Want to set up a database-driven website? Why not try an open source CMS system? Elliot Smith rolls his sleeves up and gets his hands dirty with five of the best

Open source content management systems (CMSs) have come a long way in recent times. With their origins in bulletin board systems, contact forms, and early wikis, today's systems have grown into sophisticated solutions for website management. They have moved from their technically-challenging, administrator-only origins to friendly, easy-to-use systems, entirely manageable via a web browser.

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As e-business matures, more and more companies expect their websites to offer interactive features, like forums, polls, and contact forms. Open source CMSs provide a great opportunity for small- to medium-sized web development companies to quickly roll out such websites. Rather than spend two years writing their own CMS, a company can use an existing piece of open source software to kick-start projects, customising where necessary to fit their clients' requirements. In the case of companies without in-house programming expertise, open source CMS can actually enable them to deliver solutions they couldn't build themselves.

In this review, we have concentrated on five of the best-known open source CMS systems, focusing on those intended for managing websites. Document and knowledge management systems aren't covered (e.g. KnowledgeTree, Alfresco); neither are learning management systems (e.g. Moodle). These systems are intended for niche markets, or for particular types of content. Instead, the tools we looked are generic and have several common features which are important to bear in mind when choosing open source: none are focused on particular types or sizes of organization; all are easy to install, configure, and run using commodity shared hosting; each is readily available, without restrictions on usage or distribution and all have some kind of documentation available plus large active communities and many live installations.

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Some of these qualities are more or less in evidence, depending on the software; but generally speaking the systems discussed meet all of these criteria. In all cases, we looked at the latest production-ready releases of the software (as at March 2006). The reviews themselves are based on trialling and testing the systems in a variety of contexts, including deployments for live websites. We also applied several simple tests to each system to assess their features:

  • Can content be added easily, through an easy-to-use interface?
  • Can content be categorised?
  • Can the look and feel be modified?
  • How easy is it to manage the site structure and navigation?
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