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Business I.T. for a small startup .

If you want to start up a home based small business or work from home, you may be wondering what IT you need to get going and how far you need to go.

What does your business need to work?

1: internet
2: computer
3: telephony
4: Printing

What do you need to make it work?

1: Network
2: Electricity

What do you need to keep working?

1: Backups.

This may not apply completely to you but for me (and many other people I know in small business), this is what you need, both at home and out on the road. You may have some other requirements as well but these few things will cover most of your needs.

There are many ways to get these things, many options based on needs, location and resources. If you think about them before signing up to anything, you will be better off in the long run.

This is what I have for my business. I can (and do) work from home (home office, kitchen, living room etc), from my car, from other people’s offices and even from a boat while fishing (if I am really lucky).

Internet: A good internet connection is vital in this day and age, especially for an IT consultant. At home I have an ADSL 2+ connection with Annex M (faster upload speed) and about 14mbps of bandwidth. I have a static IP address on the internet so I can always get back into my home PC from outside. There are advantages to having a static IP as well as disadvantages, most users wont need one. When on the road, I have a 3G SIM card built into my laptop for internet access from anywhere with mobile coverage as well as a 3G USB stick with a different carrier as a backup (I can also use my mobile phone as a modem via bluetooth if required). I dont recommend using 3G cards all the time, if you need internet at home, a permanent ADSL or cable connection will be much cheaper, faster and more reliable. If you want service, support and the best stability, sign up for a business plan (usually a bit more expensive), business support tends to be much better. Run your email in the cloud, eg start with free Gmail and use the free 2GB version of Dropbox as a centralised repository for files.

Computer: Get whatever you need, laptops are portable but less upgradable, fixable and powerful. I have a desktop at home that is permanently on as well as a laptop that is my primary workstation. If you are at a desk a lot, get a docking station for your laptop and get a large screen to go with it, even two if you have the space (dual screens is great), and full size keyboard and mouse. Dont cramp yourself in close to a laptop if you dont need to. Business grade laptops will have docking station options, consumer grade laptops dont. If you are using it for business (ie long periods of time), get a business grade laptop (eg HP Probook/Elitebook, Dell Latitude, Lenovo T Series etc), they have better warranties and are designed to run for long periods without overheating. Mac laptops do not have docking stations available.

Telephony: Obviously start with a mobile phone, get one that does email well (proper smartphone). If you use it a lot, either get a car charger for it and/or carry a second battery. A heavily utilised smartphone can struggle to make it through a day on a charge. Get yourself a bluetooth headset for use in the car or while at a computer. I have a Nokia E72 with a BlueAnt headset which both work very well. When at my desk, I have a standard desk phone to make calls on rather than use my mobile. I dont recommend getting extra phone lines, just get a VoIP service and handset and plug it into your internet connection. I am paying around $200/yr for two VoIP lines and two numbers with 100 untimed calls to fixed lines and 100 minutes of calls to mobiles per month. Any voicemails to my VoIP landlines are forwarded to me via email (and received on my mobile phone).

Printing: Some people need printing more than others. Dont waste time and money on inkjets for business use, get a cheap black and white laser printer. I got mine on Graysonline for about $50 and 3×8000 page toner cartridges for about $100 and 3 drum cartridges for $60. Enough for my printing needs for well over 12 months.

Network: Spend a little bit extra and get a Gigabit network. A small network may just be an ADSL router with 4 network ports. This is all you need to get going, they come with wireless as well. If you use wireless, make sure you set the security up. Gigabit is very fast and will make all the difference if you have a network attached storage device (NAS) for backups.

Electricity: Get a UPS to protect your IT investment and also to keep you able to work if the power goes out (for a while). The more you need to run the bigger the UPS needs to be, I have a 1500VA UPS tht can run my desktop, phones, internet and network for nearly two hours.

