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Powering your site: Technology choices

Making the wrong technology choice can cripple your online business. It can mean expensive maintenance and development costs down the line. It could mean downtime for your website and make the simple act of publishing an article a trapeze act.

You don’t want this. A site’s Content Management System (CMS) is the engine of your site, and if your engine don’t work, you’re going nowhere.

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Most major publishing websites are two sites in one: The front-end part, which the consumer interacts with, and the CMS part, which is the back-office, administrative area that your non-technical staff use to update the site and keep it running on a daily basis.

Getting the CMS right is critical to being able to run your site efficiently and cost effectively. It’s generally a political process with conflicting demands from the site’s editorial staff, business staff and development team. It’s a painful process every online business has to go through and it means months of work behind the scenes, which often detracts from your focus on the main front end site.

But it has to be done. In bigger organisations skilled project managers mediate and embark on skilled diplomacy to produce something cohesive that works for all. In smaller organisations it means lots of meetings, and perhaps an occasional chair through the window.

The next question is: what technology choice do you make? To put it a bit crudely, most web outfits have a choice of going the open source or Microsoft route. Yes, there are others like cold fusion and java, but for this post, I’m going to limit it to the “popular” choices. In recent times my preference has been with open source languages, like PHP. I find that programmers from this school are typically self-taught, pro-active and resourceful – valuable attributes for a creative, fast-growing web company. They are in the zone and generally understand the culture of a web 2.0 outfit. We’ve never had a problem with “lack of support” — all the support we need is out there on the web. Any conundrum that can be answered, is solved with a Google search.

Some equate using open source languages as being an ideological decision. Going this route means you are “anti-establishment”, “making a stand”, or “anti-Microsoft” or not a bona fide business if you use open source. Believe it or not, there are some who still think in these terms. Well let the ideologues rant – for me it’s about what makes good business sense. It’s made good business sense for some really big websites, including Facebook with its 30-million or so monthly users and our local iol.co.za with its 1,5-million users.

Another critical decision is whether to build your new site or CMS from scratch or build it by customising and building on something that already exists. Web applications such as a job sites, CMSs, classifieds, IM clients, or email clients are increasingly becoming commoditised. Their value is no longer in the actual code, but the execution of it and the community and content that you manage to build around the sites. From a CMS point of view, I’ve preferred to build the thing from scratch so that it is tailored to the specifics of our business. It really depends on how complex the site is. For complex sites, build your own. For simpler sites get something off the shelf. Generally for a classified or jobs site, I’d much more readily buy something off the shelf and customise it as there are established best practices to running these sites.

A third option would be not to build your own CMS, but licence it from another company. I’m always wary of the licensing model as it ties you to the company providing the service, and you don’t really have the control you should have of this critical part of your business. You also never own your CMS, so just don’t have the flexibility and you are not building up skills internally in your organisation. Fine for the short term, but it’ll bite you in the long term.

Then, of course, a company needs to consider whether it wants to do its development inhouse or outsource it. I’d only outsource if your website is not core to your business – for example, if it’s a basic brochure site. But you may also have to outsource if you do not have sufficient in-house capacity to manage developers. If you’re primarily an online business or a media company, where the web is core to your current operations and your future, I wouldn’t outsource the development, unless there are exceptional circumstances or you have an exceptionally good web development outfit working for you that really understands your business. They are rare – but they are out there. If you find one, tell me about it!

Another downside is that outsource arrangements are not as flexible as in-house ones — and unless you are particularly organised and thorough, you’ll rack up the bills quickly for every billed hour you spend going backwards and forwards with their programmerrs. You also run the risk of the outsource company not sharing your passion or vision, which, unfortunately, happens often.

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