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Don’t neglect your software updates!

While it seems that PC’s and Mac’s seem to require patches and updates very regularly, don’t become complacent. Updates are provided free and automatically for a reason. A recent study of Windows Malware infections showed that most exploits target patched security vulnerabilities and (somewhat surprisingly if you believe everything on the internet) most of these are not actually Microsoft’s doing. The most likely entry points for malware into your system (in descending order) are flaws in Java, Adobe Reader, Adobe Flash Player and MS Internet Explorer. Only one of those is Windows only…

Java installs an automatic update notification when it is installed, run these updates!

Adobe runs automatic update checks as well for Reader and Flash, install these updates! One word of caution though for businesses with a caching proxy server, beware of the Adobe Updater fundamental coding flaw that Adobe won’t acknowledge. Adobe Updater is very impatient, if it does not start receiving its update within 15 seconds, it will request it again. If you have a caching proxy server (running Anti Virus checks on downloaded files for example), make sure the Adobe update sites are either blocked (install updates manually for the business) or exempt from scanning or it can burn your internet bandwidth very quickly (until you stop it). All Adobe needs to do is check for a proxy server in the internet settings and if there is one, extend the timeout. They haven’t yet.

Finally, dont use Internet Explorer unless you have to. Microsoft Cloud Service web interfaces such as Sharepoint work best with Internet Explorer and some systems management tools with web interfaces require it due to custom Active-X controls (Blackberry Server Express for example). A better alternative is to use Mozilla Firefox or Google Chrome and for even more protection in Firefox, install the “NoScript” plugin.

Finally, make sure you patch Windows and Mac’s all the time. It is pretty rare these days that patches break things but it does still happen from time to time. In a business environment, make sure you test updates properly before deployment. Home users should do a web search on the updates to see if people are reporting problems.

UPDATE: February 5th 2012.
I should have mentioned to make sure you keep your website back-end up to date if you use a content management system (or even just a database). There are many vulnerabilities in every CMS, they are usually patched quickly but if you dont apply the patches, you will become the victim of an automated hack. A client recently had their website hacked, fortunately it was a relatively benign, albeit alarming hack. The vulnerability was traced to a very old version of WordPress that was not even being used that was installed in a subfolder on the website and had been forgotten about. The hack installed a small shell onto the web server which give full control of the whole site, not just the old WordPress blog. Their main blog was up to date. Plugins are also likely points of entry into your web site, keep them up to date as well.

Posted in: Free Software, Security

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

Mac Mini Home Theatre PC

I have been installing some basic Home Theatre PC (HTPC) systems for clients so decided that I needed to do my own properly. My original Home Theatre “PC” was a “play anything” Phillips DVD player. It had a USB port that served us well but it was not the easiest to use. I had to provide extra power to the hard drive plugged into the USB port which meant the drive never turned off. It ran extremely hot in a closed cupboard and failed a few times before I decided to start again.

I spent a great deal of time looking at Home Theatre PC options for home. I initially decided that a Windows 7 Media Centre PC would suit my needs. I looked into making an ultra small form factor Media Centre PC to manage my significant (and growing) media library. The system initially had to handle any video media format (as well as audio although we didnt plan to use it for music), be easy to navigate and manage High Definition TV at full HD (1920×1080) via HDMI. It also had to be either cheap or re-use as many components that I already had as possible (such as an HD TV Tuner card). However, I ran into issues with SWMBO (She who must be obeyed) who had some specific design requirements (it has to be out of sight or look good). Out of site was going to be extremely difficult.

Late 2009 Mac MiniAfter failing to find anything that I considered suitable for a Home Theatre PC in parts (primarily a case and motherboard), I began to experiment with the late 2009/early 2010 Intel Mac Mini. I already had one my desk and thought it would make a suitable Home Theatre PC. A lack of TV tuner options (USB only) meant I had to drop TV as an integrated option. I had a Topfield PVR with USB out so I can copy and re-encode saved digital TV to the Mac Mini anyway. The Mac Mini is a great form factor for a Home Theatre PC, it is tiny, unobtrusive, has optical digital out, is very efficient. It also has an internal Infra Red receiver and (now) has native HDMI out. Its biggest downfall is a lack of Blu-Ray (the internal drive is DVD only).

