Seven Criteria for Evaluating Open-Source Content Management Systems
Open-source CMSes frequently start out as an experiment by a single programmer. Promising CMSes may attract other programmers, while less interesting projects are abandoned. CMSes that continue to grow may evolve into mature applications. One indicator of a healthy open-source project is constant development activity. Check how often new versions have been released. Regular or frequent releases are a good sign.
Do not base your decision solely on the version number of the open-source CMS, however. Some projects tend to inflate version numbers while others are modest. For example, a CMS sporting a 5.3 version number may not be necessarily more stable than one whose latest release is 1.2. Look for the project's Changelog or Release Notes documents. These usually include a list of new features, fixed bigs, improvements and known issues for each release. Scanning through this list may give you an idea of the pace of development activity and the project's stability.
Don't be discouraged by open-source projects that display a list of software bugs on their Web site. Good open-source projects acknowledge bugs and work openly to fix them. Projects that work quickly to address reported bugs are likely to be a good choice. Some may use bug-tracking software that allows developers and users to track the status of each bug. Try to get a sense of how long bugs stay open before they are addressed by looking at recently closed bugs. Also, assess if known issues or currently open bugs may make the CMS unsuitable for your needs. For a closer look at the development activity behind an open-source CMS project, take a look at the development forums or e-mail list archives, if they are available. This level of transparency is a strength of the open-source development process and enables you to make more informed decisions.
Repositories of open-source software try to make it easier to evaluate an open-source project by displaying indicators of its development activity and popularity. Figure 1 shows statistics compiled by the Freshmeat.net repository for Moodle, an open-source CMS. It includes scores and rankings by popularity, vitality and user ratings. Figure 2 shows similar statistics compiled by the development Web site Sourceforge.net, for the Plone CMS. Sourceforge.net also provides an activity percentile along with projects statistics that include downloads, page views, bugs, patches and project rank.
The size and involvement of the user community is a good indicator of interest in the CMS. Look for active user discussion forums and/or mailing lists. Some projects proudly display a list of Web sites that are using its CMS. Visiting some of these Web sites can give you can idea of how the CMS is being used and how it can adapted.
The functionality of some open-source CMSes can be extended with the help of plugins. Others offer the ability to change presentations and appearances easily by using different themes. A large number of plugins and themes created by the user community demonstrates how easy it is to the customize the CMS. Also, scan user discussion forums and mailing lists to get a sense of how the developers respond to users' concerns and suggestions. Some projects also may offer user-contributed tips and tutorials. All are indications of an involved user community that may be able to help you. As open-source offerings have matured, commercial support for open-source CMS also is becoming available. Search for consultants that may be able to provide commercial technical support if you need it.
Successful open-source CMSes always are evolving, and it is a challenge to keep documentation up-to-date and useful. The Open Source user community often lends a helping hand in creating and updating documentation. Well-developed and current documentation would indicate an organized open-source CMS with an active community. Documentation may come in many forms; review changelogs, release notes, installation instructions and user manuals. Does the documentation address your concerns and questions?
Check if the open-source CMS has a developers' guide, coding standards and information on how others can contribute to the project. Established coding standards can help maintain consistent code even when a large number of programmers contribute to its development. Even if you do not have any programming experience, it may help to glance at the source code for the open-source CMS. Look for comments within the code written in English. Well-commented code can be easier to maintain and customize. If you are familiar with the programming language, you may be able to gain valuable insights into how the CMS works and the quality of its code.
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