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I'm trying to find a replacement solution for a large university's current web presence.

There are a number of strategies we are considering, including perhaps using an open-source or commercial off-the-shelf software solution.

The list of requirements we have is very lengthy, but main points include:

  • Robust content management system, which would allow for creation of multiple independent sections on the site,
  • Flexible permissions system, allowing for a large number of section-specific administrators and editors,
  • Ease of use,
  • Extensibility, allowing us to integrate the software with existing IT resources (e.g. LDAP-controlled login system, numerous databases with HTTP interfaces, etc.)

If anyone here worked or studied at a university and has used or implemented software solutions to this problem, I would be very keen to hear your opinions of what works well or what doesn't.

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migrated from stackoverflow.com Apr 16 '11 at 19:02

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The Uni I work at uses Cascade for most of their sites, hannonhill.com Haven't dug too deep into its features, but it's got a precent decent publishing system that handles multiple sites/server with complicated permission systems. –  Marc B Apr 15 '11 at 14:27

4 Answers 4

I'd like to chime in for Drupal, which is currently running (for example), the University of Texas at Austin web site. I worked with it for three years at UT before moving to my current university, which is using the half-baked "OmniUpdate".

Drupal is well suited to a higher ed environment. There is a definite learning curve involved (particularly for your tech staff), but it's quite definitely worth it for its supreme flexibility.

Some advantages:

  • It can interface with your university LDAP via LDAP for Drupal 7
  • There are a huge variety of modules available to make it do essentially anything you need. The Wysiwyg module is especially important for making it friendlier to content editors. See also Image Assist.
  • There is a LARGE community of developers working on it, and some highly active forums for support (free, at that).
  • It's open source. If there's a bug, fix it and submit a patch back.

Some caveats:

  • New Drupal administrators often go crazy with modules. Resist the urge to install eight bazillion modules. Doing so will degrade your performance. Pick the ones that you really need.
  • It's written in PHP, so if you have legacy apps written in other languages, they may need to be either ported to PHP, or left to run as they are. Of course, you probably can't achieve 100% platform integration regardless of which CMS you choose; higher ed IT environments are just too heterogeneous for that.
  • The last time I checked, the permissions model was not as fine-grained as one might hope. However, I haven't played with it much in Drupal 7, so it may have been improved. (See multi-site notes, below).

Some suggestions:

The book Pro Drupal Development is the best book-length treatment for techy types; Chapter 8 on theming is invaluable.

Use Multisite. I cannot stress this enough. A multi-site installation will vastly decrease both your administrative and your technical headaches. Essentially, using a multi-site install lets you have multiple drupal sites, each of which has its own database, permissions, themes, and such, but which share a single set of core files. When a security patch comes out, you can patch the core files ONCE, and it will affect every site you've got. As for administration -- if you have a multisite install, and some small group (such as a student group or an academic program other than a department) needs a web site, you can issue them their own Drupal site, which would have access to a pool of pre-made, approved themes, and also have the option of letting them develop a theme of their own. Lastly, multi-site helps alleviate the problem of the permissions model. Since the permissions are specific to a given site, you can segment your web presence into several related sites that share a single theme, so that you could give full admin privileges to a one user for a specific site (e.g., a department, or such).

At the very least, set up a test site and play with it. There's no software fee, so there's nothing to keep you from trying it out.

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Was going to say Drupal, but never could have explained it as well as this guy! +1 –  Melanie May 5 '11 at 8:53

I've got a large list of products on CMS Critic here: CMS List. It might help you find the right solution by giving you some options to explore. There are a number of good options for universities and colleges for sure.

There are also a number of reviews on the site that will perhaps help you trim down the list. Failing that, I offer cms selection advice.

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The Daisy CMS has gained some traction in academia. It is a robust CMS with a wiki-based front-end that supports the kind of content silo'ing and permissions schemes that you describe. It is very extensible in terms of styling, structuring content, and user interface (custom content editors, workflows, etc).

Content can be confined to a "sub-site" within the application, or shared across multiple areas. Daisy also has great APIs to support things like content import/export, content synchronization, and publishing (to HTML or PDF).

If you have any multilingual needs, then Daisy's localization support has no peer, commercial or otherwise.

It is open-source and Java based. Runs on Windows and Linux equally well, and supports LDAP for authentication. Drop me a line if you'd like more info.

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I've seen a variety of CMS engines used for large university web sites, but most make it difficult to work with the concept of delegating an area for separate units. Plone seems to me to have the best enterprise-compatible security system to allow this sort of independence of separate areas. It also integrates very well with LDAP and other systems. Downside is that it uses its own custom database and web server, although you're likely to want Apache or something similar in front of it. If the university can handle the systems requirements, it can be an easy sell.

If you just want a simple system that gets out of your way, DokuWiki is worth looking at, though probably doesn't have all the features you want.

For more CMS testing, you can visit OpenSourceCMS.com, though as their name suggests, they are dedicated to open source products. That may be an advantage if you can find one that fits your needs, as there's no initial cost. Bear in mind, though, that you should consider the cost of supporting such a CMS; the most popular ones tend to have good community-led support but less-popular ones can leave you high and dry while your high-profile site languishes.

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