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ColdFusion Authors: Yakov Fain, Jeremy Geelan, Maureen O'Gara, Nancy Y. Nee, Tad Anderson

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LayerIT Content Management System from LayerIT AS

LayerIT Content Management System from LayerIT AS

After evaluating and deploying a number of content management systems over the past five years, I guess I've become a bit jaded. Frankly, they all just started to look the same. To be sure, each one has core strengths and weaknesses. Each is usually geared to fit a certain vertical market (education, for example), and many have similar levels of functionality. All of them have significant usability issues - particularly when authoring content that requires HTML tables.

So when I was asked to write a review of LayerIT CMS (priced at $2,695 for the enterprise edition), I expected to find another run-of-the-mill low-end system that wrapped a minor bit of code around a third-party WYSIWYG editor. What I discovered was an innovative, technically sophisticated, easy-to-use content authoring system that may someday be a real force to be reckoned with.

What Is a Web Content Management System?
A good CMS enforces business rules and facilitates the addition and editing of content on a Web site. Typical features include the ability to modify content through a Web browser based on a series of templates, full-text searching, approval workflow, security, data versioning, and library services. The goals of deploying a CMS include, but are not limited to, pushing the task of Web site authoring down to the original content authors, ensuring consistency in the site branding through the use of templates, keeping content up-to-date, and making content easier to locate for both contributors and end users. Oddly enough, price does not necessarily correspond to features or quality in this particular market segment of computing. Frequently, less expensive products yield better results than those positioned for the "enterprise."

To Boldly Go Where No CMS Has Gone Before
One of the most common complaints I hear from CMS content contributors regards the overall usability of their systems. In particular, users have a difficult time with content layout - largely due to the morass of table-based positioning. LayerIT eschews the traditional CMS authoring model of using table-based formatting in favor of the long-ratified W3C CSS positioning standards. Content is generated following XHTML guidelines and wrapped by <div> tags that stipulate x, y, and z coordinates on a page.

As depicted in Figure 1, positioning content is a simple matter of using LayerIT's drag-and-drop DHTML-based interface. I found the content creation experience to be not unlike using Microsoft Publisher, whereas most other Web CM systems follow a Microsoft Word-centric approach to authoring and placement.

 

Worship at the Altar of Dan Steinman
Dan Steinman is an independent software developer who created a cross-browser compatible abstraction layer for JavaScript and Dynamic HTML. His open-source DynAPI project (www.dansteinman.com/dynapi) set the gold standard for demonstrating how to implement complex UI constructs (including drag and drop) across different browser implementations. LayerIT wisely chose to take advantage of Dan's work. As a result, content may be inserted and modified in LayerIT through Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.x+ as well as Netscape 7/Mozilla.

Many facets of the authoring environment even functioned correctly in Netscape 4! Entering WYSIWYG content, however, remains browser-specific as LayerIT utilizes the SiteObjects editor (www.siteobjects.com), which does not support Netscape. Content generated from LayerIT displayed identically in all browsers tested.

Preventing Use of the <BLINK> Tag
Templates are created in LayerIT using the same authoring mechanism that's used to create content. No programming is required. It uses a metaphor that's usually found only in more expensive content management systems - treating templates as virtual transparency layers. If any template "layer" is modified, all pages that include that layer will reflect the change. This design is much more flexible and maintainable than using the single, monolithic template approach found in most CMSs. It also ensures that specific aspects of a site's branding will always remain intact, despite the desires of the amateur "designers" on your staff.

WISINWIW - What I See Is Not What I Want
As previously mentioned, LayerIT uses the SiteObjects Lite 2.5 editor (soEditor Lite 2.5). The integration of this component into their overall framework seems far from complete, however. There is no way to restrict access to WYSIWYG features for "challenged" users. Furthermore, I was shocked when my attempt to insert an embedded image into the WYSIWYG field was met with a generic image dialog box instead of a popup referencing the LayerIT asset repository. Furthermore, the editor is completely unaware of CMS-based pages when attempting to create a hyperlink between content.

Repeat After Me: 'It Wasn't Me...I Didn't Do It'
My evaluation version did not contain any versioning features; however, LayerIT has implemented this functionality for their next release. Planned functionality includes the ability to preview the current work-in-progress page, published page, and all prior versions of a page.

'If the Code Don't Fit, You Must Decrypt!'
Source code for LayerIT is encrypted; however, they provide an extensibility model for adding custom ColdFusion code. You can drop a reference to a custom ColdFusion module anywhere on a page. The output from the script will render within LayerIT's generated

tags. In addition, you can embed a <CFHTTP> call to "scrape" content off of another HTTP URL. They also include a few "portlets" that can render a table of contents, login form, content list, and "edit" button that invokes the authoring environment. Regretfully, no portlet for a search form/search results is included in this release. Also, since the portlet code is encrypted, you can only modify the look/feel of the output by tweaking the stylesheet of the site.

