Sunday, February 10, 2008

Would You Recommend WSS as a Simple CMS?

WSS is the third CMS I've worked with so far. As I've gotten more competent with it I can't help but compare it to some of the other products we've worked with in the past.

I was asked again by an acquaintance what I thought about SharePoint and if I though it's implementation was a good idea where he worked. He was struggling with what so many of us have been since the release of WSS 3.0 and MOSS 2007, and he asked the cardinal blanket question.

So what do you think about SharePoint?

The answer like so many things in development was "it depends". I won't even get into the differences between WSS and MOSS that's a completely different post. But I will try to speak to what WSS is good at as a CMS. Which is (to me) what the question is really getting at for most people (they're not even thinking of IPFS, Excel Services, Enterprise Search, etc...).

What WSS is Good At

WSS is a decent Content Management System. It's free with Windows Server 2003, provides a ton of features out of the box and once you get good at branding it, you can quickly customize new types of page layouts. It's of note though that to brand WSS you need SharePoint Designer (SPD) which is NOT free.

So what are some of the notable CMS features you get for free?

  • RSS on pretty much all the content in the CMS.
  • Versioning for content, and the ability to roll back to any given version.
  • Publishing dates for content that let it go live and come down at a later date.
  • Very throughout inheritable security that can be reset at many different levels throughout the site hierarchy.
  • Good search.
  • Alerts on content (when it changes).
  • It's portable (you can migrate most site collections in less than 20 minutes).
  • Good document storage (Document/Form libraries).
  • Great integration with Office 12 (2007) products (especially Outlook).
  • Good Blog and Wiki out of the box.

There's some others but those are the big ones that come to mind. It's also important to point out that for any ONE of these items I'm positive that you could find a 3rd party product that does a better job than WSS 3.0. For instance, the Wiki Site Definition is not as scalable or as powerful as a commercial Wiki engine. I think it's the combination of all these features that makes WSS a compelling offering. If you brought together MANY 3rd party applications you might have a dynamite offering, but it would be extremely difficult to integrate them all. You'd have to enforce a consistent user interface and bring all the content together under one search. This type of integration sows the seeds for collaboration which is is the direction most CMS's are going.

What WSS is Not Good At

I'm not going to lie to you, WSS has some pointy edges. Even with the plethora of documentation and blogs out there, it's very possible to feel like you're between a rock and a hard place when things go bad. Here are some of the things that out of the box that make WSS less attractive.

  • It's heavy. WSS stands for Windows SharePoint Services...and there's a lot of them. If you do a complete WSS install we're talking about Search, Timer, Indexing...and I think there's more.. If WSS/MOSS is one thing it's heavy. Ensure you have some real hardware if you're going to install this beast, she needs a big cage.
  • Difficult to troubleshoot. I have yet to do a clean WSS install (even with SP1) and not have the event viewer light up with errors. Even after spending a lot of time troubleshooting the event lot, I've never had a WSS/MOSS instance give me more than a day without kicking and screaming about something. You're going to need really talented and resourceful Admins if you're going to run this platform successfully. Hopefully this will improve over time.
  • The WSIWYG editor out of the box is terrible. Not only does it not support image uploading but it completely breaks in Fire Fox and Safari. This makes it only really usable (out of the box) if you're in an intranet where you can shove IE down everyone's throat. Luckily there's free editors that do a better job, like this one.
  • You need the Office SharePoint Designer. WSS may be free (with Windows 2003), but branding it isn't because SPD costs money. Unlike other CMS tools you absolutely need a proprietary tool to brand a WSS/MOSS instance. Your designer/web developer is also going to need to really know html and CSS. If you do have some people who know there stuff though you can get a really nicely branded site, an example might look like this WSS site.
  • SharePoint is not great at housing web applications. There I said it. Yes you can get ASP.NET code to run in SharePoint, in fact there's a ton of ways to do it. All that being said though, it adds a lot of complexity to how your developers develop, deploy and maintain their code. At the end of the day you're often better off writing a separate ASP.NET application and just linking to it from your WSS instance if you need something that is not very CMS like.
  • User experience. Even though I said that WSS provides a consistent user experience (as one of it's benefits) it's consistently mediocre. I have yet to have anyone I work say anything to the tune of "well that was easy" when dealing with Page personalization or WebPart management. It has a long way to go to catch up with the Ektrons or Clearspaces of the world.

Well that's more than a mouthful and definitely more than two cents. Don't get me wrong WSS has it's selling points. For a client who mostly wanted to manage web content and documents I would probably put WSS at the top of my list as an offering. For anything else I'd be more than a little reluctant to throw it out there as an option.

But hey, that's just me.

Good Luck,


Jose Antonio said...

I found your post on Google. Actually we just lunched a product called SharePoint Simple CMS. We have improved or enhanced the editing capabilities of WSS and integrated with CSS graphic design.
You can check

Jon Cortez said...

Hey Tyler. Great post! Is that Alberta Health Services running WSS 3.0 or MOSS 2007? I'm currently working with a client that wants a nicely branded internet presence site but finds MOSS 2007 for Internet too cost-prohibitive.

Tyler Holmes said...

Hey Jon,
Alberta Mental Health is running MOSS. Paying the money to actually run MOSS will make the branding effort quite a bit easier.

One of the recurring problems with CMS' that I've found, is they often make it too easy for a lay user to make a page ugly. MOSS introduces page layouts which help designers limit the types of edits that can be done on a page.

If your client is really cost sensitive and they don't need any of the MOSS features I'd maybe consider DotNetNuke. It's a great alternative if all they want is a CMS.

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