Backups: You cannot have too much. I operate my business files and email in the cloud but regularly backup copies locally. All local file are backed up to a NAS regularly and anything on the NAS only (it serves media to my Home Theatre PC as well) is backed up to a dedicated 2000GB drive in my desktop. Vital items such as photos of the kids are regularly burn to DVD as well as having a copy on a portable hard drive that stays with me when I am out on the road. Important sensitive or personal information on portable media should be encrypted with TrueCrypt.

Posted in: Business, Hardware, The Web

Microsoft BPOS vs Google Apps – My Move to “The Cloud”

You have probably heard the term “The Cloud” and how it is the way of the future for IT but what can it do, how does it work and why should you consider it? Google and Microsoft are two companies that are investing in web based services for business. I have tried both in a couple of different ways and discovered that you get what you pay for.

Many small businesses I work with have grown from nothing with minimal I.T. knowledge until they have reached a point in their business life cycle where things start to get harder. Changes to systems become painful to implement, things are no longer working properly and they blame their I.T. While it can be argued that I.T. is in fact the problem, it is more due to poor implementation of I.T. rather than technology itself. Usually when this happens, it is time for some centralisation of services and files. Enter the cloud.

Historially, the usual step at this point was to hire an I.T person, spend a few thousand dollars to put in a server, upgrade the network, and start to think about how it is supposed to work and make it happen (central Anti-Virus, central shared storage, network backups, perhaps an internal email server, domain controller, automated policies etc). This is still quite common, I am still doing these types of rollouts myself but is it really necessary? A few years ago, yes it was but now there are some alternatives with Cloud Computing (such as offerings from Google Apps, Microsoft BPOS, HyperOffice, Salesforce and many more). Basically the business decides what it needs from a storage, communication and collaboration perspective and simply subscribes to these services online (in “The Cloud”).

There are some down sides to working in the cloud. You need a reasonable internet connection, your data access will be slower than a local server, some functionality may be limited, security and privacy is not totally in your control etc. There are also many up sides to operating this way. You dont need to finance a server (monthly fees are often far easier to fund), you can quickly and easily scale the services with your business growth, your data is managed and backed up for you, you can access all your services from anywhere on any computer with an internet connection and more.

My own use of cloud computing for business began with Google Apps for business, the free version, and only with email. Using Google Apps I was able to synchronise my desktop, laptop and mobile phone email and calendar at all times, something that is only possible with some central control (eg a server). I then began to use Google Docs for file storage. The free version of Google Apps is very good for a free system but moving up to the Premier edition gives more storage space, no ads and access to the Google Apps Sync tool for Outlook. This works pretty well and I was happy until I began my first client implementation…

The problems with Google Apps began, in part, with the slow internet connection upload speed in the office. Trying to push gigabytes of email into the cloud took a considerable period of time during which a significant amount of email just was not available. It took nearly two weeks before email sync stabilised.

Problems then followed with synchronisation between Google Apps and mobile phones, in this case iphones. Email worked fine but there were many issues with contacts, they would fail to sync, often they would delete off the phones and then re-sync, contacts were not replicating back from the phone to Google Apps and then to the desktop (contacts added to the phone would be deleted on the next sync) and a few other quirks. The contacts sync was only solved by manually exporting all contacts from all locations to a local CSV file, manually editing it to ensure all formatting was consistent, deleting all contacts from Google Apps directly, waiting until the sync deleted them from the phone and desktop then importing directly into Google Apps from CSV. Once this was done, contacts began to work reliably.

The next issue was the email limitations that applied, mainly the 10MB message limit. Another client had problems with the number of recipients per email as well. The final straw though was when a key email account was shut down for 24 hours without warning “due to suspicious activity”. There is then no-one to call and no way to speed up getting the account unlocked. There is supposed to be an email address, ‘[email protected]’ that you email to fast track an unlock but it didn’t seem to help.