I have my Mac Mini connected to the TV now and it is operating as a Home Theatre PC. It does not have an internal TV tuner (nor the ability to add one) and I do not have a USB or network tuner so it is not doing TV. It just plays downloaded and saved content from a 6TB QNAP NAS. I tried installing Windows 7 with Bootcamp to compare the two. Windows 7 is using Media Center, the Mac is using Plex. I tried using the built-in Mac app “Front Row” but it only really works with iTunes media and was not suitable for our needs. Plex was a little slow sometimes and had a habit of freezing up about once per week but is much nicer to use than Media Center. Windows 7 on the Mac Mini is a little sluggish (probably due to the 5400rpm HDD). The latest versions of Plex are completely stable and after a full rebuild (with faster hard drive, upgrade to 4GB RAM and no extra apps), it is now my permanent choice. The wireless connection was not reliable for HD streaming (even when connecting with 802.11n at 144mbps) so I had to install gigabit ethernet to speed it up. The full HD resolution did not display correctly on my TV until OSX 10.6.4 (a widely reported “overscan” issue). I bought a 1.8m mini-displayport male to HDMI male cable from Hong Kong to elegantly clean up the mini DVI to DVI then DVI to HDMI then HDMI cable mess. Six weeks after buying my Mac Mini, they released a new model with an HDMI port (Not happy). I have not connected the digital optical out from the Mac Mini so any downloaded content only plays in Stereo which is fine for most downloaded content.

The Mac Remote resembles an aluminium tongue depresser, it is too small and thin but is sturdy and it works, albeit in a fairly limited way. Plex has been designed for use with the Mac Remote and most functionality is fine. Plex remote for the iPad is a nice addition. It can act as a remote control for the Plex system on the TV or can stream media directly to the iPad (the latest Plex has a server and client component). Plex works best with strict file names and filing conventions as it tries to match media to an online database and download meta-data for it (images, information etc). This feature still needs some work but it is getting there. Any downloaded files usually need to be renamed (eg show\season X\show S0xE0x.avi) to give them the best chance of being properly indexed. My preferred renaming app is a Windows apps called “The Renamer” and since my downloads and NAS sorting happen on a Windows PC, I have not bothered trying to find a Mac equivalent.

There is no way I could build a similar spec PC in a case anywhere near as neat and compact for close to the price of the Mac Mini. That said, a custom PC would have an internal TV tuner card, plenty of hard drive space and native HDMI output. There are some nice and funky HTPC cases for PC’s if you want to make it a feature but if space and design are restricted, the Mac Mini is ideal and with Plex being both high quality software and free, it is my HTPC system of choice. My 5 year old daughter has no problems using it either.

Posted in: Free Software, Hardware


Apple make the only other mainstream desktop alternative to Windows (although Linux on the desktop is starting to make some inroads).

As an IT consultant, I have two Windows machines (Win 7 and XP), a Core 2 Duo Mac Mini with Snow Leopard and an Ubuntu Lucid machine as well as a VMWare machine with Windows, Linux and an Openfiler servers on it. I have also just picked up a 3 year old core duo macbook from a client after a hard drive failure, he didnt want it back.

For the end user, it is purely a personal preference issue. Ignoring the awesome efforts of the Apple marketing department to convince you otherwise, either Windows or Mac will do what you need. There is nothing that you can do on a Mac that cannot be done on Windows and vice-versa. If you use Windows at work and need to work from home, especially if you have some specific work requirements (an a work IT department that can offer some assistance if needed), moving to a Mac at home can make things a bit harder between locations.

You will pay anything from a little more to a lot more for the equivalent Mac system but you will get a very solid and stable desktop. It will also be prettier. Personally I really dislike the feel of the Mac keyboards, both the desktop and laptop ones but as I mentioned earlier, it is a personal preference issue, they work but I use a Microsoft keyboard and mouse with mine. You will have to spend extra to upgrade the warranty if you want a 3 year warranty on the hardware (recommended for business use) where proper business grade Windows desktops and latops should come with 3 years already (not all of them). Mac’s are, by design, more secure than Windows PC’s but (regardless of what the Apple marketing department says again), they are not immune to online threats. Failure to take similar precautions on a Mac that you need to take on a PC is not good idea, especially with the prevalence of cross platform vulnerablities such as some recent examples in Java, Javascript and PDF’s.

There tends to be more software available for the Windows platform, especially open source and free software. Mac users tend to pay for more extras more often. That said, a lot of the usual free software I use on Windows is also available for the Mac (Filezilla, Mozilla Firefox, Mozilla Thunderbird, The Gimp, VLC). The Plex media centre application is exceptional, it is clean and it works but doesnt support TV. Macs can be a bit less upgradable than the equivalent PC’s in certain configurations and they are not as easy to work on (try replacing the optical drive in a Macbook compared to a Dell Latitude and you will see what I mean. How to videos to open a Mac Mini include, credit cards, fish lifters and pizza cutters). That said, the hardware is reasonably high quality and matched to and tested with the Mac operating system (which is Unix based) so you should not have to search for drivers or run into too many compatibility issues. You can run Windows via Bootcamp or virtualisation if you need to. One big thing though, Macs and PC’s share many common components such as hard drives, RAM, CPU’s etc. Dont assume that your Mac is infallible, they die too, quite regularly I might add. Apple have made it easy to back up your Mac for a reason!

