CMS overhaul: Rebuilding a 'rickety house'
Publishing systems are becoming increasingly complex as the digital marketplace evolves. Keeping pace with rapidly changing audience and advertiser demands is forcing many publishers to ask a tough question: Can our existing databases and content management system carry us into the future?
For IDG’s Consumer & SMB group, the answer was no. “Our systems were not built to anticipate recent changes in the marketplace and in the technology,” said Aaron Jones, the group’s chief technology officer and vice president of product development. In response, the IDG unit has spent the past six months building a new publishing system that leverages HTML5, responsive design and a host of new back-end components to accommodate shifts in the digital publishing landscape.
The proprietary publishing platform is replacing what Jones termed a “rickety house” of disparate systems, cobbled from the consolidation of its two main brands, PCWorld and Macworld, and a recently launched site called TechHive.com. The addition of a third web property made it clear to Jones that it was time to consolidate and upgrade.
“We have a relatively small group of developers, and a whole lot of code to manage,” Jones said in an interview at last week’s MPA Digital: Technology event in New York. “We would probably have had to bring on more staff just to manage [the new site].”
The cost benefit of consolidating the three brands onto a single publishing system was fairly obvious. Jones’ team anticipated gaining a lot of efficiencies from sharing taxonomies and content. In addition, a leaner system would enable developers to spend more time on building new functionality instead of performing maintenance on what had become a bloated code base.
Considering these factors, Jones said the project was a relatively easy sell to the business decision makers.
“The case for not doing it was substantial,” he explained. “When you go to a site, if something’s broken because of the amount of code you have to manage, then that creates a bad experience. It was a good time for us to bite the bullet and just do it.”
Build or buy?
In choosing the right technology platform, Jones wanted to leverage what he felt was a quality team of in-house Java developers. This drove the decision to develop the publishing system internally instead of buying something off the shelf.
“To get an external system would mean throwing away a lot of quality code,” Jones explained. “We have a custom product database and other things that would not come out of the box in any system, so we would have had to rebuild those anyway. It probably would have taken more time to [deploy a third-party platform].”
Jones’ team basically built the new platform from scratch to replace the existing CMSs and other components. “We remodeled everything, simplified the model, then started taking pieces of what was a fairly good code base over to the new system,” Jones said. The result: a slimmed-down, cleaner and faster platform, with a shared code base that will be about 20% the size of the existing PCWorld site alone.
‘An ad server for content’
The core component is an Oracle database that serves all three brands. Other key elements include a product database and a proprietary content management system. The CMS’s unified code base enables editors to post once and publish across all three sites. New targeting functionality lets editors distribute content using a variety of criteria, such as category, tag, content type, Oracle ID, product ID or location. “It’s like an ad server for content, deeply embedded into the content management system,” Jones said.
Using techniques such as inheritance enabled the team to keep the code base down. (Each site can still selectively override templates if they want a more custom look.) HTML5 and responsive design will enable a more consistent user experience across any browser-enabled mobile device. “We want you to be able to navigate on an iPhone to the same places you can navigate to on a desktop,” Jones said.
Jones acknowledged a short-term challenge incorporating ads into the responsive UI. Beyond that, he said the prototyping has gone according to plan. TechHive.com is already running on the new back-end components, which developers are now testing for scalability. The front-end enhancements, including the responsive UI, are scheduled to go live across all three sites in early September.