I have since moved to Microsoft BPOS and after migrating with the $10USD/account service from Migration Wiz and moving my MX records, I am now happily online with Exchange and Sharepoint for $17AUD/account/month. The online setup was not the easiest, especially as the local BPOS system is managed by Telstra but now it is operational, it is working without a hitch. There is no need for a sync client for Outlook or phones (that include MS ActiveSync) and a “Single Sign On” app runs on my PC’s so I dont need to log in each time. It is roughly 3 times the price of Google Apps (when you include Sharepoint as well) but based on my experience so far, it is worth it.

I have since begun moving some clients to Microsoft BPOS and the feedback has been very positive. Personally I now seamlessly sync a desktop and laptop PC, a Macbook, an iPad and an Android phone (I finally ditched my old Nokia E72, actually I ditched my telco, Three, after their dismal performance recently since the merger with Vodafone). I have a number I can call where a real person can help me and after a recent minor glitch where one of my accounts became corrupted and needed to be recovered (one of a lucky 3 people in the entire world apparently), both Telstra and Microsoft’s performance in fixing the situation and keeping me informed was excellent.

Google Apps is pretty good, it is pretty reliable but its lack of true business support (no phone support, far too restrictive email limits and no options if the system locks down an account) means that, for now, I dont recommend it for business use. For a very small business or family able to work within its limits, it is great but in my opinion, it is still some way off being truly ready for business use.

I have also moved a client to HyperOffice with reasonable success although their reliance on IMAP for email gets pretty slow for users with multiple large accounts connected. Their business model is far less “self service” and they are there to help with a well integrated and executed system that is well suited to a widely dispersed workforce. It is pretty much all web interface driven which has its quirks as well. It is more expensive but their goal is to remove the need for IT staff and they are targeting a different market than Microsoft or Google.

Website Hosting

There are so many options available for you to get your website online that many people dont know where to start. I will run through a few (non-exhaustive) options for you, from limited and free to powerful (and expensive).

You can run a website from your home PC via your home internet connection. I wouldn’t do it though but it can be done and in the early years of the internet, many sites were run in exactly this way via dial up modems. I am not going to detail how as it is now so cheap and easy to organise proper web hosting that it makes no sense, for anyone.

Before you begin, you need to have your Domain Name registered and ready to use.

When you have your Domain Name ready to go, you should have a bit of a think about how you intend to use your web site. Do you imagine the web site scaling to handle very high numbers of users? Do you have a preferred platform (Windows or Linux are the two big options) or preferred programming language and database system that you want to use? Basically Linux hosting will always be cheaper than Windows but cannot be used for Dot.NET applications or SQL Server databases. It can be used for PHP programming and MySQL databases though which are very widely used online. Windows can also support PHP and MySQL but in my experience, shared hosting of PHP and MySQL on Windows hosts seems slower than on Linux, possibly due to licencing costs meaning more sites are hosted on each Windows server.

To begin with, you can host your website with pretty much anyone you like. Make sure they have an online reputation ( is a good place to start) and can support what you need (if you want to use a free Web Content Management System like Joomla, Drupal, WordPress, MediaWiki etc, it must support PHP and MySQL). This site costs around $6AUD/m to host on Linux servers with unlimited space and bandwidth (I havent fully explored the concept of ‘unlimited’ though) but I would probably be asked to leave or have my site restricted in some way if it became so popular that it affected the performance of the other sites hosted on the same server. Some hosts are ‘free’ but make their money with ads etc, others are quite expensive and offer Service Level Agreements (SLA’s) regarding server up time. I have found Australian hosting to be considerably more expensive than hosting offshore and the performance impact of being located in the US vs Australia is negligible. Once you have signed up, delegate your domain name to them (or point it to them if you host it elsewhere), upload your website to them and it will just go live on the internet.

If you have some specific hosting needs, the next step up is a dedicated hosted server, probably a Virtual Server in a data centre. A Virtual server is completely self contained but many of them share the same physical server (as average utilisation is always a small fraction of peak performance, this is a much better use of a physical server). You can treat this like your own server, you will be given full access to it as if it was your own (but if you stuff it up, you have to fix it too). A dedicated server can usually handle a larger volume of traffic and users than a shared server as well.

