What is 'CMS' (a Content Management System)?

Historically, the content and design of a website have been inseparable. In more technical terms, that means that the data (‘content’) and the presentation (‘design’) elements have typically been mixed together in one document, that document usually being a web page (such as “index.html” or “about.html”). In order to create and format the content of a page (i.e., use different positioning, font styles, colors, etc.), it was necessary to know HTML mark-up, thus limiting the ability to create a web site to a select few. The role of the webmaster was born.

Software expanded the ability to manage and design websites to a larger number of users yet still demanded a level of technical expertise. Creating and managing content on the web boiled down to two major problems – the ‘architecture’ of a web page and technical aptitude.

The ‘architecture’ of not separating content and design elements was both costly and inefficient. For example, let’s say a company wanted to re-brand itself or received some funds to update its web presence. The traditional approach to this process would require someone to manually take all of the content – the information on every page of a site – and copy, edit, and massage it into each and every new page of the newly designed site.

Similar inefficiencies existed with having one or more webmasters who essentially were the gatekeepers of the web. Content creators had to email updated web content to their webmasters. Webmasters spent hours hand-coding new pages, making changes, or archiving outdated information. The process for publishing and editing content on the web was slow. Good for webmasters, bad for Website owners.

These problems are what spurred the creation of “CMS” or content management systems. The end game with CMS is that web publishing is literally a click away. CMS, or rather the technology behind them, are tools that allow a non-technical user to quickly and easily post information to the web.

This goal is accomplished by addressing the architecture issue of a web page. With CMS, the content of a site is stored outside of design elements – the content is actually stored in a database. The first benefit with this model is that implementing a new design becomes just about as simple as copying new template files – graphics, formatting, font styles, etc. – to a server. The second is that the content of the site – the data in the database – can be easily backed up and stored for safe keeping.

To better understand this model, imagine that the content (‘data’) of your site is like a window in your home. To spruce up a window, you can put up some blinds or use a variety of different curtains. These decorative elements are similar to the design (‘presentation’) of your site. Curtains can be easily switched at any point, to change the appearance of the window but the window is still a window. The same holds true for the design of content managed sites; new design templates can change the entire appearance or specific styles and formatting of your site but the content remains constant.

From a technical perspective, CMS are a winning solution but that is not what makes them so powerful. It is the “push button publishing” (as Google’s Blogger calls it) that has led to the tremendous success of these technologies (and yes, blogs and wikis are two types of CMS).

CMS in many ways give the final credence to the “Information Age”. Now the power to create new information on the web no longer rests solely within the hands of the technical community. To read more on CMS, check out some additional information at Wikipedia, including a list of different content management systems.

As Jason Coward previously discussed, TheVirtualHandshake.com is built on the ModX CMS.