Conan the Librarian
Library services, or the ability to upload, search, and deploy non-HTML content items such as images, are limited in this release. As depicted in Figure 2, while you can upload any document type into specified directories, there is no additional classification scheme that can be applied to the files. I suspect that this UI would start to become ungainly once hundreds of images were uploaded into a production system.

 

Worse still is LayerIT's "insert image" feature which takes all .gif and .jpg files and unceremoniously drops them into a single drop-down box from which the user must make his or her selection.

Content Approval and Security
Content approval and security have been implemented as a rigid, six-level hierarchy. Users may be assigned the following rights and each succeeding level inherits the rights, of those above it:
1.  A READER can only view published pages
2.  A CONTRIBUTOR can edit existing pages
3.  An EDITOR can create, edit, and delete pages
4.  An EDITOR II can create and edit templates, and edit the CSS
5.  A DEVELOPER can create and initiate portlets
6.  A PUBLISHER can approve pages for publication

This scheme should suffice for organizations that require only a single level of approval prior to publication. Pages can be marked for either anonymous login or member login.

HTML Is Good
The product allows you to create static HTML files from the dynamic content. This feature is typically found only on high-end content management systems and has a direct impact on scalability and portability of the site. Back when I was in the hosting business, we had an old P-90 that would regularly serve up 100K HTML page views a day. Unfortunately, I could not verify this particular feature as it failed when tested with an HTTP server 500 error.

I Am Not the Center of the Universe
I freely admit that I am an "ugly American" when it comes to localizing my applications for a non-U.S. market. Working with LayerIT reminds me that in order for an application to succeed on multiple continents, some attention must be paid. At the time of this review, all documentation for the product was in Norwegian; however, an English translation should be available by the time you read this. More regrettable is that while the system can automatically output the last updated date on a page, the list of formats does not include mm/dd/yyyy.

Fill in the Blanks
LayerIT shows remarkable poise for being essentially a 1.0 release. However, there are a number of issues with their architecture that could prove to be show-stoppers for those of you interested in the product. In particular, there appears to be no direct support for generating "printer-friendly pages." Also, the system utilizes a URL-based approach for distinguishing content. For example, the home page of my sample site is accessed through the following URL: http://localhost/layerit/index.cfm? pageID=2, while a different section page is displayed by typing this URL: http://localhost/layerit/index.cfm?pageID=23.

This URL-based data representation scheme can be difficult for Internet search engines to catalog appropriately and has been abandoned by higher-end CM systems in favor of more traditional "human readable" URLs. The lack of deep integration with the SiteObjects editor is particularly troubling.

I Could Have Been a Dentist...or a Doctor...or a Journalist...
One of the great "life lessons" that I have learned is that an innovative use of technology does not necessarily guarantee market success. In fact, sometimes the relationship between the two is inversely proportional. While LayerIT has a strong technical foundation for being a force in the CMS world, at the time of this writing they have but six commercial customers. Most established players have over a hundred. The company officially launched in February of this year, so there is a bit of risk associated with their "staying power" in the marketplace.

Conclusion
LayerIT is a dichotomy. While conquering the battle for creating a highly usable interface and embracing CSS positioning, its weak implementation of the WYSIWYG editor seriously compromises its usefulness. While striving to include high-end features like HTML generation, it contains a pedestrian implementation of library services. Considering its price-point, however, much of this is forgivable. For those of you on a tight budget wanting to deploy a CMS, LayerIT is certainly worth considering. I anxiously await their "official" 2.0 release that should clear up many of the issues I encountered. Then it may actually qualify as a "best value" for low-end CMS implementations.

SIDEBAR

Vitals
LayerIT 2.0 (Pre-release)
LayerIT AS
Britveien 4
N-6411 Molde
Norway

Office: (+47) 71 11 50 00
Direct: (+47) 71 11 50 80
Fax: (+47) 71 11 50 01
E-mail: [email protected]

Test Platform
Dell Latitude C640, 512MB RAM 2.2 GHz P-4
ColdFusion 5.0, Windows 2000 SP2, Microsoft Access DB

Professional Edition: $1,398 USD
Enterprise Edition: $2,695 USD
Hosting Edition: $149/month USD

Target audience: Organizations that have small (<500 page) html-based Web sites

Pros: Low-cost leader, usable interface, easy to deploy

Cons: Limited approval/security framework, WYSIWYG editor integration needs work, new product with limited market penetration

Client platform: Administrative GUI supports IE 5+, Netscape 7/Mozilla. Server OS: Tested on Windows platforms only, CF 5/MX

Database support: MS Access, MS SQL Server

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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