One on One with Ric Shreves of Water & Stone


Ric Shreves is an author and one of the founding partners of Water & Stone, a web development company that specializes in open source content management systems. Shreves has been building CMS websites for over 10 years for global brands such as BASF, Colgate-Palmolive, Tesco Lotus, FPDSavills and many others. He has also published several books on open source and open source content management systems. He is presently working on two titles for Wiley & Co., the Joomla! Bible and the Drupal Bible, which are scheduled for publication later this year. We asked him about using open source content management tools.

FCM: You've studied open source content management. In your view, what are the top enterprise class open source tools?

RS: The enterprise space holds the greatest unrealized potential for open source. I think everyone agrees that true enterprise capable solutions have been the weakest point in the open source cms space. That is, however, changing. In the WCM space, the players that are making real inroads include Plone, Alfresco and eZPublish. The recent release by Alfresco of a version of their system tailored for WCM is one of the most interesting developments. In the portal space, the people to watch are LifeRay, JBoss and Jahia. Unfortunately some of those vendors are pushing dual-licensing schemes that force enterprise customers into solutions that are not truly open source. It's a shame, but I do understand that they have to pay the rent.

FCM: Which ones would you recommend for SMBs?

RS: I think Drupal is an excellent product. It's robust and the extensibility is excellent. While the upfront cost for building on Drupal is higher than it might be for something like Joomla!, the TCO for Drupal is quite attractive. There are also a number of very solid extensions, few of which are commercial or restricted, unlike some of the other systems out there right now.

Of course, if you are looking to roll out quickly a marketing-oriented site, then Joomla! is hard to beat. The presentation layer is dead easy and the time to market very favorable. Of course, the right answer depends entirely on the requirements and the ability of the client to maintain the system. WordPress is a great solution, particularly from a search marketing perspective. Concrete5 is also interesting as it is highly usable and very client-friendly.

FCM: What do you look for when you analyze open source content management software?

RS: We use open source products as a starting point from which to tailor a system to suit a client's specific needs, hence we tend to look first at the system's API. We want a system with a lot of hooks and a well-documented API. We also look at the implications of customization on patch management and maintenance. If creating a customized site causes the client headaches every time they need to upgrade, then that's a problem we need to consider in selecting the system. Also of tremendous importance to us is the presentation layer. We need to be able to create themes/templates/whatever without being hamstrung by the system. User permissions would be the next issue for us, followed by workflow and finally, the availability of extensions.

FCM: Do you see any fundamental differences in quality, in terms of what you can get from open source content management versus what you get from proprietary vendors?

RS: It's been years since I implemented a proprietary CMS! If I need to customize a system, I don't even look at closed source. If, on the other hand I just want to fill a specialty need with a system I can simply turn on and run, then I will consider a proprietary product.

FCM: What are the chief advantages of going with open source?

RS: Three issues, and there are no surprises on this list, I think: (1) access to the source to enable the creation of customized solutions; (2) ability to avoid vendor lock in and (3) the cost advantages.

FCM: What should companies watch out for when using an open source CM solution?

RS: Clients need to be sensitive to the need for support and the nature of the demands of patch management. I can think of a handful of occasions where a client has actually asked me about the ongoing costs of maintaining an open source solution. Few people seem to be aware of the frequency of releases and the need to maintain a patch regimen not only for the core but also for any extensions they install. No one, and I literally mean no one, ever asks about the implications of customization on patch management. They need to be aware of this as it has huge TCO implications.

Some systems, like Drupal, segregate customized code away from the core. For those systems, the cost of ongoing maintenance and the associated business risks are much, much lower. A related point concerns the use of third party extensions. A lot of the third party extensions vary widely in quality and you need to make sure you assess adequately what they offer and their history of support. Every extension you install increases management overhead and increases risk for exploits. So, while I may trust the Joomla! core team, for example, I don't necessarily extend that good will to the legion of independent developers who are out to make a quick buck off a packaged extension.

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