Behind every good e-Gov program ...

Tools for managing Web content are as varied as the agency sites they support

The nature of government Web sites has changed dramatically over the past five years. The number of Web pages published by state, local and federal agencies has grown exponentially, and the expectations of citizens, businesses and other government agencies have grown just as much.

On top of that, the need for compliance with regulations for everything from record retention to accessibility highlights the need for more than just simple editing and posting tools.

And as the number of e-government initiatives involving online transactions and interactive content grows, the old approaches to managing Web content just don't cut it. Web content management is increasingly tied to the core business processes of agencies at all levels.

Today's Web content management systems are built to deal with new challenges and are increasingly tied to larger enterprise content management strategies.

Many allow users to contribute content directly from office applications, without having to use HTML.

And most provide ways to enforce standards for content, including accessibility, as well as approval processes that correspond to different types of content.

The evolution

While previous generations of Web tools often relied on a mish-mash of application program interfaces and scripting languages, today's Web content management systems are moving to open standards (and in some cases, even open-source software). They're using established technologies such as WebDAV (a Web file-sharing protocol), and Web services based on Java and Microsoft .NET. The adherence to standards like Java Enterprise Edition means WCM tools can be more easily integrated with high-end Web portals and other enterprise applications.

New choices

These changes have created new choices for agencies in need of a better system. As established players such as Vignette Corp. have moved their products' architecture to open standards, they've forced customers to either move with them or move to new technology.

Many organizations have opted to build their own systems or adapt open-source solutions rather than pay for a new system.

Government agencies already using enterprise content management systems to handle the massive volumes of documents, e-mail and other collaborative data have begun to look at ways to consolidate those functions with their Web content management.

But for many smaller organizations, these software packages are too expensive and too complex to implement'and they're often not easily integrated with custom applications.

As a result, many organizations are taking a hard look at the return on investment of their ECM systems and considering WCM as a more open alternative to complex content management solutions.

An emerging class of software, christened 'basic content services' by analysts at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn., has grown in the gap between standards-based content management systems built for the Web and more sophisticated (and complicated) ECM systems.

These Web-based tools do more than manage Web sites.

The Defense Department's Joint Forces Command adopted standards-based content management software from Xythos Software Inc. called WebFile Server. It's used for collaborative content on the Multi-National Force Iraq Portal, providing a secure way to share data through the open-source Exo portal server. Because the software is Web-based, it meant that no additional software had to be deployed in the field.

For organizations with reasonable software development resources in-house, or those wanting a truly customized solution, there are open-source Web content management tools that rival many commercial systems for functionality. Plone, for example, is an open-source content management tool supported by a variety of commercial software and consulting companies.

Handling the content itself

Regardless of whether you're managing content on a portal in Iraq, an agency intranet or a public Web site, the software you use is worthless unless content gets into it. Increasingly, content is coming from deeper and deeper within the organization, and from people who've never coded HTML.

'The business case for WCM is to give organizations a way to get (information they already have) to new audiences,' said Vern Imrich, chief technology officer of Percussion Software Inc. 'But most content that agencies have was written by people that have never written for anyone but themselves and other people in their department.'

That means there has to be a thorough, automated process for converting content and filtering it into forms that are appropriate for the audience. 'If you force the users to do all the work, the process fails,' Imrich said.

The content audiences need isn't just HTML anymore, and it isn't just viewed in a Web browser. There are syndication feeds like RSS, mobile applications and other delivery formats to meet various needs, including compliance with Section 508 of the Americans with Disabilities Act. While most WCM tools offer some sort of workflow for collaboration and approval of content, some, such as Serena Software Inc.'s Collage, offer ways to ensure that compliance and target application requirements are met.

'You can take the approach where Collage suggests areas for accessibility,' said Nathan Rollins, director of product marketing for Serena. 'Or, they can be enforced'you can prevent content from being checked in if the Section 508 requirements have not been met.'

And because Web pages are records too, Web content management systems must be able either to provide records management functionality or integrate with software that does. Jim Tiller, vice president of marketing for Xythos, said the demand for records management functionality from federal customers is driving the next release of the company's products, which he said would meet DOD's 5015.2-STD standard for records management. 'We fully intend to have a 5015.2 solution by next year,' he says.

For systems based on Java Enterprise Editon, there's another route to records management compliance. A recent Java Standard Request has opened the door to a standardized way for Web-based content management systems to integrate with other document repositories. JSR 170 provides an interface that allows different content management systems to share a common repository. So far most major ECM vendors have announced support, including EMC Documentum, BroadVision Inc., Interwoven Inc. and Vignette.

The role of Web services

While most Web content management systems now take advantage of WebDAV and Web services in some form, their architectures vary widely. Some systems are built as single-point solutions, acting as both content management system and Web server, while others use standard interfaces to publish to any platform, from static Web servers to enterprise portal platforms.

There are some advantages to the all-in-one, single-point approach. Bill Rogers, CEO of Ektron Inc., said site searches are one example. 'With our search, through [Ektron's CMS400.NET], you can customize what part of the site you're searching on. You can do more advanced searches, based on what's changed recently, what author created the content, and on any other metadata you've created around the content.'

One concern about an all-in-one architecture is the performance of the Web server. But Rogers claims that isn't an issue for Ektron's customers, which include the city of San Francisco, 'They get more than a million visits a day to their site, and it runs one server and one database,' Rogers said.

Still, while traffic scalability may not be an issue, breaking off the content management system from the Web platform provides more flexibility'and it allows one WCM system to serve multiple applications and Web servers. Larger organizations will need to pick a WCM that can easily mesh with their existing architecture. But for smaller state, local and federal agencies, an all-in-one solution might be the most practical'and the most affordable.

Bottom line: Web content management is a rapidly evolving area. How you choose to do it depends largely on your needs, your current architecture and other business processes. It's hard to slap a label on Web content management systems. Many technologies can achieve your goal. So do you homework and shop carefully.

S. Michael Gallagher is an independent technology consultant based in Baltimore.

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