Friday, March 27, 2009

Does Plone really suck as a CMS?

Plone is a content management system written in Python. It is built on top of Zope, a web application frame also written in Python. To identify how well Plone performs as a CMS, we must identify what a CMS is supposed to do and what Plone actually does. Rather than give a rigorous definition of what a CMS is, it is safe to assume that any given CMS is supposed to manage the publishing of content for any number of users. This involves the content work-flow which specifies the various states the content will go through in the publishing cycle. All this needs to be as transparent as possible to the end user because their ultimate goal is to publish content in an orderly manor and as painlessly as possible. These same questions of CMS quality could be aimed at any CMS in existence including TYPO3, and Drupal. Plone often gets misrepresented as a bad choice of CMS, often for the wrong reasons. Many Python developers cringe at the mere thought of using Zope as a Python web application framework. Zope is probably the most powerful Python web framework in existence and the reason for the hesitation is the time investment involved in learning how to use it. Since Plone is built on top of Zope, it relies heavily on not only Zope's functionality, but also the philosophy of how it is used. Flawed software tends to flow upward so Plone will inherit the good, the bad, and the ugly. Thus, some of the complexities found in the Plone user experience are influenced by Zope.

Ultimately, the biggest driving factor in any CMS is the user experience. Everything else is secondary, including the setup of the system. Plone is strong in some user experience areas and weak in others. One of the weak spots in the Plone user experience is the back-end interface which is essentially the Zope interface. For anyone who is using the system for the sole purpose of managing content, this can be very intimidating. In a scenario where an editor of the site is temporarily given the task of managing a few users, this trivial task suddenly becomes a time-consuming challenge. However, that same editor Plone user would excel when it comes to doing his actual job of managing content. Plone offers a great user experience when it comes to general content editing and work-flow management. In fact, the work-flow Plone component is probably superior to many other mainstream content management systems simply because it is very straightforward to use for the people who need to use it. It doesn't require major customization from developers just so that it is barely usable by content editors.

When the case for new custom functionality in the CMS arises, development in Plone is hard. That is, there is a steep learning curve when coming from another CMS or web framework. Again, this stems from the challenges in developing for Zope. The most common reason for custom development in a content management system is to create new content types with new specialized behavior. These new content type may in fact extend the work-flow functionality of the CMS if the work-flow framework will allow for it. Plone also has something call archetypes for extending the available content types in the CMS. The idea behind archetypes is that developers and transform UML modules into functional Plone extensions. This is a very cutting-edge concept that no other CMS offers.

Some of the arguments against Zope and Plone are not well grounded. For instance, a common complaint about Plone is that it is a challenge to install and configure. This may have been the case five years ago but today it is one of the easier content management systems to install. In fact, most of the configuration is taken care of by the installer asking the user simple questions. Another argument is that Zope is very resource intensive. Users must look at why these resources are used and what they get in return. An alternative CMS, offering the the same functionality as a Plone CMS installation is likely to have similar resource consumption. Additionally, a content management system isn't a flimsy desktop application. For any non-trivial CMS deployment, you are going to need modest system resources. This is just a fact of life.

Finally, this isn't a marketing scheme for Plone as a CMS. I haven't used it other than experimentally for years. I think if nothing else that serves as further proof that you need to pick the right CMS for the job. Period. Focus on user experience. Which CMS can you install, setup with the required functionality for the people who manage the content, and deploy the fastest, with minimal complaints from content editors? After asking this question, you may realize that a CMS is not what you want at all and that a plain old web application framework would do the trick after a month of custom development.

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