A dedicated physical server is your next step up, you can lease one from a hosting company or install your own into a data centre. The prices start to rise with this option with data centre space being expensive and increasingly scarce (In Melbourne anyway).

Above this is the redundant server farm with load balancing. The sky is the limit once you get here in terms of how much you could potentially spend. Google has spent billions of dollars on their infrastructure but any level of load balancing and fault tolerance does not come cheap. This level of hosting is out of my league and more often than not would just be overkill for most business web sites.

Regardless of who you host with, make sure you keep regular back ups of your website. If your hosting company goes under, you may need to get up and running with another host on very short notice and may not get a chance to pull down a copy of your website before it gets turned off.

Posted in: The Web

Domain Names

What you need to know

Your domain name is the online identity for your whole business, most importantly your email and website. For example, I currently use this one,, a variation on it to stop anyone else taking it,, and my personal name, which I registered many years ago (late 1990’s – you would be lucky to get your name these days, especially the .com).

You probably have a domain name already but if not and you want to register one, there are a few things you need to do.

  1. Decide what domain name you want and see if it is available.

    To check if a domain name is taken, the first thing to do is try (or or .net etc) in your web browser. This will tell you pretty quickly if it is in use. It won’t always show you if it is taken though, as many names are registered and never used. Reasons for this include stopping someone else using it, or hoping to sell it later to someone who really wants the name (as they can be bought and sold like any other asset. One of the highest, if not the highest price paid was $12M USD for Australian domain names are not worth anywhere near that.).

    To do a search for an inactive registered domain name, you need to do a WHOIS Search. There are plenty of options to choose from (eg or If the search does not return a match then there is a good chance it can be registered. You may also like to review the list of names soon to be purged from the registry, at the official domain drop list. Before you do, think about what you want the name to mean to web users. Make it relevant to your business or name ( require an ABN to register), make it easy to type and remember if possible (most three letter acronyms are already taken, don’t make it too long if possible). Try to avoid unwanted words when you join words together (eg a couple of famous joined word domain name blunders are Pen Island, Experts Exchange which has since been hyphenated, Powergen Italia, Therapist Finder, the list goes on. For a laugh, you might like to read). Check for conflicts with other registered business names and trademarks as well (for Australian businesses you could begin by checking the Australian Business Register.

  2. Register your new domain name.

    To register a domain name, you need to find a domain registrar. There are plenty to choose from. Don’t be too concerned about which registrar you use in Australia, only accredited registrars may sell a The list of accredited registrars can be found on the website and they can also (usually) register other domains as well such as .com, etc. You can change your registrar later if you really want to but it is much more difficult than registering the name in the first place. You will receive a domain name password or key when you register your domain name, KEEP THIS SAFE! It is the key – if you lose control of it, you can lose your domain name. Without it, you will be unable to make changes.

  3. Delegate your domain name to a Domain Name Server (DNS).

    Just registering is only the first step. You then need to decide which name servers are responsible for looking after your domain name on the internet. Often your web site hosts provide this service as part of your hosting package and this is usually easier than managing it yourself as they know what they need to make your web site appear on the internet. After registering, you need to enter the DNS settings of the name servers that will look after your domain name with your registrar. They usually have a web page where you can do this that you will be given details of when you register. The DNS server must be ready to receive your information before you put in the details with your registrar so you will need to find some website hosting first. If you want to look after the domain name yourself you will need to know what you are doing in step 4 below.

  4. Set up your DNS settings for your web site and email and anything else you need it to do.

    If your web site host will look after your domain name for you then you can skip this section. They will set up your web site and email. If you are doing it yourself, you need to know about IP Addresses, MX Records, A Records, CNAME records and subdomains. You also need a DNS host that has a web interface for you to manage the records.

