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Need a Web site? Use a CMS to Make Life Easier

In this article I take a brief look at how website design has evolved and introduce a modern software tool to help run a website.

Are Computers Simple to Use?

We are into the fourth decade of the personal computer, and the third decade of the Internet, by now computers are a breeze to use and easy to understand, yes? Sometimes you wonder why doing tasks that should be straightforward take so long and are just too complicated. For example websites, they can be just a few pages of words and pictures, especially for simple infosites to provide some basic company details. Aren't infosites just as easy to put together as other documents? Well they are if you use the right tools.

How Does a Website Work?

Websites under the hood are a collection of codes that are understood by web browsers. These codes are translated by the browsers to show web pages as the author intended. (Very occasionally the browsers get it wrong resulting in strange layouts of web pages). All modern browsers are great pieces of software and do a brilliant job at displaying websites. The top browsers are Chrome, Internet Explorer, Safari, Firefox, Opera and the new Microsoft Edge.

In order for websites to look good on the various browsers they need to be coded correctly. There are numerous codes, called HTML tags (HTML is for Hypertext Markup Language). There are tags for layouts, headers, paragraphs, lists, graphics, video and more. For example the strong tag:

<strong>”I’m in bold text!”</strong>

Results in "I’m in bold text!”. In the early days of the Internet the only way to get pages to display anything other than plain text was to manually add all the various codes required, or pay someone else to do it for you. Then came along software tools that helped with designing web pages and automatically added codes as you designed. Using an editor tool, not unlike a desktop publishing program, helped with web page layout. Dreamweaver being a former classic of such web design packages. Unfortunately you still needed to know a lot about how websites are put together, and how pages and content are all linked at a technical level to get the best from such packages. Furthermore, to get the best looking sites you need a fair amount of experience as a graphics designer, or again pay someone to do the fancy graphics for you.

Is There an Easy Way to Build a Website?

I have put together websites for various projects, company websites (internal and external), shop sites, school sites, club sites and personal sites. I know enough about how they work, however, they used to be enormously time consuming. I'm interested in getting the website owner's content out as quickly as possible. Not getting bogged down in the mechanics of maintaining a website and all the underlying technologies you need to be conversant with: HTML, JavaScript, Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), digital graphics, fonts, SQL and PHP to name a few. I have enough problems as a software designer keeping up with programming technologies and don’t really want to have to keep up to date with the detail of a whole bag of website design technologies as well. Fortunately other people had the same view in the past, and the world being full of clever people resulted in an elegant solution, the Content Management System (CMS).

Make a Website Quickly

A CMS does what it says, it manages all the content of the web site so you can just concentrate on getting stuff out the door and onto the Internet. All the images and text you want to display are saved into a database on the web server. You give this content a category name. The CMS can then take named categories and arrange them on the screen according to a template, usually designed by a good web designer. Without having to understand all the various web technologies you can change the look and feel of a website by just changing a template. There are thousands available, free ones and ones for which you pay. Most website hosting companies include a CMS for nothing in their hosting plans because most are open source projects, some of the most widely used are WordPress, Drupal, Joomla, DNN, Mambo and Mediawiki. They all have strengths and weaknesses. I use WordPress, which is the dominate CMS with over 50% of the CMS market and 25% of the worlds websites. WordPress is supported by nearly all hosting companies, is easy to configure, has plenty of add-ons available and it makes it incredibly easy to push content onto websites. All this is achieved without any need to understand the underlying technology, something clients appreciate when they need to control the publishing. I still know enough about the technology to look under the covers when needed, but it is so much easier than using a web design package and a whole universe away from the early days of manually coding web pages. A CMS such as WordPress allows you to make a website quickly with little knowledge of the code and technology that drives the Internet.

WordPress Logo

I have worked, and continue to work with, some very bright technical people who know a lot about the various technologies that drive computers and the web. They often scoff at the use of high level tools such as using a CMS to drive a website. Instead they prefer to get under the covers and tinker with the code. Yet for you average person that is not what pushes their buttons, they prefer to use packages that automate and make life simple. Simplicity is easy, easy means quicker, and quicker means time to get more stuff done. We are always pushed to do more in shorter timescales and hence I will always look for ways to make life easier, and a CMS is the way to make a website quickly. I recommend you do the same.

CMS Disadvantages

Are there any downsides to using a CMS? There are some points to consider when running a CMS. Most store content in a database. This means that to view and edit the content you have to be logged into the CMS system. Using a database adds complexity to the server configuration. Many of the well established CMSs are now very sophisticated and require regular maintenance to ensure they stay up to date. (Though the WordPress update mechanism works very well.) For low cost hosting plans a CMS based website can slow down if it gets lots of visitors (1000+ in a day) due to the restrictions on server memory and communications bandwidth.

A Very Simple CMS

To overcome the overheads of a CMS for simple websites I designed a very simple CMS that does not use a database (referred to as a flat file CMS). The content is stored in the files and folders on the webserver. Much like the old hand coded days of websites. The difference is that this CMS still allows for quickly publishing content. Content is stored in the popular Markdown and CommonMark syntax. The CMS derives its name from it - ↓markdown↓ CMS. I think it is great for simple info type sites, sites maintained by a single person or small team, and those that just want to push media and content to the web quickly. Try it, you may find it easy to use and a great alternative to WordPress and other popular CMSs. It works well when viewing websites on mobile devices (smartphones and tablets).

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