What Makes a Content Management System?

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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