    1. IP Addresses are the numbers which correspond to an address on the internet. DNS Servers point domain names to the IP addresses. The IP address is the location on the internet, but a domain name is easier to remember and use. An IP Address is a sequence of 4 numbers between 0 and 255 (roughly) separated by a period (.), eg this site’s IP address is which is the address of the server hosting the site.
    2. MX Records are the servers that are responsible for your domain’s email. There should always be at least two (primary and secondary MX records) and there are often more (tertiary MX records). These are simply the mail server’s IP addresses and a number called a Metric determining the order that other mail servers should use to try to deliver email (lower comes first). I use Google Apps for business for my email so I have 7 MX records corresponding to different Google servers able to receive email on my behalf.
    3. “A” Records are basically the same as MX Records but are not for email, rather internet addresses. Your website will have an IP Address or a server address that you will want your domain name to point to, that is an A Record. I have the A Record “” pointing to
    4. A “CNAME” Record is an alias for an existing A Record, eg I have the A Record “” pointing to and a CNAME alias for “www” pointing to “” so an end user can type in “” or “” and both will go to exactly the same web site.
    5. A subdomain allows you to use different prefixes for your domain name for different things. Often a subdomain like “mail” or “mx1” (rather than the more familiar “www”) will be set up as an A Record to point your MX records to. I have set up to point to Google Apps for business which then redirects me to the webmail interface for my email. You can set up as many as you need for different purposes.

    If your web site host is looking after your DNS for you and you want to change your email host (for example I use Google), then you need to give them the details they need to make the changes on your behalf.

  5. Wait for the changes to propagate then test your domain name.

    The internet is huge and while things happen pretty fast, some things still take time. One of these things is the propagation of your domain name to all DNS servers around the world (there are literally thousands of DNS servers controlled from central core of 13 “Root Servers” ). While the general rule of thumb is to allow up to 48 hours for worldwide propagation (it is not in real time, all servers check for updates periodically), in reality pretty much all servers will be updated within 12 hours and in Australia alone, I would be surprised if it took more than 2-4 hours to spread across the country.

    To test your domain name set up (whether or not you have set up your web site or email yet), you can use a tool built in to all operating systems called “Ping” as a quick check. In Windows, open a command prompt (Start- Run – “cmd” then enter) and type in “ping” and press enter. If you receive a message “ping request could not find host” then it is either incorrectly configured or has not propagated yet. The name should resolve to an IP address eg “pinging [] with 32 bytes of data”. If you get nothing back (request timed out) don’t worry, it is the name resolution that is important here.

Posted in: The Web


Most organisations should have an Intranet. I say most because a two person business running out of homes probably doesnt ‘need’ one but if you are employing people, especially in different locations, an Intranet can (and should) become an integral part of your internal business communications.

What is an Intranet? Think of it simply as a private website for your staff. You can have one just for you if you are just starting out, it can be a central repository of what defines your business and can grow with you. A Wiki is an excellent place to start as it is simple and quick to learn and use. Once the limitations of the Wiki are reached, the Wiki can still have a place in your business process documentation while the Intranet itself can be moved to a Web Content Management System

WordPress or Joomla make great platforms to build your Intranet (see the link above), they are free and very flexible and there are many free add-on/plugins for them to add functionality with no need to know any coding. Joomla has a steeper learning curve but ultimately is more powerful. If you have Windows servers, you could build your Intranet on Windows Sharepoint Services but the initial setup will be the hardest and the learning curve the steepest but the end result may be far more powerful. If you want the full Microsoft Office Sharepoint Server (MOSS), expect to pay for it, it is not at all cheap to buy, customise or maintain.

What can your Intranet do? An Intranet can do anything you want it to do. If you treat it like a consistent homepage only, then that is what it will become. If you limit yourself to not spending any money on it, you will reach a different level of usage, if you see it as the basis for all your company’s internal operations, then that is also what it will become. It is only limted by your imagination. Anything that can be done online can be done in an Intranet, often more as you have a more defined/controlled environment to work with. The Internet’s communications systems are very well designed to be efficient and therefore any remote users or remote offices will often benefit from improved performance with an Intranet based system as opposed to a traditional application. You can use your intranet for company news, internal blogs, documentation, centralised forms and documents, events calendars, discussion forums, training, managing projects, sharing internet links, Client Relationship Management (CRM), process automation (eg Leave applications), testing future web sites etc. (and more).

