoom has to accommodate about 11 million page-views a month and Xtra looks after over 12,000 web pages. They provide a huge range of vastly differing services from local and international news to the latest on sport, lifestyle trends and even horoscopes, that use text, graphics, audio, and video, and combinations thereof.

Both are powered by software from the heavyweight CM company Vignette. Vignette is known as a pure-play web CM vendor. Another such company is Interwoven, whose known client in this country is rural web portal Fencepost. They have been joined by e-commerce vendors BroadVision and OpenMarket, now owned by enterprise software maker Divine, as well as document management vendors such as Documentum and FileNet. And a host of local software developers are starting to create smaller-scale CM products.

Meanwhile, major infrastructure players like IBM, Oracle and Microsoft and are now taking CM seriously and pushing their weight around in the market. Microsoft has acquired Ncompass Solutions, a small CM provider, and released Microsoft Content Management Server, while IBM offers content management as part of its DB2 family of software products. Oracle offers what it calls its Collaborative Content Management Service.

Earlier this year it was estimated that about 45 companies were selling web content management tools. A few years ago there were less than a dozen and now the market is in a state of flux as vendors battle for market share.

Uses and abuses

Research in the US also indicates CM software is of growing importance to companies other than those engaged in e-commerce on the web. Larger enterprises with home-grown intranets are expected to follow the same path when attempting to increase internal corporate efficiency and productivity with the introduction of richer content.

Xtra uses Vignette’s product to manage the contents of its portal services. Xtra’s Auckland-based consumer portal executive producer, Carolyn McKenzie, says content management is not an easy thing to pin down because it’s made up of a whole lot of different elements.

Xtra uses Vignette because there’s a workflow that has to be sort of carefully managed to get things up and published. “We’re a content aggregator rather than a creator,” she says.

Staff called “producers” use Vignette to see what material is available for the site and decide whether or not to use it. Once an item is selected it’s put into a template and checked to see if it meets Xtra’s editorial standards. The producers then decide where in the website they want the item to be displayed. The portal has over 12,000 web pages.

“Content management has got a whole lot more complex,” says McKenzie. “You’ve got your graphics, your multimedia, you’ve got your audio and then you’ve got all the other stuff around it like message boards.”

It’s a complete package to be able to manage all that content and give it to the people in one go, and meanwhile the CM market is maturing quite a lot, she says.

There’s a customer demand for integrated solutions so they’re looking more now not just at the content and content integration, but also the analytics around it and reporting capabilities.

The market is growing increasingly complex and when a decision is made about choosing a CM system the would-be purchaser has to hedge his bets as to who is going to be around for a while.

“If you get something that suddenly doesn’t get supported then that’s a business cost,” says McKenzie. “We’ve got all those channels sitting there and it’s so important to us to get stuff out there and get it out there quickly especially if it’s news and a breaking story.”

In the future Xtra will be looking at things like WAP and 3D technology.

All in one

Nzoom’s Moss says web-based CM was a no-brainer for his organisation. It had to be employed because all the content is web-driven and involves mass media.

Thirty to 40 people at Nzoom use CM on a day-to-day basis. Most are journalists and not all are on site. Some work is done behind the scenes by technical staff to ensure the system runs smoothly.

The information produced at the web has to be “re-purposed” for many different platforms and, indeed, the system used for the web has to be re-purposed for different platforms. Content that is produced and managed is used for the web but it’s also used for things like mobile phones and to aggregate to another site.

It’s also used to manage TV’s Teletext content, where local CM product Fat Controller, from Auckland’s Artisan Software, is also involved. The CM system also manages the content of competitions, surveys, polls and advertisements run by Nzoom.

“Obviously, those things have components that are text images but we sort of recognise them as different types of content with specific requirements,” says Moss.

The wide range of media involved prompted Nzoom to look at content as content and so the same system is used regardless of whether the specific media is an article, audio, video, or graphics.

A content store that has been created is sometimes referred to as being “content-agnostic”, in the sense that no matter what the content is, what’s in it can be managed as a type of meta-information. Key words and other identifiers are used to create relationships between various different types of content.

“So we’ve got that sort of line of relationship through all the content we manage and that was something quite critical to us,” says Moss.

The database has tens of thousands of individual items, articles and video clips and the like, but in terms of megabytes of data is not really that large, he says.

Nzoom has an Oracle 8i server database and the platform used to manage content across has been developed in the Vignette company’s Vignette V5.0 environment.

Moss says the Vignette product doesn’t meet all the requirements of his organisation. It not an out-of-the-box CM system. It is similar to a library catalogue system that manages books but the books themselves have to be put into the system.

“With Vignette you get APIs and tools to manage the information but it doesn’t manage exactly what your requirement so there quite a lot of development to actually make it anything other than a fairly large doorstep,” he says.

Vignette uses tool command language (TCL), sometimes called tickle, once mainly employed in the development of graphical user interfaces in an x-Windows environment. It also works in Microsoft’s active server pages (ASP) environment.

Nzoom had trouble finding competent TCL developers, says Moss. It looked to see what the universities had to offer and found Waikato University, for instance, ran a course that covered a fair amount of TCL.

“So we went and raided their top students,” he says and pointedly adds that TCL is not a language that can’t be learned fairly easily by anyone familiar with structured programming.

The Nzoom product is definitely migrating towards the Java ASP environment, he says. The open source community is taking a lot of interest in CM because of its diversity of use.

XML plays a key role in Nzoom. It is utilised for legacy system integration back into TVNZ’s news systems, for exchanging information with clients, and as a framework to develop applications.

Workflow is of critical importance to managing to web portal content and, says Moss, it’s a fairly big selling point for Vignette. “And it’s an interest selling point for the New Zealand market, especially the market we’re in”, he says.

Nzoom’s structure doesn’t lend itself to overly complex workflow for day-to-day editorial operations. It has a fairly flat editorial structure and the organisation doesn’t have the management resources to review every story that goes live.

Vignette has workflow capability that can be built into a CM application that can be as complicated, or as simple, as one wants to make it. At its most complex, for instance, a story could be checked by the entire corporate hierarchy. “Our system is designed more for real-time information,” says Moss. “We’re a new information publishing organisation and the volume of information we put out is such it would be a logistic nightmare to have every story reviewed before it went to air.”

In the future Nzoom will certainly use an automated workflow a lot more but at present editorial discretion and integrity is relied upon much more than in an automated process.

And also in the future the organisation will concentrate quite heavily on the development framework it uses for its CM system.

“Basically, if we do the architecture right from the ground up we get some big wins as far as decreasing development times,” says Moss.

“Time to market becomes a lot shorter if CM is done correctly and the range of products that can be offered, and offered at a low cost to us, becomes much greater.”

King is an Auckland journalist.

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