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CommonSpot Content Server 3.0 from PaperThin

CommonSpot Content Server 3.0 from PaperThin

Currently there are more than 200 commercially available content management systems (CMSs). Each has strengths and weaknesses relative to the others...belying their underlying middleware platform and customer history. While not all are ColdFusion based, I believe that the CommonSpot Content Server 3.0 (the 2001 CFDJ Readers' Choice winner) from PaperThin, Inc., sets a new standard for flexibility and performance across all middle-tier systems.

Comparing Apples to Apples
Believe it or not, there's quite a bit of controversy within the CMS industry about what functionality a "Web content management" system should bring to the table. After evaluating many CMS applications, however, I've found that most vendors offer the following core set of features:

  • Nontechnical content contributors may modify the contents of their Web sites anytime, anywhere, through their Web browser. No additional software is required. Content may range from text articles to uploaded files and images, usually stored in a separate asset repository.
  • Page layout is based on a template model. Content is dissociated from formatting, allowing you to change the site layout without affecting data.
  • Modified content is subject to an approval process and/or workflow.
  • Changes to content are versioned. Prior versions of content may be restored easily.
  • Content may be classified through the use of categories and keywords. Conversely, content may be located through scanning metadata or the full text of the article.
  • Content may be personalized and scheduled to fit group or individual preferences.
  • Reporting allows contributors to determine the popularity of their content. Also, statistics can be generated detailing long page load times, page weight, broken links, recently updated content, and more.
  • Sites, sections, pages, and content items can have their access limited through a roles-based security architecture.
  • An extensible architecture allows you to link to other databases and applications.

    Who Is PaperThin?
    In these troubling times you need to manage your investment risk in software much as you might manage your stock portfolio. The worst-case scenario of a product being discontinued - or worse, the company behind it becoming insolvent - has been a recurring theme throughout this industry. The field is littered with large companies that have consolidated product lines and halted further development as well as small consultancies that opted to design their own custom CMS solutions, only to find that stealing resources from their development business proved untenable.

    Fortunately, PaperThin is a closely held, self-financed company that is singularly focused on making CommonSpot the leading CMS available. Perhaps the best testament to the product is that the firm has actually doubled in size and revenue during the last 12 months. At the time of this writing, over 150 CommonSpot-managed sites are currently deployed and they have been successful in building a third-party VAR and ISP channel.

    The Devil Is in the Details...or, Rather, the Implementation
    Content management systems have fragmented into two camps - "tookit" systems that are very flexible but require a lot of labor to deploy, and out-of-the-box solutions that tend to be somewhat less flexible but require less programming. CommonSpot, thankfully, falls into the latter category. Once an HTML site prototype has been designed, the insertion of two CFML custom tags into the template is often all that's required to enable content creation and editing.

    When evaluating CMS you should consider the total cost of ownership - the cost of the software and the amount of services required to customize it to your needs. Depending on the package you choose, services costs may vary from one to four times the cost of the product. Based on my experience, CommonSpot deployments typically fall into the low end of this range.

    CommonSpot 3.0 Authoring
    CommonSpot uses the "anywhere authoring" approach common to many content management systems. Modifying content is as simple as navigating to the page that needs edits, entering "author" mode, and clicking on the appropriate content. A WYSIWYG editor, based on the standard Microsoft Internet Explorer activeX control, allows you to control formatting. CommonSpot administrators may restrict access to each feature of the editor, limiting font, Cascading Style Sheet styles, color choices, and so forth. In its latest release PaperThin has integrated "HTML TIDY," an application that cleans and formats the HTML generated by the Microsoft editor.

    Also new to this version is the addition of both internal and external hyperlink verification. Any URLs used within the editor are verified as linking to an existing page. Version 3.0 immediately reports to the author any content that doesn't meet section 508 accessibility standards. New to CommonSpot is the addition of system-variable fields, depicted in Figure 1, that can be inserted directly through the editor and are replaced with dynamic content at runtime.

    Taking an Element-Based Approach
    CommonSpot's out-of-the-box functionality becomes ap-parent when you try to place a new data element on a page. As depicted in Figure 2, the system supports over 50 different data types through an element "gallery." These include items commonly found on sites, such as breadcrumb navigation, pop-up DHTML menus, data entry forms, and formatted text blocks. The system will also automatically convert Micro-soft Word documents and PowerPoint presentations to HTML. Form-based wizards step content contributors through adding content to each element.