Your Intranet can be as flashy or as understated as you like but it should reflect your businesses culture and values honestly. Often an Intranet is modelled on the company web site but this is not always a good thing, your staff (internal customers) have very different needs than your external clients. Your staff should be able to contribute easily, either directly or through a few known content Editors. If you make it an integral part your busines, something that has to be used by everyone everyday, it will then be able to become even more. There is nothing more demoralising for staff than a static intranet that is not useful or used for anything that is forced on staff as their browser homepage that has not been updated since it was created, often many years ago where a fresh, relevant and changing Intranet gives a feeling that things are happening in the business.

Posted in: Business, The Web

Website Content Management Systems

There are a lot of content management systems (CMS’s) available for websites. What you choose will be influenced by a number of issues.

Questions you need to ask yourself or the business include:

  • What are we trying to achieve?
  • Why do we need a CMS?
  • What do we need our CMS to do?
  • How will implementing a CMS make our web site pain go away?

Once you have answered the questions above, you can move to the implementation questions below. Do not move to the implementation level until you are sure you understand each of the questions above. The business needs must come first here.

Questions you need to ask the person you trust with your website include:

  • What CMS are you familiar with (if any)?
  • What CMS should we go with and why?
  • What language is the CMS written in?
  • What hosting platforms are supported?
  • How much does it cost to buy?
  • How difficult is it to make changes to the system that cannot be done via the CMS?
  • How widely used and supported is the CMS?
  • What is the exit strategy if the CMS is not suitable for our needs?

I will expand on these below.

What are we trying to achieve?

You need to have realistic expectations about what a CMS can do. It’s not necessarily going to solve your problems but it will help to provide a platform for you to solve your problems. If you are looking for a way to make changes to your web site quickly, easily and cheaply, a CMS may be of benefit if your site is going to grow but if you are not planning to expand your site much and you can make basic changes yourself now, a CMS may be an unnecessary complication. You are trying to make your website easier to manage after all and a small simple site will not be easier to manage with a CMS. A large site or a site that changes regularly or one that has multiple authors will definitely benefit from a CMS.

Ideally a CMS will be cheap to buy, cheap to implement, easy to learn, be flexible enough to do anything you need it to do and be cheap to maintain.

Why do we need a CMS?

When deciding why you need a CMS, look at your own situation, not the different CMS systems or what your peers are doing. Look at your content, the people that are dealing with it, any organizational difficulties you are experiencing, the source of those difficulties, and the associated problems they cause.

Think of the CMS as your librarian. A library of 10 books can be managed by anyone, a library of 10,000 books needs a structured system to manage it or the end users will have trouble finding the library of benefit. The bigger your site becomes, the more benefit will be gained by a CMS. In the same way a library system will be easier to put in at the 10 book stage in preparation for growth, trying to retro-fit a CMS to an already large and chaotic site will ultimately cost you far more. Using the same analogy, an untrained person can eventually find anything they want in a library given enough time but on the web, people are becoming used to having what they want when they want it and a large site that cannot be searched and may not be easily browsed may not be the image you want to project. A CMS will take care of the catalogues and searches for you in the background.

What do we need our CMS to do?

If your website is purely text based content then the CMS does not need to do much at all, if you want full control over images, links, menus, colours, fonts then you need a CMS that does this in a way that you (and the people you want to do site updates) can easily understand. If you want blogs, forums, polls etc, then you need to make sure this functionality is available (preferably for free) and easy to use.

