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SapphireSteeel Software




May 2006

If you want a web site that writes itself, a CMS may be the answer. This month, Huw samples everything from Joomla to XOOPS but is won over by a Belgian squirrel...


Silly names, are, to Content Management Systems (CMS) what silly walks are to Monty Python. You can’t have one without the other. Over the past couple of months I’ve toyed with Drupal, flirted with XOOPS and passed the time of day with Xaraya and Mambo. For a while, I thought I had finally found the love of my life in Joomla. But, just as we were about to settle down for a long term relationship, a tall dark stranger with a seductive accent entered my life; and so my heart was finally won by Spip.

Spip is not only short for 'système de publication pour l’internet' - it is also (apparently) Belgian slang for 'squirrel'. And not many people (apart from the Belgians, of course) know that...

Now, those of you familiar with CMS packages will no doubt be familiar with a good many of the names I mentioned above – though not, perhaps, with the name of the one I finally chose. Until quite recently I hadn’t heard of Spip either. It never seems to get very high up the chart in the popular reference site, OpenSource CMS and some of the comments left by reviewers there hardly suggest that it is a system of any great power: “not perfect XHTML standards”,  “the templating system… is under par” and “There are a lot better CMSs around, like Mambo or Typo3 [but] if you need to develop a small web site then SPIP can be perfect solution.”

This last comment sounds like a case of damning with faint praise. But another user’s comment on the same site piqued my curiosity. Picking up on the remark that Spip might be suitable for “a small web site”, this user asked: “What's the common point between Dominique de Villepin (French Prime Minister) and French communist daily newspaper 'L'Humanité' ? They both use SPIP for their websites, which are not exactly small. Neither is Le Monde Diplomatique's (a monthly paper) website. And the French government supports the developing of Agora, a SPIP-based project aimed, inter alia, at the deployment of large sites.”

What’s CMS? Content Management Systems provide a way of automating the updates to a web site by generating each page dynamically. The content of the site (the text of the articles it contains) is stored separately from the page layout and the two are merged together when a visitor to the site wants to view a specific page. Many free open source content management systems are written in the PHP programming language and use a database such as MySQL to store the articles. See The Bitwise Guide To CMS.

Now, I had, by this stage, pretty much decided that I would settle down with Joomla – the successor to Mambo and one of the most popular CMSes around. Joomla is a highly capable piece of software with a very large community of users. It can do just about anything – from managing a fairly simple blog to running a massive corporate web site. And that’s really the problem. It has so many features that it can take an age to find what you want and, having found it, to work out how the devil you’re going to use it.

Joomla is a big system with a nice-looking interface. But there's just a bit too much of it for my liking...

Spip is more specialised. It was designed to publish a web ‘magazine’ site called Uzine. Accordingly, it is very good at creating sections such as News and Opinion, to contain regular features such as (say) ‘Rants and Raves’ and ‘Bytegeist’. It makes it easy to cross reference related articles so that each page may display a box listing links to ‘features in the same section’. And it even has an editorial system which allows teams if people to ‘subedit’ features and store them for final approval prior to publication. After using Spip for a while it was obvious to me that this was far more suited to the kind of online publishing I do than one of the ‘do-it-all’ systems such as Joomla and Drupal.

The Spip Administrator interface is relatively simple and easy to navigate (you can change the colour if you don't like green!)

Not you that you have to publish a whole magazine to make Spip worth using. It would also be excellent for a tightly structured blog written by single or multiple authors or for any kind of web site that publishes articles divided up into sections.

Which leaves the question: if it’s so damn’ good why has nobody ever heard of it?

The answer can be stated simply: because it’s French.

French Lessons

Now, I’m not suggesting that the entire English speaking world is so francophobic that they won’t even consider tainting their web sites with French software. However, I suspect that a good many English speakers may recoil from the idea of embedding French commands into their web pages.

Spip, you see, doesn’t deal with loops, subtitles, authors and sections; instead, it uses boucles, soutitres, auteurs and rubriques. And you are obliged to use these French terms in your web pages. For example, this is the code you might enter in order to create a loop (boucle) which  displays the subtitles and titles of the articles in the current section (rubrique):


Scary, huh? But if this brings back horrible memories of rattling off verb tables in school, don’t be too quick to dismiss Spip. It comes with a comprehensive English language manual which puts to shame the often rather poor documentation provided by many of its English language rivals. Spip’s administration interface and online help is also available in English – as well as in many other languages ranging from Arabic to Chinese. Spip takes multilingualism seriously and there is good support for multiple languages both in the private and public parts of a Spip site.

The downside of Spip is that it has rather a small number of ready-to-use templates so either you can use the (admittedly nice-looking) default template or you can download user-written templates (called, gruesomely enough ‘squelettes’ – literally, skeletons). Or you can bite the bullet, read the manual, learn all about boucles and rubriques, and build your template from scratch. I’ve opted for this last, labour-intensive, option. But that’s just my choice and isn’t really necessary if you want to get up and running quickly. I hope to have my first Spip-powered site online some time this summer. I’ll let you know how I get on.

The Perils Of Open Source

Spip isn’t the only good CMS that you may not have heard of. As I’ve said in previous columns, for simple blogs, my favourite system is Pivot. I’ve been running a multi-author Pivot blog for some months now and the more I use the software the more I like it. It’s fast, simple and has the added benefit of storing data in separate files rather than in a database. This makes it easy to synchronize development locally (on your PC) and remotely (on a server) – something that is not so easily done with systems that store data in a MySQL database. I’ve also been running a WordPress blog for a few months. While WordPress is more famous than Pivot, all I can say is that I don’t like it as much. It’s Administration interface is more complicated, it is often notably sluggish in use and it makes very heavy weather of template design.

For a more general purpose dynamic web site, another CMS that initially appealed to me is one called Exponent. This is a genuinely innovative piece of software. Whereas other CMSes make a clear distinction between the front end (what the visitors to your site see) and the back end (what the site administrator sees), Exponent merges the two. When you enter Administration mode you can continue working in the ‘front end’ – on the pages of the web site itself - where you can modify the design and layout or edit the text of articles interactively. This feels ‘right’. It seems the way that CMS software really ought to work. Exponent is such a good piece of software that it really deserves to be a success. Which makes it all the sadder that the software has been abandoned by its author, James Hunt.

In a farewell message, he wrote: “I am abdicating my position because I do not have the time, or financial resources to continue developing open source software…Good luck to all the users who still believe in the system as I once did.”

The project continues under the auspices of James’s one-time business partner, Fred Dirkse with a new team of developers. I wish them the best of luck. Though, I must admit that I would have more faith in the project if the man who created it was still there. This is illustrative of the negative side of open source. You can only devote so much of your life to giving away stuff for free. At some point, you also have to earn a living.

At the time of writing, the home page of Exponent web site is displaying a ‘Check Back Soon’ message. However, you can ‘get into’ the site by following this link: http://www.exponentcms.org/index.php?section=1

Simple Choices?

Another CMS that is worth keeping an eye on goes by the admirably descriptive name (and let’s hope it lives up to it!) of CMS Made Simple. In some respects this reminds me of Spip. Just like Spip, CMS Made Simple is particularly good at building well-structured hierarchies of articles in specific sections. I haven’t used it to the same extent that I’ve used Spip so I can’t offer a well informed comparison between the two. My initial feeling, however, is that CMS Made Simple probably is a bit easier to use and customise without having to delve too much into the nitty-gritty details of tags and source code. At any rate, this is still a relatively young system – which hasn’t yet quite reached a full version 1.0 release (though they say that that’s coming soon).

Definitely one to watch…

Some of the Web Sites Mentioned This Month...



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