    CommonSpot 3.0 now allows integrators to define custom elements specifying the form that a user submits data through, and element display templates, which govern the format of the information when published as HTML.

    Templates That Act Like Transparencies
    CommonSpot uses a unique "layering" approach to the template publishing metaphor. Each page is built from a series of templates that function like virtual transparencies. Each template may contain unique content, formatting, layout, and security information. Any page based on that "virtual" template inherits changes to any "layer."

    Workflow That You Can Use
    Many higher-end systems allow you to graphically define multistep workflows through venn diagrams. However, in my experience most of these use cases ultimately fail under their own weight and complexity. CommonSpot's workflow definition system is simple by comparison, yet very effective. An unlimited number of approval levels may be defined within the system. Each level is typically composed of specific users and/or groups. When content is submitted, managers at each level are notified via e-mail when it's their turn to sign off on the content.

    At each point, a manager may approve the content, refer the content back to the author for editing, reject the content modification completely, or bypass approval for subordinate approvers if the manager him/herself is making the change. Therefore, if a content modification needs to be published immediately, a high-ranking approver may be authorized to come into the system, bypass the other approvers, and publish the change immediately.

    Integration with FuseTalk
    An integral part of many sites are discussion forums where members may post messages and comment about issues of the day. CommonSpot now interfaces directly with the award-winning FuseTalk forums from FuseTalk, Inc. (www.fusetalk.com). Adding an interactive discussion to any CommonSpot Web page can now be accomplished in seconds, allowing you to post information and have your readers carry on an interactive discussion about the content - if you dare!

    Scaling Your Deployment and Licensing
    Like many CMS vendors, PaperThin licenses their product based on the number of content contributors within your organization (the number of end users who can view the content is limited only by your particular hardware configuration). Their newest release allows you to purchase either "dedicated" or "shared" content contributor licenses. Under the former model, you can designate a fixed number of content contributor accounts. Under the "shared" license, however, you may designate an unlimited number of contributors but are limited to a number of concurrent logins. Increasing your license is as simple as copying a license file into a specific directory on the server.

    Any good CMS provides facilities for scalability and high availability. The new release now allows you to scale your site easily over multiple machines through content replication. Essentially, content contributors use a single CommonSpot server to effect their changes. The authoring server then syndicates those changes on a scheduled basis to any number of deployment servers for public view.

    SIDEBAR

    VITALS
    CommonSpot Content Server 3.0

    PaperThin, Inc.

    Address:
    300 Congress Street
    Suite 303
    Quincy, MA 02169

    Phone: 617 471-4440

    Fax: 617 471-4465

    Web: www.paperthin.com

    Test Environment:
    Dell Inspiron 5000, 450MHz
    P-III, ColdFusion 5.0, 512MB RAM, Windows 2000 SP2,
    MS SQL Server 7

    Pricing: $19,500 -$85,000 priced per server and number of content contributors. The `a la carte pricing model allows you to pay only for the features you need. Monthly ASP hosting option available through ISP channel

    SIDEBAR

    PRODUCT SNAPSHOT
    Target Audience:

    Any organization that has to manage a lot of text-based content. Traditional verticals include trade associations, state and federal government, universities, life sciences, and intranets.

    Pros:

  • Simple to deploy
  • Scalable architecture
  • Easy for nontechnical content contributors to master
  • Rich set of built-in elements
  • Great support for CSS and Section 508
  • Easily extensible through CFML

    Cons:

  • Limited support for PDA / device output / XML / XSLT

    Client Platform: Content contributors must use IE 5.X+ / PC

    Server OS: NT4 server with IIS and CF4.5

    Database Support: MS SQL Server, Oracle, MS Access

  • More Stories By Steve Drucker

    Steve Drucker is the CEO of Fig Leaf Software, a Macromedia premier solutions and training partner with offices in Washington, DC and Atlanta, GA. He is also a certified Macromedia instructor and MM certified Dreamweaver, Flash, and Advanced ColdFusion MX developer.

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