Ultimately, you want the CMS to allow anyone (with the right security) to make any changes to your web site quickly and easily. As content builds in certain areas, you want the CMS to “page” your content to give users usable chunks of content rather than getting it all at once. Extra features such as version control, the ability to embargo new content, email articles, print friendly formats, automatically send reminders to review content after a certain date and search engine friendly URL’s are also often required.

How will implementing a CMS make our web site pain go away?

If you currently find yourself in a situation where you are making regular changes to your website but not directly, the costs of outsourcing web site updates quickly adds up. Unless you have a known marketing strategy and budget to absorb this, a CMS will allow non-technical users to upload and edit content on the web site without having to outsource it. You will no longer have to wait for the job to be done, the changes go live as soon as they are published.The more content there is on your web site, the more it will cost you to keep maintaining the site the old way (a badly written site may require every page to be touched to effect a layout alteration, a well written site in a CMS may only require one change that will affect all pages automatically). A CMS will also ensure consistency across your web site, hand coded pages may vary slightly for many reasons but as there is only a single display template, and content is kept seperate from the display, the CMS makes it harder for the end users to accidently alter the sites layout.

Other more subtle benefits for the visitors to your site include an easy and ready to use search system (the database that holds your content can be searched easily) and lots of (often) free plugins and modules to add functionaliy that would be too difficult and expensive to code for small things (calendars, polls, forums, image galleries etc)

Over the longer term, especially if your site continues to grow, the investment in a CMS from an early stage will pay off very quickly.

What CMS’ are you familiar with?

Obviously no-one can have full mastery of all CMS’. Your trusted web person will probably have a favourite. Find out what that is and why and ask for example sites where they have used it and make sure you understand (get them to show you if you don’t) how it works, how to add pages, how to upload images, how to edit page content and menus. Also make sure they are able to edit/create the template that you will use for your web site.

My personal preference at the moment is WordPress simply because it was so easy to develop for, has a very active user base and thousands of themes and plugins available. And it impressed me. I could do everything I needed to so I didn’t have a need to look at many others. Not as powerful as Joomla but easier to use, especially for non-technical users. To me it was a similar comparison to Windows Mobile vs Blackberry. Both give you a phone with email, one (Windows/Joomla) has more options, more flexibility, more complexity and can do more stuff, the other (Blackberry/Wordpress) doesnt do as much but it works and is easier to use for non-techie’s.

What CMS should we go with and why?

There are many web content managment systems available. Here is a list of them. They all have their own strengths, weaknesses and reason for being. Some are proprietary, some are open source. Most CMS’ will do what needs to be done, why would we choose one over the other?

Personally, I can see no benefit in purchasing a commercial CMS other than the fact that you will get some included support for it. There are many free and open source CMS that are just as good and while they have no official support, they generally have a loyal user/fan base that can provide support if/when needed. You can also buy books for open source CMS’ but rarely for commercial packages.

For this site, I currently run WordPress. I originally chose Joomla which I originally installed in a testing environment for my work Intranet based on a recommendation from a trusted colleague. Joomla had shown itself to be a suitable CMS for me but may not be for everyone and after having to do some development on WordPress, I preferred it from a development perspective. Joomla is definitely not the simplest CMS available but it is capable and flexible. However, after a few months, I converted my Joomla template to a WordPress Theme. For end users, especially small to medium sites and blogs, WordPress is probably going to do what you need with far less of a learning curve, Joomla and Drupal will do pretty much anything you need but are much harder to learn. For intranets and documentation sites, Mediawiki is excellent. It is quick, simple and it works well however it is not very flexible at all. In the past I have written CMS code both for my personal sites and external clients and since looking at the functionality available in the free CMS’, I could never again take money to write a CMS with a clean conscience. Other notable CMS that I have looked into include OpenCMS, Drupal, Mambo, Django , and DotNetNuke

CMS’ that try to do everything (which most of them do) can end up being quite difficult to use, especially for non-technical people. The less the CMS can do, the easier it is to use (eg MediaWiki). One CMS I wrote for a previous version of my personal web site only covered pages with regularly changing content, pages that rarely changed were hand coded as required unless it was easier (same page layout) as a content managed page in which case the CMS was used anyway. If you dont have technical people to handle your web site changes, perhaps a simpler CMS with fewer features is the way to go but if you have someone that can learn how it works, a fully featured CMS may save outsourcing costs later.

