What Makes a Content Management System?

By on June 30, 2007

I got to thinking the other day: exactly when do you have a “content management system?” We’ve all built apps that manage content, but when do you graduate from a “relational database with an admin section” (RDBWAAS) to the lofty and deserved title of “content management system?”

(Incidentally, I struggled with what to call the venerable “relational database with an admin section,” to the point of asking a group of colleagues what they would call it. “Ree-dee-bee-wazz” became the default choice.)

I was working on a site the other day that was built (by someone else) in classic ASP back in 2001, and it was just what you’d expect: a bunch of hand-coded admin interfaces to an Access database with ASP pages full of embedded code for the presentation. It was the very definition of RDBWAAS.

Was this a content management system? It was indeed a system that managed content, but somehow I just couldn’t bring myself to call it a CMS.

If we look at content management functionality as a continuum, there’s a graduated scale between the two. On the one side, you have something simple — an “articles” table with a couple of password-protected pages to update it. On the other side, you have a commercial CMS that you paid $50K for with all the bells and whistles. Specifically, how are the two different?

In terms of feature sets, here’s where the two models overlap pretty clearly.

From this point, you move into “higher level” content management functions. What can get a little tricky here is figuring out where the functionality actually lies. In a CMS environment, functionality can source from three places:
  1. The operating system or some application external to the CMS
  2. The CMS itself
  3. Functionality built on top of the CMS
For example — So, in talking about “higher lever” CMS functions, we’re going to try and stay strictly within the bounds of the CMS itself. We’ll start with the absolute “core” functionality — things which about everything calling itself a “content management system” better be able to do. Here goes: From here comes “extra” functionality, which is where systems start to diverge widely. So, there you have it — a brief survey of what content management systems do over the RDBWAAS systems we all start with. It’s a broad survey, and I’m sure that I left some things out, so…

I hereby announce this entry will stay open indefinitely. Comment away about with your opinions about where I was right, where I was wrong, and what I left out. I will periodically add to this entry as necessary.


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  1. Raymond says:

    This is a very inspired article. How can a CMS wraps those things up in a simple way is very challenging. Most of the CMSs are designed for developers, even they don't aware of it.

    I would like to invite you to have a look at www.dosimple.com doSimple CMS - a dummy-proof solution. Feedbacks are very welcome.

  2. Tomas says:

    I read it.

  3. Tomas says:

    Every single line of this article rings true to me. I have one issue, implementation. When do we do it? Who pays for it? And by the time it's finished will the scope have changed?

    I've always been a supporter of evolving a solution. Start with the necessities, and build out in downtime. Get version 1.0 out there, then re-evaluate. Then repeat. Version 1.0 will have templates, two level navigation, friendly urls, and publishing. The rest can follow.

  4. Ajith says:

    Good article, knew the sub components of content management. thank you very much

  5. Wahid says:

    Excellent advice

  6. jazz says:

    sexy management

  7. Mike says:

    Great article, I haven't thought too much about 'versioning', this is probably a good feature to implement. A couple things I think are important for any CMS, is the ability for someone that's not technically savvy to make changes to their site, and from the designing perspective, it should be fairly simple and require less code to implement the modules in their layout.

  8. Richard says:

    Really helpful, thanks.

  9. Davd says:

    Nice and comprehensive article. We are evaluating the implementation of a new CMS for our customers. Came here via 'cms as an api' which highly interests me.

    Are there any favorites?

  10. Deane says:

    Are there any favorites?

    That depends entirely on what you're doing. See this post:

    "The Fallacy of 'The Best CMS'"

    Email me if you want to discuss further.

  11. http://ebiz.org.ua - there's a great multitasking system EBIZ CMS - the most inexpensive of clever CMS in the world!

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