I dont yet think that Mac are fully business ready. Sure they will do most things but when I am looking for a suitable business platform, onsite support is vital. I dont want to have to take a warranty claim to a shop. Interraction with Windows domains is pretty good but still not completely smooth, Exchange email does not have full functionality on the Mac and many small to medium businesses run Windows domain based networks. Being locked into proprietary hardware configurations is also not ideal. Any business rolling out large numbers of machines will shop around for the best deal. With the hardware locked to Apple only, this is not possible with Macs compared to the myriad PC options.

One other issue you may face with Mac is the Mini Displayport. While Displayport and Mini Displayport are open standards (Apple helped fund Displayport development and have preferred the mini Displayport for their hardware), hardware support from third party vendors is still pretty weak. While this is fine if you want to spend a LOT on a decent large Mac Monitor, use of other screens is a little harder. You need to either spend an extra $45 AUD for a DVI or VGA adapter (a Mac one), or find a monitor with Displayport and use a Mini Displayport to Displayport adapter (not common yet) to use them natively. High end Dell screens support Displayport and Dell and HP business grade laptops and projectors have the full size Displayport options but unless you simply must have the (very beautiful and very expensive) Mac screens on your PC, few Windows users are going to pay the massive premium considering you can buy five 24″ 1920×1080 screens for less than the price of one 24″ 1920×1200 Mac screen.

The size of updates is significant. I recently had my Mac Mini notify me that some updates were ready. I was expecting a 100MB or so update, especially since my Mac was straight from the shop, you can imagine my surprise when 1.3GB of updates was required to bring my machine up to date. I thought the Windows Vista/Windows 2008 Server combined SP2 patch was excessive at just under 500MB. The bulk of this update was a minor version update for OSX from 10.6.2 to 10.6.3. Make sure you have decent internet speed and data available or turn off automatic updates!


Filezilla is a fully featured free open source File Transfer Protocol (FTP) client for file transfers. It has cross platform support and is also my preferred FTP client for both Mac and Linux use.

While it usually works flawlessly, occasionally I have found remote servers that no matter what I try, they just wont work with Filezilla. In this case I use CoreFTP which is also free.

If you want to set up a FTP server, there is also FileZilla Server which is also free and simple to configure and use. It has a similar feel to Bullet Proof FTP Server but doesnt have the cost. It also works very well.

Filezilla is available from

Filezilla user interface

Posted in: Free Software
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GIMP – Photoshop replacement

GIMP is an acronym for GNU Image Manipulation Program and is a free open source alternative to most photo or image manipulation software, eg Adobe Photoshop. While it is not quite as full featured as Photoshop, it is close. It is not as polished either but as Photoshop costs over $1000 and some places end up with pirated copies. The fact that GIMP is free and powerful enough for pretty much any business need makes it very worthwhile.

There is a large online user community who maintain tutorials and provide tips and support and extensive documentation.

GIMP is available for any platform.

GIMP can be downloaded from Please note that the GIMP project does not officially release Windows or Mac versions, these are managed separately (and updated just as fast). Windows here, Mac here.

Posted in: Free Software
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VLC – Audio and Video player

No user can be without VLC, the Video Lan Client, an open source free media player (yes, completely free).

Unlike pretty much any other media player, VLC can play almost any audio or video format (yes even Real, Quicktime and Flash FLV) straight away including DVD’s without requiring third party or commercial codec’s (to read various non-standard compression formats). Its interface is not quite as slick as the latest Windows Media Player, PowerDVD, Plex or iTunes but it is not trying to be, it just works. It will happily play direct from disc or file as well as digital streaming media (including DVB-T television). It can play VOB files (from ripped DVD’s), as well as the newer high definition formats such as M2TS and MKV files.

A useful side effect of installing VLC is the installation of an MPEG2 codec which will then allow Windows Media Player to play DVD’s.

Unfortunately the version for the iPad (still free) is not as stable as the version for normal PC’s. I have found that it crashes (locks up) quite regularly (every 6-8 minutes), far to often to be a useful media player when offline. Development for the iPad may not continue due to the iTunes store licencing requirements conflicting with the Open source GNU licence VLC is developed under.

It is available for Windows, Mac and Linux from

Posted in: Free Software

Infrarecorder – CD/DVD Burning

Infrarecorder is a free and open source CD/DVD burning solution that can cover all burning requirements, often better than the restricted OEM software that accompanies PC’s or burning hardware. It is very simple to use and can be downloaded from Hardware support is great, it is rare that it cannot find and use a burner. It supports many plugins to allow burning from and ripping to different audio formats such as MP3 (Lame Codec).

Posted in: Free Software
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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.

Posted in: Communications, The Web


Paint.NET started as a Microsoft sponsored university project to develop a replacement for the generally useless MS Paint. It was not used for this and has been developed further and is now available for free download from . It is able to do most basic image manipulation and is far more powerful than its 3 MB download suggests (it does require the MS dot NET framework). It is, however, Windows only. I use this app all the time and it is rare that I need something else for general photo and graphics work.

Another (and more powerful if not easier to use) image manipulation program that is cross platform and open source is GIMP.

Posted in: Free Software