To Plone or not to Plone

Plone, a Content Management System (CMS) based on the Zope Content Management Framework, is one of the most well-known open source CMSs in use today.
Due to its growing prominence, and Prescient’s familiarity with it, a closer examination of the strengths and weaknesses of Plone will serve as a helpful introduction to the issues involved in assessing and implementing an open source CMS.

With a busy community of add-on developers, site administrators and enthusiastic users, Plone is looking more and more like the crown jewel of a free-software philosophy whose time has come, according to its advocates. But somewhere between an advanced, Python-based customization and out-of-the-box functionality lies the possibility of a fully-featured Plone site that achieves its goals with a judicious mix of easily-installed third-party modules (known in Plone as “products”) and Plone’s powerful, immediately available features.

In mere hours, an experienced webmaster can set up a Plone site with the framework of any sky high web dream, including functionality for:
  • Calendars (See a demo!)
  • Advanced Searching (See a demo!)
  • Easy Look-And-Feel Configuration (See a demo!)
  • Blogs
  • Wikis
  • E-Newsletters
  • E-Commerce
  • Discussion Forums
  • Polls and Surveys
  • Versioning
  • Internationalization (Languages)
  • Skype Integration(!)
The fact that Plone offers such an array of capabilities is remarkable, although for many organizations all of these benefits would be underscored by the fact that they are free, and that if implemented wisely can get you a lot more than what you paid for.

“Free,” of course, always gets people’s attention. Indeed, if you’ve investigated commercial CMS solutions, you know that the features can run to thousands of dollars for even a single strike on the aforementioned list. While it is true that commercial CMS vendors can offer formal, in-depth, and (most importantly) accountable technical support that an open source CMS like Plone cannot, there are certainly situations where a bit of training and implementation assistance can make Plone stable enough.
Beta Blocked
Despite its ease-of-use and easy expandability, however, Plone has its downside.
For example, while the Plone development community is booming, much of it is also in its infancy; many of the products, while usable, are technically classified by their creators as being in the beta or even alpha stages – bug reports are common and encouraged. It is likely that many of the developers don’t possess the commercial imperative to refine and finish their products that a company making a commercial CMS offering would, so it’s a dice throw as to whether or not the add-on you require will have a stable release in the timeframe that you need it. You may end up having to compromise with a similar module, hire a Python developer to develop a custom solution, or forego the functionality altogether if security or stability concerns outweigh its value.

Plone also has weaknesses in terms of initial skin/template choices, versioning capabilities and metrics out of the box. But these shortcomings can be patched up with the use of products and, in the case of metrics, with an easily-implemented adapter for Google Analytics.  Furthermore, Plone itself is a constantly evolving piece of software, and it stands to reason that demand over time will cause the native product to encompass wants that are currently only being handled by independent developers.

Getting To It

The most wonderful thing about an easy technical implementation of your functional requirements, of course, is that it frees up resources for focusing on the bigger picture of what you want your site to do instead of how, or how well, it will do it.

The reality shock that many organizations face, unfortunately, is that getting a Plone site with a wide array of useful products up and running is only the beginning of a greater process that should have begun before acquiring software: regimenting the creation and administration of content, determining a governance model, achieving buy-in from stakeholders, and all else necessary to ensure that your internet or intranet project grows into an efficient asset rather than a sprawling liability.  Common assessment tasks should include determining how:
  • The software meets your requirements, including the ones you might not even have identified.
  • To put the right people in the right places, with the right training and expertise to create and moderate content on the site.
  • To secure the support of critical stakeholders through a comprehensive understanding of the project value.
  • To develop an intuitive information architecture and governance model borne of surveys, feedback, usability testing and other analysis.
  • To understand what your users want through interviews, surveys and focus groups.

Fundamentally, however, you must determine if Plone is even right for you from a baseline perspective. Prescient’s website contains a wealth of articles on developing CMS recommendations that (read our articles on Content Management ) can help your organization assess which CMS matches its resources, requirements and culture.

To engage Prescient for help in selecting the best CMS for your organization, please see our CMS Blueprint service or contact us directlly.

Prescient Digital Media is a veteran web and intranet consulting firm with 10+ years of rich history. We provide strategic Internet and intranet consulting, planning and communications services to many Fortune 500 and big brand clients, as well as small and medium-sized leaders.