Web development: The great convergence myth

I’ve always learnt that converged systems are the best way to go. In theory they are: An integrated site should ultimately allow you to do more with your site’s content and resources.

It should save you time because you are not going backwards and forwards trying to get one Content Management System (CMS)* to speak to another or one paradigm to work within another. There should be a cost saving, because you’re now working with one system, not eight.

Well that’s the theory. The reality is that it doesn’t work like that. Not even close. The ideal vision of a converged CMS and website operation is idealist bunkum.

In reality, it works differently. Many expanding online businesses face questions of whether to build their own or outsource to other platforms. Depending on the size and focus of the business, an online publishing operation’s core system should probably be inhouse. Then, from a business point of view, the better call is to “outsource” your blog system to a specialist blog provider or your social systems to a social networking service. If you need e-commerce, jobs or classifieds platforms, you wouldn’t build your own either (unless you were a specialist provider planning something innovative).

It also depends on the size and type of your operation too. Smaller to mid-sized operations are more likely to outsource. Larger organisations would either build their own at the start or outsource at the beginning as a proof-of-concept. It may depend on how core the outsource function is to your operation too. There are some features where building your own never makes sense. An example of this is blogs. Why go to the effort and expense of building your own blog system, when there is something out there better than you could ever dream of building? (It also depends on whether you are going to be a blog service provider or just use the platform to blog. The former may push you to do your own).

What this means is management of your website will eventually become a patchwork of CMSes and separate systems. The trade-off is that your outsourced systems won’t be as integrated with your core system as you may like, but you’ve won on three fronts: time, cost and cool functionality from a specialist system.

Your tech guy may hate it, because from his point of view it’s inefficient — and a converged system is a complex thing of beauty allowing him to fulfill his role of the tech god you can’t live without.

But it isn’t solely about the tech. It’s about the business and community you build around your site. You make a trade-off: build my own at cost and time vs use another specialist platform at probably a tenth of the time and cost.

Cross platform sites bother me less and less these days. This is the era of RSS and APIs — advanced integration between disparate systems can be achieved fairly robustly without them needing to be part of the same system.

For many media operations the same applies for the different systems managing their websites and traditional media products, such as their newspaper or magazine. The theory goes that you should try converge your web and print systems. For an often-meagre gain, this integration comes at much expense and time. Personally, I’d rather shoot for achieving basic integration on a RSS and API level and keep the systems separate. (This is another post all on its own).

And if it really bugs you, the issue of multiple systems and CMSes can be mitigated by centralising them on a single page, allowing a level of auto-authentication for your staff. If uniformity is a need, you could address this on the front-end by tweaking the look & feel. You could even have a centralised bar across your CMSes, bringing them together on a usability level.

My advice: If it makes sense, outsource it. Convergence is utterly overrated.

* Can we stop calling these “Content Management Systems”. They should do more than manage content, but manage your business. Prefer “Business Management Systems”.

Matthew Buckland: Publisher


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