What language is the CMS written in?

Make sure the CMS’ language is widely used and supported. Most of the free CMS’s are written in PHP which is easy to code, easy to get coded and is completely cross platform (can be hosted on pretty much any web server, see below). If you go with other languages, make sure they can be easily modified and if you need to hire someone in, a more widely used language will be cheaper to get coding done for. Scripted languages have easy to access source code, compiled languages may not come with source code and may be harder to edit.

What hosting platforms are supported?

Pretty much every content management system supports MySQL as a database which is a good thing. MySQL is free, scalable and supported across most server platforms (especially Windows and Linux which is where you need it). SQL Server only CMS’ limit you to Windows Servers hosts and Oracle database systems tend to be expensive. PHP. Python, Java and Perl are also cross platform while Dot.NET is Windows only (servers, not end users). Basically as long as both the host language and the database system are cross platform, you will not be limited to certain web hosts. This site is currently hosted on a L.A.M.P server (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP) which is a very common Linux hosting environment. I have almost too much choice for web hosting but being a cross platform CMS, I can host on Windows Servers if I want to.

How much does it cost to buy?

If you are not being recommended to use a free CMS, why not? Is there some functionality that a free CMS cannot supply? Is the “purchase” cost merely the implementation cost to migrate page look and feel and content? Does the CMS in question require additional software (eg MS SQL Server) that you dont have and would need to purchase (or licence) as well?

How difficult is it to make changes to the system that cannot be done via the CMS?

Obviously with proprietary commercial software, it can often be the case that if you want any “under the hood” changes, they can only be done by the vendor at a high cost. Open source code is easy to modify and usually not difficult to find freelance developers who can help out on an ad-hoc basis. Most of the free CMS’ are written in PHP, a very widely used and supported scripting language with many developers able to code in it. The same goes for the Java and Dot.NET CMS’s, there are plenty of developers around. One benefit of a scripting language is that the code that runs is also the source code so just by implementing a PHP CMS, you get the source code with it to edit as required.

The more widely used free CMS’s have a strong template/theme community. These can be both commercial (you pay for them) or free (you dont). Joomla and WordPress, for example, have hundreds or even thousands of templates available to make your site different from the default look and feel. All CMS’s are capable of having any theme written for them if a ready made theme cannot be found to suit (eg existing look and feel to be retained when a web site is ported to a CMS framework). I have developed WordPress themes for both simple and complex web site designs. With WordPress, you will probably need a custom theme if you dont want a blog as blogging is its main focus.

How widely used and supported is the CMS?

Get a common one, look at its user base and documentation, especially the support forums. If there are large numbers of users on the forums and large numbers of posts, you can be confident that others would have had the same issues (saving you a question), or someone reading the forums can help you. If there are very few users for a CMS, it will be harder to get it working for you if you have any issues. A quick Google search will give you a pretty good indication for how easily you will be able to find fixes to any issues you have.

Of the free PHP/MySQL CMS’s available, Joomla, WordPress, MediaWiki and Django all have significant user bases and active support communities.

What is the exit strategy if the CMS is not suitable for our needs?

Can the data be extracted in a portable format if you choose to change CMS’? This is a tricky one as each CMS has its own data format. You may be able to import data from one to another but basically put in the work beforehand (set up test sites using your shortlist with test data) to minimise the risk of having to change later which may be difficult (starting again from scratch). Any CMS’ in a database such as MySQL or SQL Server can have the database dumped out to text files or sometimes a spreadsheet format, which would save time if you had to re-create the site again in another CMS (you would not have to re-type it all) but if possible, find one and stick with it.

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